Despite Colombia’s progressive gender equity laws, Afro-Colombian women continue to face high rates of gender-based violence
Over two years after Colombia ratified a peace deal celebrated for its focus on gender equity, Afro-Colombian women face an increasing threat of violence without access to justice. According to a report on Colombia’s compliance with the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) released in February, Colombia violates the Convention’s protections for ethnic minorities. The publication anticipates the UN’s 72nd CEDAW conference that is scheduled between February 18 and March 8 in Geneva, Switzerland.
The report is one of the first to be directed by the Afro-Colombian community. The Cali Black Communities Process (PCN) and the Movement for the Diverse Identities of Black, Afro-Colombian, Raizal and Palenquera Women received drafting support from WOLA, MADRE and the Human Rights and Gender Justice Clinic of the CUNY School of Law. Building on interviews with Afro-Colombian human rights defenders, organizational documents, and news articles, the report details how the gap between Colombia’s laws and their enforcement generates consistent and systemic conditions of violence perpetrated against Afro-Colombian women.
The authors identified six primary threats to Afro-Colombian women’s security. Beginning with a detailed analysis of the failure to implement the peace accord, the report cites threats and attacks on female Afro-Colombian human rights defenders; sexual and gender-based violence; lack of access to justice for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence; lack of access to healthcare for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence; and the violation of Afro-Colombian women’s land rights.
A fractured peace deal compromises Afro-Colombian women’s safety
Afro-Colombian, Indigenous, and women’s groups mobilized during peace negotiations and won special provisions in the 2016 deal to address their specific needs and vulnerabilities. Only 54% of the accord’s Ethnic Chapter (Capítulo Étnico) was implemented as of March 2018, while only 51% of the gender provisions have been implemented.
The government’s failure to implement the peace legislation stems from both the national Congress’s lack of political will and the exclusion of Afro-Colombian women’s voices from the agreement’s enforcement mechanisms.
The implementation framework, called Plan Marco, was designed to integrate Afro-Colombian voices into its High Level Body on Gender and the High Level Body for Ethnic Peoples.
Two years later, both bodies are understaffed and underfunded, while the central enforcement authority has attempted to relegate Afro-Colombian women leaders’ input to email correspondence. The Commission on Security Guarantees, a critically important council for safeguarding human rights defenders, only has one female civil society representative.
When Uncertainty Becomes Deadly
One human rights defender is assassinated every three days in Colombia, according to reports compiled by the office of the Human Rights Ombudsperson (Defensoría del Pueblo). This crisis impacts Afro-Colombian women in two forms. The human rights defenders lack access to the protection they are entitled to by the government, while many are prosecuted for their community advocacy.
The alarming spike in assassinations of social leaders since the peace deal is caused by the power vacuum left in former FARC territories and the impunity armed groups enjoy in rural areas. Despite warnings from multiple international and human rights organizations, the government fill the territories the FARC demobilized from with increased security presence. The power vacuum has encouraged armed groups to compete for territory, while human rights defenders bear the costs of advocating for their communities.
Empty Protection Promises
Given Colombia’s long history of armed conflict, the country created the National Protection Unit (UPN) to provide security guarantees for threatened human rights defenders. However, Afro-Colombian women have reported that the protection—when granted after bureaucratic delays—can raise their target profile. After receiving a protection detail, an Afro-Colombian woman felt a multidimensional threat from both her original powerbrokers and her bodyguards.
“I cannot go anywhere without the two, armed, male body guards assigned by the UNP to protect me. It is uncomfortable, I know very little about them and their political agenda, while these men know where I live, and can identify my family. They watch my every move even when I am in my own home. Protection should be given to our entire community, that way I would not need to have individual protective measures and I would feel safer than I do now.”
The Office of the Attorney General (Fiscalía) has also criminalized the human rights work of Afro-Colombian women, falsely accusing Sara Liliana Quiñonez Valencia and her mother, Tulia Marys Valencia Quiñonez for supporting the ELN guerrilla. State authorities have imprisoned both women since April 2018 without charges or access to bail, violating several Colombian due process statutes.
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence: A Multidimensional Problem Requiring Bold Action
The CEDAW report found that Afro-descendant women in Colombia suffer disproportionate rates of sexual violence while perpetrators are given impunity. In one of the most egregious cases, the report cited testimony from human rights defenders that an Afro-Colombian woman was publicly raped in Tumaco—the site of two military bases—while police failed to intervene.
Colombia’s Law 1257 guarantees women the right to live free from all forms of violence. The law also guarantees victims of sexual violence access to justice. While incidences of sexual violence are under-reported, the Victim’s Registry Unit documented 24,576 victims of conflict-related sexual violence in 2017, while only 5 percent of offenders brought to trial were convicted for their crimes. This environment of impunity leaves Afro-descendant women at increased risk of sexual violence as a weapon of conflict.
Land: The Heart of the Problem
Colombia’s decades of armed conflict, though rooted in a variety of factors, mainly stems from extreme disparities in land ownership. Just 1% of Colombians own 81% of the land, while Afro-descendants and ethnic minorities are particularly marginalized when attempting to claim their ancestral land.
Colombia’s Law 70 passed in 1993 granted Afro-descendant communities the right to hold collective land titles. However, state and local officials have created administrative hurdles to disbursing them. As a result, Afro-descendants, who comprise 25% of Colombia’s population, only officially hold 5% of the land titles. Compounding the problem, only 1 of the 18 land restitution provisions of the peace accord has been implemented.
Afro-descendant women in Colombia advocating for human rights recognize that barriers to land ownership are barriers to their communities’ security. Without realizing their freedom from fears of forced displacement, extortion or sexual violence, Afro-Colombian women will continue to face deteriorating living standards and frequent human rights violations.
Observers solely referring to the gender laws already governing Colombia would assume a situation which could not be farther from reality for many Afro-descendant women. The CEDAW report’s essential recommendation to the Colombian government was to implement the pre-established laws while holding those who violate them accountable. The report credited Afro-Colombian women for raising their voices to a government who has chosen to ignore them. Afro-Colombian women and Colombia’s legal mandates understand their needs—all that remains is for the government to bridge the gap between statutes and action.
Written by Julia Friedmann, Colombia Intern