“They don’t hit you for being tall or short, stupid or intelligent, educated or illiterate….They hit you for being a woman”… These words reflect the life of many people.
“They grabbed me, threw me on the ground and threw themselves on top of me. I even lost consciousness. When I woke up, I wanted to leave. They told me, ‘If you tell anyone about this, we will come after you and kill you’. I never told anyone. I was left pregnant.”
This is a story lived through by a young girl of 16-years-old. She prefers to keep her identity a secret and her face hidden in darkness.
She recounts her nightmare in front of the cameras of the organisation Doctors Without Borders. She is one of the ‘invisible victims’, women who have suffered sexual violence during or following an armed conflict.
It’s not an unusual case. In the 21st Century gender based violence continues to be one of the biggest problems tormenting current society. The General Secretary of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, went so far as to state that attackers are not sufficiently punished by the justice system.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), every year more than 5,000 women die across the world.
In its report, published on the same day as the World Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, it specifies that one in three victims “dies at the hands of their partner”. Furthermore, it highlights that in areas of armed conflict there has been an increase in “the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war”.
This violence, known as gender-based violence, consists of all violent acts directed at women for the simple fact that they are female, and ranges from verbal mistreatment to sexual abuse and even murder.
The Prisma has had the opportunity to report on this critical situation which thousands of women around the world face, with a particular focus on Colombia. For this reason we have spoken with Linda Cabrera, a lawyer with the organisation Sisma Mujeres, which works in the defence of women’s rights.
States and international organisation have stepped up action to reduce the number of cases of violence against women. However, statistics and reports shed light on a panorama where this violence is happening at an alarming rate.
This is the reality and as we have ourselves discovered it to be, as we have analysed cases over recent years. The end of war does not mean peace for women. Cases of rape and mistreatment continue.
In spite of the existence of many laws for the protection of victims, this is not sufficient. For example, in Colombia eight cases arise related to gender-based violence every hour and every three days a case of genderbased murder occurs. 2011 ended with 18,000 reports of such violence, an 11% increase on the previous year. The main problem is that the laws are not being applied. There is a very significant weakness in this area.
Do you share the opinion of Ban Ki-moon that attackers do not get the punishment they deserve?
In effect, yes. In Colombia there is a 94% rate of impunity, despite all the efforts made to speed up the processing of these cases. Last year, the courts only saw eight prosecutions of gender-based murder when on average ten occur every month.
The problem is that this violence that women suffer is treated in terms of crimes of passion. Meaning that the judge applies a principal of intentionality that reduces the attribution of guilt.
Cases occur in which victims of assault go to the police but are not offered any solution to their problems. In many cases the victims are not treated as they should be, they are judged and questioned as if they were responsible for the situation, and are reproached for going too far by asking for help.
What sentences should the perpetrators receive?
We are not advocates of life sentences and the idea that someone would spend their entire life in prison. We only want the existing laws to be applied, as is done in other cases addressed by the justice system. But, we consider that a change needs to take place in the mentality of society for this to occur. People mustn’t perceive this violence as normal, like an argument between partners in a couple. They do not consider it an attack on Human Rights and this is a mistake.
There needs to be an change to the current tendency for few reports to be made and a high level of impunity.
A very important one, because this is not a personal problem, it is a question that concerns all citizens of the country. It is clear that societies must first say enough is enough. For this reason they must be encouraged to do so.
The larger the number of voices that are heard from general public opinion defending equality and fairness, the greater the punishments of perpetrators will be. And the more the support coming from the entire society will be felt, there will be a greater number of victims that decide to report their terrible situation. Unfortunately, today they do not feel supported.
What is the relationship between an attacker and their victim?
It can range from a partner (five out of every eight cases), to a member or the family or even a stranger.
Reports are constantly being made of acts that have occurred in public areas, such as attacks with acid or sexual abuse. Recently a woman was raped in a park in Bogotá and the public came out onto the street in large numbers to defend the victim. This is what we want, for everyone to come out onto the street and defend the victims. But it is necessary to fight and to speak out for all the women who are afraid and cannot make their situation public.
Violence does not discriminate, but occurs in all age groups, socio-economic conditions, levels of education and employment. No differentiations are made. We are all vulnerable to mistreatment. Of course girls carry a double vulnerability, as they are both minors and women. This means that they are more exposed to violence and that their words carry less weight when they say that a family member has attacked them.
Leaving a country for reasons of violence is never a nice experience. Nobody likes to leave their home. We all feel an attachment to our roots and our history in the place where we are born. Those who are forced to change their place of residence arrive in a rather complicated environment. In addition to being an immigrant (everyone knows that as Latin Americans we are treated as invaders and second tier citizens) there is the sexual question as well.
On many occasions they suffer other forms of violence: physical, sexual, economic and labour related. Added to this is the fact that they are in a different society, with an unfamiliar culture and language. Such a person can feel isolated and can encounter more barriers to requesting help and reporting their situation.
As in the rest of the European Union is it much more advanced than in Latin America. Here the society is more sensitive to this social problem and is committed to addressing it and offering help to women. Even so, cases occur, but nothing like to the extent in South America. Here there is a better response to cases of violence against women, and the justice system is much more strict and fair. This is what we are asking for.
(Translated by Tim Huntington)