FOURTEEN years ago, Jineth Bedoya Lima, a celebrated Colombian
journalist, went to La Modelo prison in Bogotá to conduct an
interview with a jailed paramilitary. At the front entrance, she
was kidnapped and driven for three hours through multiple police
checkpoints, before being tortured and raped. She returned to work
15 days later.
For nine years, only her employer, family, and the doctors who
examined her were aware of the extent of her ordeal. Today she uses
her testimony to break the silence about sexual violence in her
country. Next month, she will attend the global summit in London
organised by the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, on ending sexual
In February, she spoke to journalists visiting Colombia with
Christian Aid. She is a tiny, immaculate woman, wrapped in a
beautiful rainbow-coloured scarf, who speaks with the precision of
someone accustomed to giving a testimony about something which, she
has said, was once a cause of shame. "The damage done to your soul
never goes away," she said in an interview last year.
It was the realisation that her own trauma was part of an
epidemic in Colombia which inspired Ms Bedoya to speak out. "When I
returned to work, I had bruises on my face, but nobody really asked
what had happened," she says. "I asked the directors of the
newspaper not to tell anyone, and no one asked, out of respect.
"But the weight was heavy on me. Every day I encountered the
stories of other women who had been victims of sexual violence.
They had similar stories. But it took nine years for me to be ready
to talk. It was necessary."
The scale of the problem in Colombia is enormous. A 2011 report
published by an alliance of women's organisations, Rape and
Other Violence: Leave my body out of the war, estimated that,
between 2001 and 2009, more than 500,000 women had been victims of
sexual violence in Colombia. Ms Bedoya puts the figure at twice
that. The adult female population is about 15 million.
One of the most devastating aspects of sexual violence in
Colombia is that the perpetrators include the very people who are
tasked with protecting civilians. This was highlighted in a report
produced last year, Colombia: Women, conflict-related sexual
violence and the peace process, by AB Colombia, the joint
advocacy project of five UK and Irish organisations working in
Colombia, including Christian Aid.
The report noted that, of the 183 cases of sexual violence
prioritised for investigation by the Attorney General's office in
2008, three-quarters were attributed to guerrillas or
paramilitaries. But 23 per cent were alleged to have been committed
by state security forces. The country's constitutional court has
concluded that sexual violence is a "systematic, habitual and
generalised practice" in Colombia's internal armed conflict.
The AB Colombia report concluded: "Women's bodies have been used
in this conflict to achieve military objectives and as spoils of
Ms Bedoya's own ordeal was directly linked to the conflict. Then
26 years old, she was working at El Espectador, the oldest
newspaper in Colombia. For two years, she had been conducting an
investigation into weapons-trafficking, and was "starting to touch
very powerful people: politicians, police officers, army
officials". She was undeterred by threats from paramilitaries: "I
never thought they would be capable of doing what they did to me."
During her ordeal, she was told: "We are sending a message to the
press in Colombia."
Only two weeks after being left tied up in a pile of rubbish
near a road, she was back at work. "After what had occurred to me,
I had two options," she says. "Exile or suicide. I decided to stay.
Which I guess was kind of a suicide, because I continue working. .
"I knew that if I stayed in the clinic for one more day, I would
not be able to continue on; so I decided to go back. I couldn't
walk. I had a lot of impacts on my body. But I knew I had to start
"And I just went straight back to writing about the war. Because
that is what I do, what I've always done. So I continue putting
myself in problematic situations. I'm not sure if it's a defence
mechanism, or if I'm crazy."
She is scathing about the Colombian government's commitment to
securing justice for victims such as herself. Her case is among the
183 prioritised for investigation by the Attorney General. Only 11
had resulted in sentences in the five years to 2013.
It was only after going to the Inter-American Commission on
Human Rights which she secured any progress. In 2011, a
paramilitary soldier confessed to having been one of her
"I'm a well-known woman," she says. "I have access to the power
structures of this country. I have direct access to the Attorney
General's office, to the President's office. And I continue to be
threatened, to have a difficult situation. I have six armed guards.
I move in an armoured car. So, if that's my situation, what are the
other women of this country supposed to be looking for? What is
The AB Colombia report suggested that only two in every 100
cases of reported rape results in a sentence. Most cases - 81.7 per
cent, the Ombudsman's Office says - are never reported in the first
place. Ms Bedoya believes that the true number of victims during
the past decade may be a million.
"There is still a lot of fear of making denouncements," she
says. "The victimisers in many cases are free, and live right in
front of the women. They have been given all the guarantees and
protections. Women have not been listened to, or given the same
guarantees. There is a silence pact that has been formed, in
addition to the shame and the lack of justice."
Some progress is being made. In November, after demands made by
women's organisations, President Juan Manuel Santos announced that
two women had been appointed to attend the peace talks in Havana
between the government and FARC, the main guerrilla group in
Ms Bedoya is doubtful whether sexual violence will make it on to
the agenda: "We are concerned that the men who have carried out
these crimes will be given amnesty, without having to recognise the
crimes they have committed against so many women."
Her cynicism seems justified. During the last negotiation
process, only 0.24 per cent of the confessions made by the
paramilitaries related to sexual violence.
She is taking her campaign to the public, both here and abroad.
Last month, the Colombian football team added their voices to her
campaign "Now's not the time to stay silent", filming a video
message that repeated the slogan. In nine football stadiums
across the country, players wore campaign T-shirts.
In February, during a visit to Bogotá, William Hague announced
that the British Government would fund two projects in Colombia,
including work to train prosecutors to investigate sexual
Ms Bedoya vows: "I am not willing to stop the work that I am
doing. When I am talking about the armed conflict,
weapons-trafficking, drug-trafficking, or violence against women, I
am implicating the same men, the same structure that carried out
the violence against me, that ordered my kidnapping.
"It's weird having the enemy next to you. I am not sure where
else in the world that happens, where they are still there, and
nothing happens to them."
Madeleine Davies travelled to Colombia with
Christian Aid. Christian Aid Week - "Give people a future without
fear" - runs until 17 May.