Colombian journalist refuses to be silenced by rape

16 May 2014

ABCOLOMBIA

Front line: Jineth Bedoya Lima  in her newspaper office

Front line: Jineth Bedoya Lima  in her newspaper office

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 violence.

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 war."

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 writing again.

"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 rapists.

"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 their hope?"

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 Colombia.

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 violence.

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."

http://www.abcolombia.org.uk/

Madeleine Davies travelled to Colombia with Christian Aid. Christian Aid Week - "Give people a future without fear" - runs until 17 May.

www.caweek.org

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