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International Women's Day: UNHCR helps Colombian victims of sexual violence

News Stories, 6 March 2009

© UNHCR/M.-H.Verney
A group of internally displaced Colombian women at a gathering in the city of Ibagué.

IBAGUÉ, Colombia, March 6 (UNHCR) More than 2.8 million Colombians are registered as internally displaced, with a staggering two thirds of them female. Many are victims of sexual and gender-based violence, which is always more prevalent in times of conflict.

As well as helping some of the victims, the UN agency is working with the government to try and eradicate this scourge, focusing prevention efforts this year in high risk zones around the country.

Elvira,* who fled her home last December with her two teenage daughters and found shelter in the central Colombia city of Ibagué, grew up with violence. An irregular armed group had a strong presence in the area where she lived and many young women were taken away by this militia over the years to provide sexual services. Elvira feared for her daughters, who are aged 15 and 18.

"My husband did not want to leave the farm and we argued about it. He would beat me," Elvira said, adding: "Where I come from, this is what men do." She was concerned about leaving on her own and trying to survive without financial support, but her mind was made up after her 15-year-old niece, who lived nearby, was taken away.

"My husband would not let us take the mule, so we walked," she recalled. After two days, the three reached an army outpost stationed in a village. They thought they were safe, but instead they became direct targets of the irregular armed group after Elvira's eldest daughter formed a romantic relationship with one of the soldiers.

When the troops left, Elvira and her girls started receiving death threats from the irregulars, who declared the family a "military objective" after accusing the 18-year-old daughter of collaborating with the enemy.

It was not an isolated case. In a ruling last year on the protection of the right of displaced women, Colombia's Constitutional Court noted that some women were being stigmatized and persecuted as retaliation for a real or perceived relationship with members of the armed forces.

Other risks identified by the court included sexual violence and abuse as a result of conflict, sexual exploitation and slavery, forced recruitment and persecution of leaders of women's organizations.

"Sexual violence against women is a commonly used tactic within the context of the conflict in Colombia: it is widely, regularly and systematically practised, and remains invisible," the Constitutional Court stated. It asserted that all irregular armed groups in Colombia were guilty of committing sexual abuses, as well as a few members of the armed forces.

As a result, violence against women is one of the leading causes of forced displacement in Colombia, with half of all uprooted women reporting some sort of gender-based violence. Few prevention mechanisms are in place, in part because many of the victims come from rural and conflict-ridden parts of the country with a very limited civil state presence.

"The lack of a civil state presence can have an especially negative impact on women: lack of access to education and health, for example, are known to be serious contributing risk factors and there is often very few mechanisms in place to denounce abuses and violations," said Jean-Nöel Wetterwald, UNHCR's representative in Colombia.

He said that UNHCR was focusing prevention efforts this year in priority zones around the country. The agency is organizing joint documentation campaigns with the National Registry Office to provide women in conflict zones with identity documents. Women with ID are less vulnerable to abuse.

Throughout the country, UNHCR supports the creation and capacity-building of women's rights groups and trains local functionaries on how to address cases of gender-based violence. UNHCR also supports the construction of shelters and boarding-schools in conflict zones, where young girls can study in safety and without fear of abuse.

Reliable data is difficult to gather because of the remoteness of the affected areas and the sensitivity of the subject, but the little that is known portrays a critical situation. According to some estimates, some 37 percent of displaced teenagers are pregnant, while more than half of displaced women are victims of domestic violence and most do not know where to go for protection or who to tell.

* Name changed for protection reasons

By Marie-Hélène Verney in Ibagué, Colombia

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We help refugees, refugee returnees and internally displaced people tap their potential and build a platform for a better future.

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Women and girls can be especially vulnerable to abuse in mass displacement situations.

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In any displaced population, approximately 50 percent of the uprooted people are women and girls. Stripped of the protection of their homes, their government and sometimes their family structure, females are particularly vulnerable. They face the rigours of long journeys into exile, official harassment or indifference and frequent sexual abuse, even after reaching an apparent place of safety. Women must cope with these threats while being nurse, teacher, breadwinner and physical protector of their families. In the last few years, UNHCR has developed a series of special programmes to ensure women have equal access to protection, basic goods and services as they attempt to rebuild their lives.

On International Women's Day UNHCR highlights, through images from around the world, the difficulties faced by displaced women, along with their strength and resilience.

Women in Exile

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Women and girls make up about 50 percent of the world's refugee population, and they are clearly the most vulnerable. At the same time, it is the women who carry out the crucial tasks in refugee camps – caring for their children, participating in self-development projects, and keeping their uprooted families together.

To honour them and to draw attention to their plight, the High Commissioner for Refugees decided to dedicate World Refugee Day on June 20, 2002, to women refugees.

The photographs in this gallery show some of the many roles uprooted women play around the world. They vividly portray a wide range of emotions, from the determination of Macedonian mothers taking their children home from Kosovo and the hope of Sierra Leonean girls in a Guinean camp, to the tears of joy from two reunited sisters. Most importantly, they bring to life the tremendous human dignity and courage of women refugees even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Refugee Women

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Statelessness can arise when citizenship laws do not treat men and women equally. Statelessness bars people from rights that most people take for granted such as getting a job, buying a house, travelling, opening a bank account, getting an education, accessing health care. It can even lead to detention.

In some countries, nationality laws do not allow mothers to confer nationality to their children on an equal basis as fathers and this creates the risk that these children will be left stateless. In others, women cannot acquire, change or retain their nationality on an equal basis as men. More than 40 countries still discriminate against women with respect to these elements.

Fortunately, there is a growing trend for states to remedy gender discrimination in their nationality laws, as a result of developments in international human rights law and helped by vigorous advocacy from women's rights groups. The women and children depicted here have faced problems over nationality.

Statelessness and Women

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