16 Days of Activism: Speaking out against sexual violence in Colombia

News Stories, 6 December 2010

© UNHCR/W.Vargas
A group of displaced women in northern Colombia discuss the problems of sexual and gender-based violence.

BOGOTÁ, Colombia, December 6 (UNHCR) The annual 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence campaign ending next week has special meaning for uprooted women in Colombia, where one in every six of them is a victim of sexual violence.

Moreover, according to the country's ombudsman, in 2008 more than 40 per cent of the forcibly displaced women known to have been victims of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in Colombia in 2008 were aged under 14 years old. Figures for last year are not yet available.

UNHCR and its partners, including the central government, are very concerned by this data. To address the situation, the refugee agency is running projects on SGBV prevention and protection in most of its field offices.

The agency works with a wide range of people to maximize its efforts to reduce the prevalence of sexual and gender-based violence, help the victims, provide support and spread awareness about the negative impacts on society. Five of UNHCR's partners commented on their efforts to tackle the scourge.

Marta runs an organization for women in deprived areas of the northern city of Cucuta, close to the border with Venezuela. In 1999, she was a victim of violence carried out by illegal armed groups. "Ever since, I have wanted to help other women in the same situation. I have seen women too scared to even give their names who are now standing up and running their own organizations. So I feel really proud. We are few, but we work like ants," Marta said.

Ana is a leading member of an indigenous group in the volatile southern department of Putumayo, where SGBV is a major problem among the local tribes. Her goal is to reduce domestic violence. "I think it is really important to work with women, especially widows and single women, to try and improve and stabilize their socio-economic situation. In my opinion, domestic violence can stop when there is mutual respect and values. So I want to focus on work with the whole family."

Yiján is a leading member of the Afro-Colombian community in Quibdó, capital of the western department of Chocó. She spreads awareness about SGBV among displaced women and the host community and believes that women should organize themselves. "A single woman sitting in her home thinking about how to change her life is very different to many women working actively together. I have met women who, at the beginning of this participatory process of getting to know themselves, had a lot of issues with their husbands. I have later seen the same husbands take part in meetings, recognizing their wives as women. That is really lovely."

Daminson is a student in Buenaventura, Colombia's most important Pacific port and a haven for internally displaced people in the west. He decided to join a youth group that fights against sexual and gender-based violence because "it is a serious problem. You see it in a lot of families . . . Also, many young men show no respect towards their girlfriends. We create [awareness] plays for schools, communities and other places and we try to show that all problems can be solved by talking."

Luz leads a women's organization in the northern town of Chigorodó, near the border with Panama. She says tolerance is vital. "In the organization that I run, most members are internally displaced women who are on their own. So, it is important to teach people that women are able to live and work without men. We also urge victims of sexual and gender-based violence to lodge a complaint with the relevant authorities. For example, one of our members was attacked and she reported this to the authorities, who responded."

By Gustavo Valdivieso in Bogotá, Colombia




UNHCR country pages

How UNHCR Helps Women

By ensuring participation in decision-making and strengthening their self-reliance.

UNHCR's Dialogues with Refugee Women

Progress report on implementation of recommendations.


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


Advocacy is a key element in UNHCR activities to protect people of concern.

Sexual and Gender-based Violence against Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons - Guidelines for Prevention and Response

Guidelines offering practical advice on how to design strategies and carry out activities aimed at preventing and responding to sexual and gender-based violence.

Guidelines for Gender-based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Settings

Published by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), September 2005

Women in Exile

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

International Women's Day 2013

Gender equality remains a distant goal for many women and girls around the world, particularly those who are forcibly displaced or stateless. Multiple forms of discrimination hamper their enjoyment of basic rights: sexual and gender-based violence persists in brutal forms, girls and women struggle to access education and livelihoods opportunities, and women's voices are often powerless to influence decisions that affect their lives. Displaced women often end up alone, or as single parents, battling to make ends meet. Girls who become separated or lose their families during conflict are especially vulnerable to abuse.

On International Women's Day, UNHCR reaffirms its commitment to fight for women's empowerment and gender equality. In all regions of the world we are working to support refugee women's participation and leadership in camp committees and community structures, so they can assume greater control over their lives. We have also intensified our efforts to prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence, with a focus on emergencies, including by improving access to justice for survivors. Significantly, we are increasingly working with men and boys, in addition to women and girls, to bring an end to dangerous cycles of violence and promote gender equality.

These photographs pay tribute to forcibly displaced women and girls around the world. They include images of women and girls from some of today's major displacement crises, including Syria, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali and Sudan.

International Women's Day 2013

Statelessness and Women

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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