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Colombia’s women protesters on sexual violence

Colombia's women protesters on sexual violence

Women have been at the forefront of the wave of anti-government protests

A woman who had become separated from the group she was protesting with felt a tug on the homemade flag she was wearing as a cape during an anti-government demonstration in the capital, Bogotá, in the early hours of 3 June.

“A group of roughly eight police officers surrounded me,” the woman – who has asked for her name to be withheld for security reasons – recounts. “One of them said: ‘This one is a good one to rape’.”

“He had a pellet gun and was pointing it closely at me. I told him to do it,” she said, defiantly. “He just wanted to scare me,” she explained, adding that other protesters came to her rescue soon after the officer had uttered the threat.

Verbal abuse, threats of sexual violence and discrimination have not been isolated incidents during the wave of anti-government protests that has been spreading through Colombia since 28 April.

There have been at least 113 cases of gender-based violence, according to a report by the Office of the Ombudsman, an official government agency tasked with overseeing the protection of citizens’ human and civil rights.

“They started calling us bitches, whores, sluts,” Karla Cardoso says of the abuse police officers hurled at her and other women during an anti-government protest in Medellín on 20 May. “They asked us what we were doing out at night, threatening to kill us,” the 25-year-old student says.

A protester wearing a gas mask in Medellín on 2 June 2021

This 19-year-old protester said she was determined to continue marching

And according to Temblores, an NGO which monitors police violence, it does not always stop at threats. The NGO says it has received reports from 28 protesters who allege they were sexually abused by members of the security forces. They include allegations of having been forced to strip naked, being groped and being raped.

Seven allegations of sexual violence by security forces are currently being investigated by the attorney-general’s office. Among them is the case of a 17-year-old girl who was allegedly sexually abused by police in the city of Popayán. The girl killed herself the day after the alleged abuse.

Linda Cabrera, the director of feminist organisation Sisma Mujer, says that the aim of gender-based violence is to spread fear among women to deter them from protesting. But many women have not been deterred. They say that, if anything, the violence has made them more determined to play a vital role in the demonstrations.

Some are organising vigils and sit-ins while others make a point of marching right out front at demonstrations. Many say they feel vulnerable at protests, though, especially when they are alone.

A woman raises her arm at a protest in Medellín on 18 May 2021

Women have been right at the front at many demonstrations

Allegations of sexual attacks on protesters are not new to this latest wave of protests. Temblores says it has received 132 reports of sexually violent acts committed by police between 2017 and 2021. The NGO says the evidence it has gathered suggests they were pre-meditated and routinely orchestrated by groups of officers inside enclosed spaces.

Katherine Acosta, a 23-year-old student from Medellín, says she was the victim of such an attack in June 2020. She told the BBC that she was arrested after calling out an officer for spraying a woman in the face with an aerosol can of paint during an anti-government protest.

“When we got inside the station, [the police officer] touched me everywhere, my breasts, my intimate parts, he pressed his penis against me.”

A woman's face is sprayed with vinegar to counteract the effects of tear gas at a protest in Medellín on 2 June 2021

Protesters use vinegar to counteract the effects of tear gas

The BBC put the allegations of sexual violence by police officers to Colombia’s Office of the Inspector General, which oversees the conduct of public sector workers.

It replied that “any act of sexual violence is reproachable and violates human rights, no matter who the victim or the perpetrator is”.

Asked if sexually violent behaviour was a systemic problem within the police force, the Inspector General’s Office – which is currently in charge of investigating the allegations – said there were no studies or quantitative results to suggest such a pattern.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) earlier this month sent a team to Colombia to investigate the allegations of excessive use of force by police during the protests.

Ahead of its arrival, President Iván Duque proposed a series of police reforms, including the creation of a human rights directorate led by an international expert, a better system to follow up on citizens’ complaints and the expansion of disciplinary standards for officers.

Police officers during a protest in Medellín on 18 May 2021

Rights groups have called for the riot police to be dismantled

But these reforms have yet to be approved by Colombia’s Congress, and their passage is far from certain.

Rights groups have also pointed out that even if the reforms pass, the police will still fall under the jurisdiction of the defence ministry, meaning cases of abuse will continue to be judged by military tribunals, which they consider problematic.

Rights groups also think that more has to be done to tackle Colombia’s impunity levels.

Ms Acosta filed a report with the police but many victims are reluctant to report cases of sexual violence because so few perpetrators ever get punished. According to Sisma Mujer, 90% of reports of sexual violence filed in 2020 – including that of Ms Acosta – have not progressed past the initial inquiry stage.

Two women pose for a photo during a protest in Medellín on 19 May 2021

Despite the risks, women have not been deterred from protesting

Many victims also say they fear there could be reprisals for speaking out or that they could become victims again, explains human rights lawyer Carolina Martínez.

A human rights advocate from Medellín, who asked for her name to be withheld, told the BBC that she was sexually assaulted by a medic while undergoing an examination at Colombia’s Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences.

She had gone to the institute, which is attached to Colombia’s Office of the Attorney General, to document the injuries she says she sustained when police used excessive force during a protest she attended.

And the security forces are not the only ones accused of sexual violence during the protests. In the city of Cali, a group of protesters is being investigated for the sexual assault of a female police officer.

The protester from Bogotá who says she was threatened with rape by a police officer also recounts being sexually assaulted by a male fellow protester days after her encounter with the police.

“Being a woman means being exposed to this – the risk of being raped by a police officer, or anyone really, when you go out to protest.”

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Julia has handled various businesses throughout her career and has a deep domain knowledge. She founded Stock Market Pioneer in an attempt to bring the latest news to its readers. She is glued to the stock market most of the times and just loves being in touch with the developments in the business world.

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