By Stephanie Mulhern*
As recently reelected President Juan Manuel Santos continues to pursue peace talks with rebels in Colombia, many citizens are experiencing the effects of the decades of internal armed conflict in their daily lives. Colombian women in particular have been the primary victims of internal displacement, often being driven from their homes as a result of the conflict. The Victims’ Unit – the arm of the Colombian Government that focuses on victims of the conflict – reports that as of August 2014 there are over 6.7 million registered victims of displacement in the country. Among these, a slight majority (52.4%) are women.
Displaced women are among the most vulnerable individuals in Colombia. Who are these women and what do they have in common? According to a recent study from the International Organization for Migration, most of these women come from rural areas (60%) and are under 25 years of age (64%). They are more likely to be financially dependent on their husbands or other male relatives, as just 32.7% of displaced women are employed in some way, while the employment rate for displaced men is 57.4%.
These women face high levels of sexual and gender-based violence, in part due to the fact that they must resettle in areas with few close relations or familial ties. Violence Against Women (VAW) is also more prevalent within displaced families. A 2010 USAID/Profamilia survey found that 48% of displaced women reported to have suffered violence at the hands of their domestic partner or husband as compared to just 37% of women in the general population.
However, the current structure of government resources available for displaced families makes it challenging for women to advocate for themselves. In order to receive certain government benefits, for example, the family must register as a unit using the name of a primary registrant, typically the husband. The result is that many women experiencing intimate partner violence must decide between losing benefits for themselves and their children and remaining in violent relationships.
In the same USAID/Profamilia study administered in 2010, the top reasons cited by displaced women in situations of abuse for not reporting their abuser included “fear of separation” and “I can resolve it on my own”, responses which may speak to the degree of vulnerability in which displaced women find themselves.
Colombia’s laws focused on preventing and providing support for victims of sexual and gender based violence are rigorous. In 2008, the government advanced efforts to address sexual violence by establishing a referral pathway which – among other things – seeks to provide victims of violence with awareness of the public services available to them, including health services, justice, protection, and psycho-social support.
However, a 2012 Human Rights Watch Study indicated that the referral pathway still had some key challenges to address, including the fact that victims´access to medical attention and other public services was limited. One example of this came from Cali, where the director of an organization working with displaced women found that health providers were not aware of laws guaranteeing free emergency contraception to victims of rape.
As displaced women continue to be vulnerable to sexual violence and abuse – both within and outside of their families – the need for access to timely and adequate attention becomes critical if displaced women are to become vibrant citizens in the aftermath of Colombia’s armed conflict.
*Stephanie Mulhern is a Summer Intern in the Gender and Diversity Division at the IDB Representation in Colombia. She is a Master’s student in International Relations and International Economics at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, DC. She has worked in Policy Planning at the U.S. Department of State and for Booz Allen Hamilton.