A decision by Colombia’s transitional justice body has launched an in-depth study of how sexual and gender-based violence was used as a weapon of war by armed groups in the country’s long-running civil conflict.

After more than a year of preliminary investigations, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz – JEP) officially recognized on September 27 the strategic use of sexual and gender-based violence by armed groups and security forces in the Colombian conflict and announced the opening of a judicial process dubbed “macrocase 11” to further examine it. 

The JEP is the transitional justice mechanism that emerged from the 2016 peace agreement between the Colombian government and the now-disbanded Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). It is responsible for investigating and prosecuting crimes committed by the guerrillas, the government, and third parties during the armed conflict.

SEE ALSO: How Colombia’s Conflict Intensified Violence Against Women and the LGBTQI+ Community

The reports and testimonies compiled by the tribunal illustrate the motivations and preliminary patterns behind gender-based crimes and expose the patriarchal logic that governs armed groups in Colombia.

During the decades of conflict between armed and criminal groups and the Colombian state, people with diverse gender orientations, identities and/or expressions have been punished or killed for deviating from the traditional gender roles that many of these groups perpetuate.

The JEP revealed that two patterns of victimization were repeated in cases of sexual violence. In the first, sexual violence was used to harm enemies by attacking women and girls related to the group’s rivals. Other cases showed how members of the armed groups, believing that women were “sexually available” to them, used intimidation and power to abuse them.

In addition, the JEP has records of other crimes, such as abortion and forced contraception — forms of reproductive violence — that occurred within the ranks of the FARC and have already been the subject of judicial discussion.

The court also revealed its “provisional universe of facts,” in which it recorded at least 35,178 victims of gender-based violence between 1957 and 2016, of which 89.2% were women and 35% were children.

According to the JEP figures, paramilitary and post-demobilization groups of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC) are responsible for most of this violence (33% of the cases), followed by the FARC (5.82%), and state agents (3.14%). In another 30% of the cases, no armed actor was identified as responsible.

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The opening of the new case offers new hope to the victims who have been demanding justice for years, and highlights the difficulties in investigating this type of systemic violence, which continues to be used by armed and criminal groups today.

Since the establishment of the JEP, victims of gender-based and reproductive violence, as well as civil society organizations, have asked the court to open a special case to investigate these crimes. 

Previous investigations have shown that these crimes were not sporadic but part of a pattern of violence that allowed armed and criminal groups to expand their control over the communities and territories they occupied. 

The JEP’s preliminary studies, which also supported this conclusion, paved the way for the new case, which will investigate allegations of sexual violence, murder, forced disappearance, displacement, abortion, sexual slavery, and forced contraception, among other crimes committed because of the victims’ gender orientation, identity, or expression. But investigating and prosecuting these cases is a difficult task.

“The biggest challenge facing the JEP is under-registration…and it is taking steps to ensure that more people come forward are accredited as victims under that case,” Maria Cecilia Ibanez, senior attorney at Women’s Link Worldwide, a non-profit organization that advocates for the rights of girls and women, told InSight Crime.

The new case will allow the institution to expand its database of complaints and reports from civil society to reveal new patterns. However, cases of gender-based violence are severely underreported in Colombia, and barriers keeping victims from coming forward remain.

“In many parts of the country there is still conflict, so many people are afraid to denounce and also to name themselves as victims before the Jurisdiction, explained Ibáñez. “Many people are ashamed to acknowledge that they were victims of gender-based violence, and a very important [barrier] when we talk about reproductive violence is that sometimes people do not know that what happened to them was a form of violence.”

SEE ALSO: The Paramilitaries and Sexual Violence Along Colombia’s Caribbean Coast

Traditional justice models have not been effective in providing victims of gender-based violence with justice and truth, nor in preventing the repetition of crimes. Creating a model that guarantees these rights while avoiding re-victimization of those who have come forward will be a significant challenge for the JEP. 

Another limiting factor is that the JEP only has jurisdiction over cases related to the FARC and the Colombian government. According to the September 27 announcement, the case will be divided into 3 sub-cases: one will investigate gender-based violence perpetrated by the FARC, another will look at violence by the security forces, and the third will examine cases of violence committed within the ranks of both groups.

Although it is not within the JEP’s jurisdiction to prosecute these crimes, the data the court collected on violence by other guerrilla (9,202 cases), paramilitaries, and post-demobilization criminal groups of the AUC (11,683), could contribute to more wide-reaching justice processes in the future.

Armed groups continue to use gender-based violence to control communities, and responding to these events remains a challenge for Colombian authorities. Having reports and testimonies will therefore be vital, especially as groups such as the National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberación Nacional – ELN) negotiate with the Colombian government.

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