ARMED CONFLICT: Children the victims of sexual crimes during armed conflict

Summary: Colombia is among the countries in which minors are most at risk of sexual abuse, according to a report by the NGO Save the Children.

[22 August 2013] - 

The life story of 18-year-old Daniela, whose real name is not revealed for safety reasons, is marked by sexual violence committed as a result of the armed conflict.

She was conceived when her mother allegedly was working as a collaborator with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in the department of Meta, southeast of Bogotá.

On that day, four men arrived at the mother’s house, saying they had come on behalf of her boss, changing her life forever.

In 2008, she attempted to flee the attacks by moving to the department of Valle del Cauca with Daniela and her older sibling, but the conflict continued to haunt them.

In September 2008, a neighbor sexually assaulted Daniela, when she was just 13. The perpetrator was released a year later, citing mental problems, a common problem with abusers.

Crimes like this happen every day to children in the regions most affected by Colombia’s armed conflict. But official statistics are non-existent, and most cases go unreported for fear of reprisals.

“It’s impossible to rely on exact records regarding this issue, but fieldwork has shown that it’s quite common, especially in more remote areas without monitoring, which generally also are the most affected by the armed conflict,” said Vilma Gómez, the vice president of Defense for Children International (DCI) - Colombia.

In the recent report “Unspeakable Crimes against Children: Sexual Violence in Conflict” by the NGO Save the Children, Colombia is listed as one of the countries where minors are most vulnerable to these crimes.

“Sexual violence in the context of armed conflict takes the form of rape and sexual abuse, forced abortions, sexual slavery by the leaders of illegal armed groups and control of the sexual conduct of children recruited into the ranks of these organizations,” said Adriana González, director of the Colombian Family Welfare Institute (ICBF).

Sexual violence amid armed conflict is a recurring phenomenon that can be perpetrated by family members, neighbors, teachers, religious leaders and other young people, according to the report.

“In armed conflicts, sexual violence is used as a weapon of war, a strategy to subdue the enemy, claim territory, intimidate a community or merely to exact revenge,” said Paola Franceschi, director of the Asociación Hogar Niños por un Nuevo Planeta.

The Bogotá-based NGO provides assistance to children who have been the victims of sexual exploitation and abuse, physical and psychological violence and extreme poverty.

“The most common cases involve the forced recruitment of girls by illegal armed groups, who turn them into sexual slaves,” said a psychologist who spent two years analyzing cases as part of the governmental program to provide reparations to victims and whose name is being withheld for security reasons.

One of the most dramatic cases of sexual violence to come to light is that of Hernán Giraldo Serna, a former leader of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) in the department of Magdalena.

He is suspected of fathering 35 children in the region, with 19 born while their mothers were minors, including one mom who was 12 years old, according to investigations being carried out by the Human Rights Unit of the Attorney General’s Office.

Giraldo Serna was extradited to the United States in 2008 to face drug-trafficking charges. The Colombian Attorney General’s Office is working also to ensure that he is convicted for crimes against humanity stemming from his propensity for sexual abuse.

To date, not a single member of a paramilitary organization has been convicted of sexual offenses, despite repeated evidence of this type of crime in different regions nationwide.

Sexual slaves of the FARC

Some demobilized members of the FARC claim that many girls were used as sex slaves, taken by guerrilla leaders and used to motivate the rank-and-file fighters.

On the computers seized at the base camp of Víctor Julio Suárez Rojas – the FARC leader known as “Mono Jojoy” who died in a military operation in 2010 – authorities found an email from Miguel Botache Santillana, the alleged leader of the FARC’s seventh front. In the message, he detailed how four minors were forced to engage in sex with a fighter known as “Canguro,” who infected them with syphilis.

Fifty women on average are sexually abused every day in Colombia, according to the NGO Corporación Sisma Mujer. Amnesty International reports 80% of the victims are under the age of 18.

According to Oxfam, an international confederation of organizations that works to combat poverty in 92 countries, only 9% of the victims of sexual violence publicly denounce the crime.

“Most of the children subjected to exploitation and sexual violence are members of dysfunctional families, where there are no protective environments, not at home, at school or through the community or institutions,” Vilma Gómez said. “Armed groups take advantage of this situation to abuse minors and, in many cases, engage in business transactions involving their virginity.”

A flicker of light in the darkness

The hallways of the headquarters of Niños por un Nuevo Planeta are filled with 317 children of all ages who have regained their smiles after having been victims of sexual violence.

Most of them come from poor areas of Bogotá where they suffered abuse, while others were victimized by the atrocities of armed conflict. The details change, but the drama is the same.

The abused are babies, children, sexually exploited girls, underage mothers who were mistreated and whose children are at risk of suffering the same fate. There also are rape victims who were impregnated and gave birth.

“Our job is to connect children with their dreams. And if we’re able to do that, they can dream again, and they’ll be saved,” said Franceschi, winner of the 2009 Mujer Cafam Award, the most important recognition for social work among women in Colombia. “It’s also very important to forgive the aggressors, not because they deserve it, but because the children deserve to live without hate in their hearts.”

Aggressors will carry out between 185 and 500 attacks in their lifetimes, and 30% of abused children go on to become aggressors themselves, according to the association.

“By providing assistance to children, we’re breaking that chain,” said Giselle García Gómez, a member of Niños por un Nuevo Planeta. “Right now, we have 317 kids, but we know that there are a lot more we could help.”

Colombia has a broad legal framework that protects children against sexual violence.

The country is a signatory to the optional protocols on sexual violence against children in armed conflict put forth by the United Nations. In addition, there are several laws regarding sexual and reproductive rights that include minors (Law 1257 of 2008) and the prevention of sexual violence and comprehensive care for children (Law 1146 of 2007), among others.

The government spends between US$300 and US$600 to protect each sexually abused child every month. Normally, the programs last from four to 12 months, after which the children often return to environments that put them at risk.

“The ICBF insists on strengthening the protective environments for children to prevent their continued recruitment and exposure to these heinous practices that violate their rights,” González said.



pdf: Infosurhoy

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