With the election of a new president Sunday, Colombia threw the future of its peace deal into uncertainty. Conservative candidate Ivan Duque has repeatedly pledged to roll back parts of the landmark 2016 peace agreement with rebels from the FARC group—a deal that formally ended more than 50 years of conflict in the South American nation. Some saw Sunday’s vote as a referendum on the controversial peace deal, which allowed most of the more than 7,000 rebels to avoid prison.
“This is the opportunity that we have been waiting for—to turn the page on the politics of polarization, insults and venom,” Duque told supporters Sunday night after winning by a 12 percent margin. Duque has said he wants to make it clear that “a Colombia at peace is a Colombia where peace meets justice.”
The question of what justice means in a country where conflict killed at least 220,000 people is a complicated one. While critics of the deal, like Duque, tend to focus on the brutal actions of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia(FARC), government groups and paramilitaries were also responsible for much of the violence. And throughout the war, it was women who suffered the brunt of it.
“Bodies have been turned into a battleground”
Conflict began in the 1960s and was fought between the government, far-right paramilitary groups, left-wing guerrillas and the drug cartels—all of whom used sexual violence against women during the conflict to achieve military objectives, marking their territory and intimidating communities. Guerrilla groups used rape and assault to recruit girls as combatants, and as “payment” to protect other family members. Women were also subjected to crimes by the state’s security forces, leaving them with no authority to turn to for justice.
An Amnesty report from 2004 noted: “All the armed groups—the security forces, paramilitaries and the guerrilla—have sexually abused or exploited women, both civilians or their own combatants, in the course of Colombia’s conflict, and sought to control the most intimate parts of their lives. By sowing terror and exploiting and manipulating women for military gain, bodies have been turned into a battleground.”
Although many women signed up to guerrilla groups—they made up 40 percent of the communist group FARC—gender-based violence was still a powerful weapon of war, even against those fighting in it. Female fighters were banned from getting pregnant, and no matter how far along they were, women would be subjected to forced abortions.
As thousands of men were murdered during the conflict, women were left to raise children and bring in money. “We couldn’t do anything but go out to the streets to demand the truth,” says Jessica Hoyos, 30, who founded justice group Hijos y Hijas por la Memoria y contra la Impunidad [Sons and Daughters for Memory and against Impunity] after her father was murdered in 2001 by paramilitaries. “Mothers gave their children to the war. We suffered differently to men. We were the ones left behind.”
The group unites young people who are fighting to expose the real reasons behind their parents’ murders—which were often covered up and left unsolved, without the perpetrators being brought to justice. Like many female activists, Hoyos says she has been threatened with sexual violence by people who “do not want the truth to come out.”