I recently ran a fascinating workshop with colleagues at Intermón Oxfam  (Oxfam’s Spanish affiliate) at which the different country programmes brought examples of change processes at work. One that particularly struck me was about our work in Colombia on sexual violence and conflict. Here’s the write up, jointly authored with Intermon’s Alejandro Matos.
The campaign began in 2009, jointly agreed by Intermón Oxfam and 9 national women’s and human rights organizations. The main aim was to make visible, at national and international level, the widespread use of sexual violence as a tactic by all sides in the armed conflict, and the gaps and failings in the responses of the Colombian state, in terms of prevention and punishment, the end of impunity and the care of women victims.
The main problem we faced was the lack of a strong advocacy tool. Many individual cases of sexual violence within the armed conflict had been recorded and publicised in recent years, but that wasn’t enough – we needed a single national ‘big number’ that would alert people (decision makers, public, media) to the true scale of the problem.
We therefore decided to carry out a national survey to produce up to date, rigorous information for use in advocacy work. The work was carried out by respected academics and researchers of Casa de la Mujer  (the survey design alone took 4 months), and opted for the more difficult terrain of testimony (‘have you suffered sexual violence?’) rather than perception (‘do you know of cases….’)
At the start of the campaign, Intermón Oxfam invited Jineth Bedoya Lima , a Colombian journalist, to be the public face of the campaign. In 2000, while working as a journalist for El Espectador, she was kidnapped, tortured and raped by paramilitaries, while investigating the involvement of high military commanders in arms trafficking. Her public profile and courage gave a human face to the research and the campaign’s demands for truth, justice and reparations.
With the survey results and the testimony of Jineth, the campaign launched the results of the first survey with huge media impact. Here’s a quote from the report :
The rate of sexual violence, for the period 2001-2009, in 407 municipalities with an active presence of the armed forces, paramilitaries, guerrillas, and other armed actors in Colombia was estimated at 17.58%; this means that during these nine years 489,687 women were victims of sexual violence (…) every hour 6 women were victims of some type of sexual violence in these municipalities.
We followed this up with an international tour, including Belgium and a meeting with Conservative women in the UK . In March 2011, the campaign met in New York with the UN Special Representative on sexual violence in conflicts, Margot Wallström . In Washington, it met with the number 3 official on security of the White House, and with Melanne Verveer , a close adviser to Hillary Clinton. That visit led to the topic becoming a priority issue in US-Colombian relations. For example, Jineth’s case involved, among others, a Police General Leonardo Gallego. In 11 years, the judicial case had failed to puncture impunity and key documents had been ‘lost’. Within two months of the campaign’s visit to the US State Department, the General was called to testify and Colombia’s first female Attorney General personally committed herself to take forward the case, which has advanced considerably since then.
The results of the survey continue to be widely disseminated by the Colombian press and various state bodies have started to use the data in their official reports. One result of the campaign’s scrutiny of the Santos government has been a document ‘Summary of the actions taken by the government of President Juan Manuel Santos in its first year: prevention and elimination of sexual violence within the armed conflict and care for women victims.’ This generated large amounts of media coverage in Colombia  and beyond .
On 9 March 2012 the US State Department awarded Jineth Bedoya its ‘Women of Courage’ award . This was personally presented by Hilary Clinton and Michelle Obama (see pic), and in the presentation the work of the campaign ‘Take My Body out of the War’ was recognized. On 16th March, Melanne Verveer visited Colombia and asked for her first meeting to be with the campaign – a 2 hour breakfast in which she said ‘I am meeting the Minister of Defence and the Presidential adviser on Women – what message would you like me to transmit?’ The messages were duly transmitted.
At the beginning of May, after overcoming opposition from the Colombian presidency and the foreign ministry, the UN special representative visited Colombia to interview victims and social organizations, and investigate the response of the Colombian state: ‘one of the great challenges that the country has is overcoming impunity, and establishing political responsibility in the face of this crime and the implementation of the measures required’ argued her subsequent report, and she promised to take the message to the UN Security Council and keep Colombia as a priority country in her reports, given the seriousness of the situation.
In terms of the campaign’s theory of change, the Colombia experience contains some fascinating lessons:
Power Analysis: The “Zero Tolerance” of sexual violence is a consensus issue, unlikely to produce overt opposition. It therefore offers an ideal basis around which to build broad national and international coalitions.
Change Hypothesis: That giving the issue public visibility would lead to a range of solutions, including helping end impunity, and increasing state support to victims
- A single ‘killer fact’, based on rigorous research, would galvanize public debate
- A prominent champion would ensure greater profile at both national and international levels
- Oxfam’s international connections could act as a catalyst for international solidarity, increasing the external pressure on the Colombian state
- A broad coalition could be built around the issue, bringing together social organizations and local , national and international media, public defenders and some members of the congress and others politicians
There is still much to do, both in combating impunity and in alerting public opinion, but we are sure that after two years of campaigning. Sexual violence against women in the context of armed conflict in Colombia and its high levels of impunity are visible and publicly recognized by State's representatives and civil society, as is the urgency in taking effective steps to end this crime, overcome impunity and protect and care for women and women victims.
For those of you who want to practice your Spanish, here’s Alejandro Matos in a two minute video describing our work in Colombia
Picture: State Department photo/ Public Domain