‘It opens a window of hope’: case will potentially set precedent for sexual violence survivors in Colombia

‘It opens a window of hope’: case will potentially set precedent for sexual violence survivors in Colombia

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights will hear testimony on Monday from a Colombian journalist who was kidnapped, tortured and raped while reporting on her country’s civil war, in a case which could set a precedent for thousands of survivors of sexual violence in the Andean nation.

Jineth Bedoya, who has been pursuing justice for more than 20 years and now campaigns against sexual violence, has so far seen only three of her attackers sentenced.

“To bring my case before an international court not only vindicates what happened to me, as a woman and a journalist,” Bedoya said in a video shared on Twitter. “It opens a window of hope for thousands of women and girls who, like me, had to face sexual violence in the midst of the Colombian armed conflict.”

A 2016 peace deal with the leftist rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia formally ended five decades of bitter fighting that left 260,000 dead and displaced over 7 million. State-aligned paramilitary groups and other leftist rebel armies contributed to the bloodshed.

Sexual violence was widespread during the conflict, but amid massacres and mass kidnappings it tended to be ignored or met with impunity. Between 1985 and 2016 alone, 15,076 people were victims of sexual violence during the armed conflict, according to a report by the National Center of Historical Memory, and 91% of them were women.

On 25 May 2000, Bedoya was abducted outside a Bogotá prison were she was due to interview a paramilitary leader in the Modelo prison in Bogotá. She was drugged and driven hours outside of town where she was beaten and gang-raped.

“It wasn’t an interview, it was a trap,” Bedoya told the Guardian in 2019. “In my head there was no timeline because so much was happening that I didn’t even know where I was.”

Left for dead after the attack, Bedoya initially carried out her own investigation after official inquiries went nowhere. Now, with the support of Colombia’s Press Freedom Foundation (Flip) and the Center for Justice and International Law (Cejil), the Colombian state could be called to answer for failing to guarantee and protect her human rights.

“This case is incredibly important as it provides the opportunity to set a precedent for the region on sexual violence carried out against journalists under the banner of armed conflict,” said Jonathan Bock, the director of Flip. “Sexual violence against women was one of the great atrocities of the conflict and Jineth has come to represent hundreds of survivors.”

Bedoya’s case has also drawn attention to alarming rates of gender-based violence that continue to rattle the South American nation. So far this year, Colombia has seen 55 cases of femicide, according to the Femicide Foundation Colombia, an NGO that provides support for women and tracks gender-based violence, with 39 probable cases yet to be verified.

Olga Amparo Sánchez, the director of Casa de la Mujer, a women’s rights NGO, said that Bedoya’s case arriving to the court has both political and symbolic significance.

“It is politically important because it recognizes that sexual violence was used as a weapon against women during the conflict, alongside other forms of violence, and that it was systematic,” Amparo Sánchez said. “And it is symbolically important to have a such a high-profile court make the pernicious issue of sexual violence visible.

“And across the Latin America, whether in conflict situations or not, sexual violence is used to oppress women,” she said.

“If this case helps to build a more just Colombia – and I do have my doubts that the government will honour any ruling,” the activist said. “It will be by providing an instrument so that other women can seek justice and reparations.”