Irony of Colombia ‘socialising’ the idea that women victims of armed violence are responsible for their deaths
Many of the women under threat in the Colombian town of Tibú have nowhere to turn, aside from a small handful of human rights defenders. Authorities have lost grip of the rising insecurity that targets women to armed groups in the cocoa-growing region that borders Venezuela.
“The women of Catatumbo are suffering more every day,” said Carmen García, the head of Madres de Catatumbo por la Paz [Mothers of Catatumbo for Peace], a local organisation defending women’s rights in the context of ongoing armed conflicts.
García has helped women like Sara (not real name) escape the town. She said she works with little government support or resources, which leaves her feeling frustrated.
García herself chose to leave in 2020, as armed violence grew in Tibú. “We really don’t have any help,” García explained, speaking from the nearby city of Cúcuta, where she has lived and worked since she left Tibú.
García only returns when absolutely necessary – with government-issued bodyguards in an SUV with tinted windows.
“This has somehow fallen on my shoulders,” she continues. “The problem is getting bigger and bigger.”
Some analysts say the widely circulated WhatsApp videos push a narrative that the women deserve the violence they receive.
“Many of the women who were assassinated in May and June of 2021 were accused – in many cases I suspect quite falsely – of having some sort of relationship with security forces,” Dickinson said, pointing out that women have been accused of being everything from secret girlfriends to friends and family members of police officers.
“This is something that is really worrying,” she continued. “It is socialising the idea that the victim, and particularly the woman, is responsible for these trends in violence that are happening, when of course the opposite is much closer to the truth.”
Dozens of women have now received threats against their lives via the videos and direct threats by phone or messages, prompting more and more to make the difficult decision to leave.
“I received many threats and was kidnapped for a few hours,” recalled Deisy, another woman who fled Tibú and whose name has been changed to protect her privacy. She left in August 2021, after a video was released that accused her of sexual promiscuity.
“I was able to run away before they did any physical harm, but I still have the psychological trauma,” she continued, speaking from Bogotá. “I have two daughters, so I felt obligated to leave town.”
Deisy (not her real name) fled Tibú in August 2021 after multiple threats, a kidnapping, and a wave of femicides against other women. Although she was able to escape to Bogotá, she says “the fear is constant.”
‘I don’t think about going back under any circumstances’
Deisy says her fear is “constant”. Even though she reported the threats to the authorities, she says she hasn’t received support from the government and is struggling to find reliable work.
“Going back [to Tibú] is my absolute last option,” she said. “My belongings, my house, everything is there. I left with nothing. I don’t dare to return.”
Sara said she feels similarly isolated and abandoned by the state, particularly after she experienced abuse at a shelter in Cúcuta. That pushed her to move even farther from home.
“I don’t think about going back, under any circumstances,” she said, speaking from Medellín, where she works as a seamstress, earning less than minimum wage. She said she doesn’t have enough money to buy food, clothes, or even shampoo, and relies on her parents to wire her any money they are able to scrape together.
“All I want is to be able to study again,” she continued. “I want to start a new life, with new opportunities, but it’s so difficult.”
According to García, this kind of economic precarity often forces women to return to Tibú, perpetuating the cycle of violence.
“Most of them have had to return to the town, putting themselves in danger,” she added, explaining that this is one more symptom of the lack of government support for victims.
Last month, García and several other human rights defenders attended an International Women’s Day celebration in Cúcuta, where they were honoured by the
Colombia human rights ombudsman’s office for their activism.
During the ceremony, the provincial director of the attorney general’s office reminded the women gathered in the auditorium that he was available to support and protect them “24/7”, urging the audience to “have faith in the attorney general’s office.”
One by one, government officials took the floor, listing their phone numbers, urging the human rights defenders in the audience to call them whenever they needed.
When García received her award, she called out what she saw as their hypocrisy, saying: “They keep murdering women, they keep threatening us, and I don’t see any results.”
As she sat back down, she turned to those sitting nearby. Where, she asked, were these officials when she was asking for help for the threatened women in her community?
“They give us their [phone] numbers and sometimes they answer our calls,” she said. “But they never actually help us.”
- The New Humanitarian report