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Protecting women and girls in Colombia

Colombia has one of the highest rates of internally displaced people (IDPs) in the world. Over 3 million Colombians have been evicted from their homes in rural areas by armed paramilitary gangs, who take over the land to plunder it for its wealth. Over the last few years, less populated areas along the Pacific Coast and the southern border region of Colombia have been particularly targeted. In the border district of Putamayo in the south, 43 per cent of the rural population has now been displaced to urban areas, as armed groups seek to exploit the forests’ wealth in wood, oil and cocoa. Many of the displaced come from the indigenous tribes of Putamayo and there are fears that if too many people are evicted from their lands, the tribes might disappear altogether.

Women and children make up around 70% of the displaced in Colombia and indigenous women are often completely unprepared for life in cities and towns. Some try to eke out a living from their traditional craft skills, but cut off from their culture and lands, they are vulnerable to poverty and exploitation. In Putamayo, a local radio station broadcasts to the women and discusses issues of displacement to provide support.

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is also active in the region. In the town of Mocoa, with a population of 36,000, the UNHCR has been addressing the needs of displaced women, who often live on their own with their children. Lacking any security, women and young girls in Mocoa are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence. In one attack this year, a 14-year old displaced girl was raped in a busy area and no one intervened. 190 cases of sexual violence and over 250 cases of domestic violence were registered between 2004 and 2008 and those are only the reported incidents. Many women, particularly those from indigenous groups, are too ashamed to admit if they have been assaulted and never file a complaint.

Over the last two years, the UNHCR, working with several partner organisations, has formed an action team with the local police to tackle the issue of violence against women and provide support groups for those affected. The team also initiated a public awareness campaign last year where murals and posters around the town contained messages against gender-based crime. This year, workshops have been held among groups of young men in the town to promote the message that masculinity has nothing to do with sexual violence. To improve the gathering of statistical data and gauge what effect the various campaigns are having, UNHCR has provided training to police and hospital staff on the recording of cases involving sexual violence. A spokesman for the refugee agency admitted that changing attitudes takes time, but believes violence against women is already more openly discussed and there is less impunity for offenders. The recent arrest of a local man for a sexual assault on a young indigenous girl and the support offered to the girl by the police and health services, is seen as an example of the visible progress being made towards better protecting women in Putamayo.

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