Sexual and gender-based violence, including conflict-related sexual violence
Sexual violence violates children’s rights, damages their health, welfare and development, and increases their vulnerability to further violence. Despite this, it continues to be the major “silent” problem that is affecting children and young people and that it is not being addressed nationally.
The current situation in Colombia
Of the 22,155 cases of sexual violence reported in Colombia in 2015, 86% were committed against children under the age of 18, with the average age being just 12. Over 2,500 children under the age of 4 years were reported to have experienced this violence.
The majority of children who experience sexual violence come from the lowest income groups, living in slums on the outskirts of the cities or in isolated rural communities, and the abuse is usually either at the hands of a member of their own family, or the criminal gangs that control their neighbourhood.
The numbers of children experiencing sexual violence have consistently increased in recent years, however local NGOs estimate that still only 30% of cases are ever reported. A report by the Colombian Public Prosecutor supports this, estimating that the number of children being sexually abused in each year is as many as 200,000.
This under-reporting is a result of children being afraid or threatened with further violence or expulsion from their family if they speak out against perpetrators. Sexual abuse against boys remains particularly under-reported due to the stigma attached to it in Colombia’s widespread ‘machista’ culture. Added to this, impunity in cases that are reported is extremely high, reaching up to 98% .
Sexual violence against women and children has been used as a weapon of war during Colombia’s prolonged civil conflict and as a result has become, as the Colombian Constitutional Court has recognised, “a widespread, systematic and invisible practice”.
Risks for children
Sexual violence is a horrific crime that has immense, long term effects on children’s physical and mental health, their welfare and development. It can also pass on sexually transmitted infections, causing serious health issues, and can result in child pregnancy.
Children and young people do not have access to adequate information about their sexual and reproductive health and rights, which limits the possibility of them making informed decisions about these rights.
For instance, for all pregnant children under 14, and for all other victims of rape, abortion is legal. Therefore, legal, safe termination is one available option with which to confront the harmful consequences of sexual violence. Yet recent figures show that while 45% of unwanted pregnancies are terminated in Colombia, as little as 1% of abortions are carried out legally, meaning that many women and children currently undergo illegal, unsafe abortions. These procedures bring multiple risks to women’s and children’s health.
The harmful effects of sexual violence can endure over generations. A child born as a result of sexual violence can experience rejection and alienation at home as a result of the severe psychological trauma experienced by their mother.
This neglect can lead to the child lacking the skills to build strong, positive relationships with others, and increases the risk of them turning to an armed group in search of a sense of belonging or protection.
For children and young people growing up in communities where sexual violence is invisible, this violence also becomes normal, and it is difficult for them to understand what is and is not appropriate behaviour, let alone what to do when they know something is wrong.
Children who have experienced sexual abuse are also at greater risk of experiencing other violence, including commercial sexual exploitation (CSEC).
What is Children Change Colombia doing?
We are working with our local partners to strengthen children’s protection against sexual violence or abuse and help them to deal with the traumas they have experienced and build a positive future for themselves.
We are also working with partners who teach children about their sexual and reproductive rights so that they can protect themselves and their friends, families and neighbours from abuse or discrimination.
Our partners are also working with parents, schools, community groups, police, social workers, healthcare providers and others, to help to create a protective environment for children and to identify and work with at risk children before they experience the horrors of sexual abuse.
Our partners currently working to tackle this neglected issue are:
Our recent achievements towards tackling this neglected issue:
In 2016, our partner Casa Amazonia helped 105 children to begin to overcome the trauma of experiencing or witnessing conflict-related sexual violence and supported them to speak out about their experiences, thus reducing the taboo around the topic in their communities and schools. This made it easier for others to speak out, and strengthened the pressure on adults to take action to prevent it.
Between 2014 and 2016, our partner Si Mujer conducted over 5,000 medical and psychological consultations for children and young people at their youth-friendly sexual health clinic. These included counselling, contraception advice, screening and care for STIs, and accompaniment through legal processes where required by survivors of sexual violence.
In 2016, Si Mujer trained 129 young people to play an active role in promoting sexual and reproductive rights in their communities. Through replica training sessions, these young people taught 1,371 at-risk young people about healthy relationships and what to do if they experience or feel threated by sexual abuse. You can watch a film about Si Mujer’s youth leaders here.