Raped for speak­ing out against rape

The Star (St. Lucia) - - COMMENT -

AColom­bian woman who de­nounced armed groups for sex­u­ally abus­ing women and girls was ab­ducted by the mil­i­tants and sub­jected to a ter­ri­ble pun­ish­ment. Her story il­lus­trates just how much power lies in the hands of armed men in Colom­bia - de­spite a cease­fire by the left-wing Farc rebels - and how law­less some parts of the coun­try re­main.

A stat­uesque AfroColom­bian woman wear­ing a bright tur­ban and loose flow­ing robes hov­ers over her pa­tient and gen­tly prods his stom­ach. “Where does it hurt?” she asks the man who is ly­ing on his back in a room filled with plants and brightly coloured posters. She uses tra­di­tional medicine made from roots and seeds to heal her pa­tients at the Armed Con­flict Vic­tims Cen­tre in a run­down sub­urb of Bo­gota.

Peo­ple come to this staterun clinic to share their sto­ries and get some re­lief from the suf­fer­ing they have en­dured in a war be­tween left-wing guer­ril­las and the army, which has lasted for more than half a cen­tury.

Maria, the healer in the tur­ban, is her­self re­cov­er­ing from a ter­ri­ble or­deal which led to her be­ing driven from her home.

Like one in ev­ery 10 Colom­bians, she has be­come a refugee in her own coun­try. Nearly seven mil­lion peo­ple have been up­rooted and more than 220,000 killed since 1964 when the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Armed Forces of Colom­bia (Farc), took up arms against the state to de­mand so­cial equal­ity and land re­form. And al­though Farc lead­ers have agreed a cease­fire and there is a hope for an end to the in­sur­gency, other armed groups, in­clud­ing right-wing paramil­i­taries, still ter­rorise large ar­eas of the coun­try.

At her small flat over a car re­pairs shop Maria tells me her story. Six years ago she was liv­ing 400 miles away in Quibdo, cap­i­tal of the depart­ment of Choco, in the west of Colom­bia, one of the poor­est re­gions of the coun­try where most of the pop­u­la­tion is de­scended from African slaves brought over by Span­ish colonis­ers.

Maria was a leader in a women’s group called AfroMuPaz which sup­ports fam­i­lies dis­placed by con­flict. She also cam­paigned against the re­cruit­ment of child sol­diers by the many armed groups ac­tive in the re­gion and de­nounced them for sub­ject­ing women and girls to sex­ual abuse.

Criss-crossed with rivers and bor­der­ing both the Caribbean and Pa­cific coasts, Choco has long been a bat­tle­ground for those fight­ing to con­trol drug-traf­fick­ing routes and ac­cess to il­le­gal gold mines, and they have preyed on lo­cal women. AfroMuPaz was one of the few groups speak­ing out about the prob­lem and call­ing for it to stop.

In July 2010, a man came to see Maria and said he wanted to do­nate some chil­dren’s clothes and shoes to her group. He of­fered to take her to an­other neigh­bour­hood to col­lect them.

“So I climbed into his truck sus­pect­ing noth­ing,” she says. “But when we started driv­ing out of the city I felt un­easy and asked where the do­na­tion was. At that point some­one pointed a gun at me and pulled a hood over my head.”

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