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COLOMBIA
Women still at a disadvantage
Susan Abad
10/12/2006
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Females struggle to improve their lives despite laws that protect their rights and promote their advancement.

Women in Colombia live in a paradox: while they have the legal tools necessary to achieve economic and social equality with men, they continue to suffer from sexism, discrimination and exclusion.

Female citizens throughout Latin America and the Caribbean are far from having their rights fully recognized, and in Colombia, the problem is aggravated because of the violent internal conflict that has raged in the country for more than 40 years, and become more severe in the last decade.

"Women’s bodies are considered war booty," says Florence Thomas, coordinator of the Women and Society Group at the National University of Colombia. "There is sexual violence against women in the armed conflict that manifests itself as sexual use and symbolic appropriation of the body, but it is not sufficiently documented."

She adds that women and young girls are commonly recruited and "forced to be commanders’ lovers" and observe a strict code of conduct that includes schedule regulations.

Displacement caused by the conflict has also impacted women’s rights here. According to the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement, or CODHES, of the more than 3 million people who have been displaced internally by the violence over the last 10 years, 58 percent are women and between 36 and 39 percent are their families’ principal economic providers.

The Colombian Jurists Commission, known as CCJ, is conducting a study on gender and social political violence. Ana María Díaz, who is coordinating the study, found that between January 2002 and June 2006, 1,608 women — averaging to almost one woman per day — were killed during political participation or social movements. Of these women 1,375 were killed out of combat.

The internal conflict has led Colombian women’s organizations to pressure the government for new public policies that favor their rights. Advances have been slow, but encouraging. On May 11, the Constitutional Court partly decriminalized abortion, making the practice legal in the case of rape, when the mother’s life or health is at risk, or if the fetus is unlikely to survive outside the womb.

But domestic violence continues to threaten women’s rights in Colombia. According to an Ombudsman’s Office report based on figures from the National Legal Medicine Institute, every six days, a woman is killed at the hands of her current or former romantic partner or husband, and these crimes are mostly avoidable since the woman had been previously threatened.

The report added that in 2005, the institute registered 18,474 reports of sexual assault, of which 84.2 percent were against women. From this, more than 70 percent of the victims were younger than 18 years old, and 42 percent of the total were girls between the ages of 10 and 14.

The Ombudsman’s Office denounced these violations noting that despite the 1996 passage of a law to "prevent, remedy and criminalize intrafamilial violence, there have been a series of reforms that have meant a progressive increase in impunity levels," making room for dismissed charges, settlements, and freedom from prison.

Women also face economic violence in its many forms. There were 73,000 reports of men denying paternity and failure to provide food for their families in 2005, according to the Attorney General’s Office.

The labor market is also tough for Colombian women. "Colombia is an example of gender equality in Latin America: 57 percent of women are in the workforce, one of the highest in the region; and a high number of women are in good positions in the public and private sectors, but this visibility of women executives hide the truth about the rest of Colombian women," said Liberal Party Sen. Cecilia López.

According to a 2005 report by the National Statistical Administrative Department, 15.3 percent of women in Colombia are unemployed, compared to 8.6 percent of men. López added that Colombian women earn 25-30 percent less than men.

Females are the majority of Colombians, according to a 2006 census that found that women comprise 51.4 percent of the 46 million Colombians. But they are very few in public decision-making posts. Only four of the 13 members of President Álvaro Uribe’s Cabinet are women, and there are just 26 lawmakers female in the country’s 268-member Congress.

These figures are more dismal in mayoral posts and judgeships, despite a 2000 law that established that women must hold at least 30 percent of elected and public positions..

But mounting adverse conditions, however, women have obtained significant advances in education — last year, with 51.3 percent, they accounted for the majority of higher education students, and receiving 3,000 more government study loans than their male counterparts.


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