Bogota, Colombia – A Colombian Court late on Wednesday granted “victim status” to a former female fighter of the FARC rebel group who faced sexual violence in a historic ruling that rights groups hope will set a precedent and encourage other survivors of sexual violence to come forward.
Helena, the pseudonym used in the case to protect the woman’s identity, was recruited by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels at the age of 14, according to Women’s Link Worldwide, a non-governmental organisation that brought the case before the court.
While with the FARC, Helena was forced to have an abortion, and then use contraceptives, the organisation said. She still suffers health complications from the unsafe conditions under which the procedure was forcibly performed.
The Victims’ Unit – a government agency in charge of managing reparations for violations that occurred during the armed conflict – rejected the inclusion of cases like Helena’s in the official Victims’ Registry, until now.
Per the court’s ruling, the Victims’ Unit must now register Helena in the Registry, guaranteeing her legal access to reparation measures, and making it the first ruling of its kind.
“The state must guarantee specialised attention and assistance to women, girls, adolescents and older adults who survive sexual violence perpetrated by armed actors, which implies the obligation to attend to these victims in an immediate, comprehensive, specialised manner … and for the time necessary to overcome the physical and psychological effects caused by the aggressions of those who suffered,” the court ruling said, according to Women’s Link Worldwide.
Juliana Laguna, a lawyer at Women’s Link Worldwide in Bogota, said the ruling “is a victory for many other women and girls who find themselves in the same situation as Helena.”
Women’s Link Worldwide said the number of women who suffered sexual and reproductive violence during the conflict is unknown due to insufficient data and fear among women to come forward. But some data from the Prosecutor’s Office suggests there were over 1,000 abortions a year within the FARC’s ranks.
In October, Women’s Link Worldwide presented a report that included the case of Helena along with 35 other cases of women and young girls whose reproductive rights had been violated when part of the ranks of the FARC before Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) – the transitional justice mechanism set up as part of the 2016 peace agreement to try crimes committed during the armed conflict.
Women’s Link Worldwide and other rights groups hope Wednesday’s decision sets a precedent for other cases similar to Helena’s and encourages more survivors to report the sexual violence they suffered.
“Before this case, women and girls who were in Helena’s situation could not be registered in the Registry unless they had deserted or demobilised from the illegal armed groups while they were still underage. They will now have priority access to physical and psychological health services, living subsidies, and even financial reparations,” Laguna said.
For years the FARC – an established political party since the 2016 peace agreement – have denied forced abortion occurred.
In 2017, El Enfermero (the Nurse), a man accused of performing hundreds of forced abortions within the FARC, was extradited from Spain to Colombia to sit trial. He is currently being held in a high-security facility while he awaits trial in the JEP.
Abortions are illegal in most circumstances in Colombia.
FARC did not immediately comment on Wednesday’s decision.
Julia Zulver, a Bogota based specialist in gender and conflict from the University of Oxford, said the ruling “goes beyond the victim-perpetrator binary, to underscore that reproductive rights are fundamental human rights, even in the context of armed conflict.”
She added the case is “particularly important given that armed groups around the country continue to use sexual violence, including as a tool of territorial domination”.