Colombia Changes Laws on Domestic Violence Due to Push from Humphrey School Researchers

December 15, 2021
Greta Friedemann-Sánchez and Margaret Grieve in Colombia
Humphrey School researchers Greta Friedemann-Sánchez and Margaret Grieve in Colombia, when they began their research into the country's system of addressing intimate partner violence. 

Colombia enacted a new law in August of 2021 to better protect women from intimate partner violence, due in large part to the work of two researchers at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs—Associate Professor Greta Friedemann-Sánchez and alumna Margaret Grieve (MPA '16). 

They began their research project in 2015 to explore why Colombia has such high rates of intimate partner violence, even though it has robust laws on the books criminalizing such violence and providing protection for victims.

Their research found that the implementation and enforcement of Colombia's laws addressing domestic violence are irregular throughout the country. Those conclusions led them to campaign for changes to the system—through international pressure and advocacy within Colombia. After six years, their efforts were successful; the new law incorporates many of the changes they recommended.  

Home is the most dangerous environment  

Colombia ended its decades-long civil war in 2016. But peace is no closer to reality for many women in that country, an astounding number of whom are victims of intimate partner violence. Of all violence cases that warranted medical and legal services in 2016, 72 percent of them involved women and girls as victims, said Friedemann-Sánchez. Of these, 86 percent were perpetrated at home by an intimate male partner.

This issue clearly resonates with Friedemann-Sánchez, an associate professor of international development at the Humphrey School and a native of Colombia. As an applied anthropologist, she has done extensive research on women's empowerment and gender equity, including the prevalence of intimate partner violence in Colombia.

“Violence against women as a tactic of war receives widespread international attention. But every year more Colombian women are victims of violence in their own homes than women who became victims through the conflict," said Friedemann-Sánchez. “Using violence to resolve disagreements in Colombian homes is very common.” 

Family commissioners are the key

Family commissioner offices, located in communities throughout Colombia, are on the front lines helping victims of intimate partner violence by issuing civil orders of protection. Although their role is judicial in nature, family commissioners are positioned under mayors’ offices and funded by cities, and rarely are provided the resources they need.

“Commissioners in rural areas lack basic resources like paper, computers, printers, and internet connections, or the support personnel that is required by law,” said Friedemann-Sánchez.

Commissioners are frequently required to handle other family matters related to issues such as divorce, child custody, and child abuse. They also have to juggle additional responsibilities that mayors and city councils dictate, such as drafting and supervising school lunch contracts and developing public policies on matters like child labor, substance abuse, or gender equality.

Many commissioners she interviewed say they are under tremendous stress. “Depression and burnout among these officials is a real concern.”

Community engagement from the start

During the course of their research, Friedemann-Sánchez and Grieve interviewed some 130 people in the cities of Bogotá and Medellín as well as 35 small communities, including victims, victims’ advocates, family commissioners, judges, attorneys, police, and municipal officials. 

Friedemann-Sánchez said they purposely designed their research to include extensive engagement with key stakeholders, particularly the family commissioners themselves. 

“It was a constant feedback loop. We wanted to know, ‘Are we getting this right? What other questions should we be asking?'” she said. “Family commissioners I’ve spoken with are incredibly grateful, because nobody had interviewed them before, or described their working conditions and the challenges they face.” 

The research concluded that the entire family commissioner system needed to be revamped. 

“Without a different structure, there is no amount of training that you can give a family commissioner that is going to fill the holes that the flawed structure has created,” said  Friedemann-Sánchez. 

Their most important recommendations were to move the Family Commissioner Office to the national level, increase the number of offices around the country, and reduce commissioners’ unrelated responsibilities. 

Side-by-side graphics representing duties of family commissioners in Colombia under old and new laws
These graphics represent the duties given to family commissioners in Colombia by various government entities. On the left are duties under the old law. The graphic on the right shows which duties have been eliminated under the new law, allowing the commissioners to focus on their main responsibilities to protect victims of domestic violence.

Advocating for change

Friedemann-Sánchez and Grieve went beyond writing a research report. Their ultimate goal was to use their results to advocate for policy changes in Colombia to improve the treatment of victims of intimate partner violence. 

They sought the engagement of The Advocates for Human Rights, a nonprofit based in Minnesota that works to implement human rights standards and reinforce the rule of law. The Advocates provided the necessary support to transform the research project into one with advocacy power at the United Nations.

With help from the Advocates, Friedemann-Sánchez and Grieve brought their findings to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in February 2019, to persuade its members to pressure Colombia to amend its law. 

As a result, the CEDAW Committee recommended that Colombia strengthen the Family Commissioner Office and move it under the Ministry of Justice or the Judiciary.

“Colombia cares very much about what the world thinks about it,” said Friedemann-Sánchez, so the international pressure was an important piece of their advocacy campaign.  

She and Grieve published a book in 2019, Comisarías de Familia y Violencia Contra las Mujeres en Colombia: Puerta de Acceso y Retos Institucionales (Family Commissioners and Violence Against Women in Colombia: Portal to Justice and Institutional Challenges), which summarized their research and included their recommendations.  

They gave copies of the book to family commissioners, government officials, and other stakeholders in Colombia, who then used it to support their own advocacy. 

Outreach and networking: 'hundreds of meetings'

Friedemann-Sánchez also made connections with government officials in Colombia. In 2019 and 2020, she met in person with the Colombian Ministry of Justice, the National Ombudsman and Attorney General’s office, the mayors’ offices in Bogotá and Medellín, and family commissioners across the country, to advocate for changes. 

Officials asked her and Grieve to review a first draft of the legal amendment and provide public comment on the second draft, which eventually was approved by Colombian legislators in August.

“A lot of things happened based on outreach and networking. I reached out to people through phone calls and emails, and had probably hundreds of meetings,” she said. “Through the political connections we have made there, the weight of the work, and being persistent, our advocacy was very effective.”  

Among other important improvements, the law placed the Ministry of Justice as the governing body of family commissioners, removed all responsibilities not connected to addressing domestic violence, and dramatically increased the number of commissioner offices around the country according to population, violence rates, and service demand.

With these changes, family commissioners will be better able to provide access to justice and protection to Colombia’s women who are abused by their partners. The changes will go into effect by August 2023.

“It’s great. It’s what you hope for,” Friedemann-Sánchez said when asked how she feels about her work having such an impact. “This is why I’m in a school of public policy—to change policy.”