Humphrey School Researchers Take on Human Rights Challenge: Ending Violence Against Women in Colombia
After an internal conflict that has lasted nearly 60 years and been characterized by gross human rights violations, Colombia is at last moving toward peace. Leaders there signed an historic peace agreement with the FARC rebels in December 2016.
Ending the conflict in Colombia is a tremendous accomplishment. But peace is no closer to reality for many women in that country, an astounding number of whom are victims of intimate partner violence.
Violence against women in their own homes, from their own partners, and the failure to address it effectively, represent one of Colombia’s most persistent and serious violations of the fundamental human right to physical security—a violation that has been overshadowed by the internal conflict.
This issue clearly resonates with Greta Friedemann-Sánchez, associate professor of international development at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs 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 in the context of the conflict, particularly sexual violence against women as a tactic of war, justifiably has received widespread international attention. But, every year more Colombian women are victims of sexual violence in their own homes than women who become victims through the conflict. And the number of women who experience nonsexual violence is even higher,” said Friedemann-Sánchez.
“Using violence to resolve disagreements in Colombian homes is common. Regrettably, signing the peace accord will not change this reality,” she said.
Strong laws, applied inconsistently
Unlike many other developing countries, Colombia has robust laws on the books criminalizing intimate partner violence and providing protection for victims. But, implementation and enforcement of the laws is irregular throughout the country.
Colombia’s rates of intimate partner violence are among the highest in the world: In 2010, 65 percent of partnered women had experienced emotional violence, and 37 percent had experienced physical violence, at some point during their lives.
This disconnect between strong laws and persistent high levels of intimate partner violence was the impetus for Friedemann-Sánchez and researcher Margaret Grieve (MPA '16), an attorney, to launch their project in 2015.
Through their research, they're determining the obstacles to successfully enforcing these laws. They’re examining the question from the perspective of family commissioners, who have the primary responsibility of issuing orders of protection for victims of intimate partner violence.
Colombian officials describe family commissioners as “the front line” in combatting violence against women. But they’re also required to handle other family conflicts related to issues such as divorce, child custody and support, and child abuse, and are assigned a host of other diverse responsibilities under national laws.
Friedemann-Sánchez and Grieve interviewed some 130 people in the cities of Bogotá and Medellín as well as 35 small communities, including family commissioners, judges, prosecutors, police, and municipal officials. They also spoke with victims, as well as lawyers and nongovernmental organizations who advocate for victims, to assess the situation.
Family commissioners face 'brutal' job stress
Their analysis finds that for the most part, family commissioners in the large cities have adequate resources to perform their duties. But the story is quite different for the vast majority of family commissioners who serve in small cities and towns.
In smaller communities, commissioners aren’t provided with adequate equipment such as computers, printers, and Internet connections, or the support personnel mandated by law. 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.
“Because the city officials—who also supervise the commissioners and control their budgets—assign these responsibilities, this work takes precedence over domestic violence cases,” said Friedemann-Sánchez.
Commissioners deal with difficult populations, including people who are very poor, who were displaced by the war, ex-combatants, and drug micro-traffickers. Substance use and mental health issues often complicate their cases. A few family commissioners have been physically threatened by alleged abusers.
In general, family commissioners are held in low esteem in Colombia, and in small cities and towns they’re not paid well. “The level of stress for the family commissioners is brutal,” said Friedemann-Sánchez. “Day in, day out, they hear difficult cases and are faced with a relentless volume. Depression and burnout among these officials is a real concern.”
Goal: Peace within the home
Friedemann-Sánchez said the Colombian Ministry of Justice, the cities of Bogotá and Medellín, and NGOs welcome the study, which is known by the acronym COLPAZ. They hope its conclusions will help them improve the response to intimate partner violence, allow women to enjoy their human right to live free of such violence, and further a peaceful society.
One family commissioner interviewed by the research team put it this way: “Colombia will not find political peace, stability, and prosperity until it achieves peace within the home.”
Another aim of the study, according to Friedemann-Sánchez, is to create a methodological process that other countries around the world can use to evaluate the implementation of laws to address intimate partner violence.
Friedemann-Sánchez received funding for this research project from the University of Minnesota’s Human Rights Initiative Fund.