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‘I’m not alone’: survivors organise against sexual violence in Colombia | Sexual violence

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Children now play football on the field where the lives of the people of El Salado changed completely.

In February 2000, about 450 paramilitary fighters stormed this small Colombian town. They forced people from their homes into the field, and began to play drums and drink alcohol stolen from local shops. They then went on to torture and kill. Yirley Velasco was one of those gang-raped. She was 14 at the time.

The massacre at El Salado – which left at least 60 people dead and many more “disappeared” – was one of the most brutal events in Colombia’s decades of armed conflict.

Afterwards, Velasco, her family and other survivors fled to nearby cities and towns, where they often lived in deep poverty and faced stigma for having been forcibly displaced. Two decades on, only an estimated 1,200 of the 4,000 people in the community have returned.

Today there are no signs of the bloodshed on the football field and the children kick their ball over a faded peace sign painted on ground. “When I pass by here, all the feelings come rushing back to me. I saw a lot of people get killed. It’s not easy to forget that. And there is still pain. There is still sadness,” says Velasco.

Velasco and 12 other survivors created a network, Mujeres Sembrando Vida (Women Sowing Life), to support victims of sexual and domestic violence in the northern Colombian region of Montes de María, an area still plagued by conflict.

Sexual violence is a common tactic used by paramilitaries, guerrillas and state military forces to sow fear and assert power.

“Sexual violence against women and girls is a kind of discrimination that comes from long-existing structures,” says Linda Cabrera, director of Sisma Mujer, an organisation that defends victims of gender-based violence in Colombia. “What it has created is different kinds of traumas.”

In El Salado there is no official registry of the rapes committed by paramilitaries. Velasco said the topic was missing in conversations about reparations.

People commemorate the 10th anniversary of the massacre in El Salado
People commemorate the 10th anniversary of the massacre in El Salado, in northern Colombia, on 20 February 2010. Photograph: Ricardo Maldonado/EPA

“When they began to discuss El Salado, I heard them talk about thousands of things [the community needed] – a health centre, a road, a church – but when they finished I said to myself: ‘What about the women?’” Velasco says.

“Because I lived it. I’ve felt the pain, I know the helplessness that comes from being ignored.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, domestic abuse cases surged with protracted lockdowns across the world. It was particularly rampant in Latin American countries, with previously high rates of domestic and sexual violence. Although quarantines are no longer in force, gender-based violence has continued at alarming levels.

Velasco and her team guide victims to report cases and ensure these are handled appropriately, and try to address the sense of impunity that goes hand-in-hand with such crimes in Colombia.

“We do what the state entities fail to do,” she says.

Yirley Velasco, seated with baby, visits families in a rural area of Montes de Maria
Yirley Velasco, seated with baby, visits families in a rural area of Montes de Maria. Photograph: Kiran Stallone

Members of Mujeres Sembrando Vida are part of multiple regional and national support groups. WhatsApp networks have been crucial to contacting victims in rural areas.

Velasco and her team also run in-person workshops in rural communities, teaching women about gender equality, and have set up a collective savings account to help women in emergencies.

“Ninety per cent of women depend on what their husbands give them. That’s what the violence is born from. With this savings account, if a woman has an emergency, there is money,” she says.

So far the team have helped about 280 women in El Salado and nearby communities. They have helped women leave abusive situations, get medical help and created projects to enable financial independence.

For survivors of sexual violence such as Diana Chamorro, 56, such support has been transformative.

Diana Chamorro
Diana Chamorro is a rape survivor who works with other women in El Carmen de Bolívar who have experienced sexual violence. Photograph: Megan Janetsky

In 1998, Chamorro was walking to her brother’s house not far from her home when a group of men attacked and raped her. The men were in military camouflage, but she never saw their faces. She says she told no one about the rape.

“I told absolutely no one,” she says. “What do I say if I don’t know who it was? That was part of it. The other part was the shame.”

It was only after meeting Velasco four years ago that Chamorro began to address the trauma she had felt for decades with a psychologist. Since then she has helped others.

“I felt protected, like I have someone to count on, that I’m not alone like a lot of women who have suffered more than I have,” says Chamorro. “I want to make sure that these women can join us.”

But the work of Mujeres Sembrando Vida has become increasingly difficult amid a resurgence of violence in Colombia. The Montes de María region is contested territory used by armed groups for drug trafficking.

Diana Chamorro shows some of the fabric products her group have created in El Carmen de Bolívar
Diana Chamorro shows some of the fabric products her group have created in El Carmen de Bolívar, Colombia. Profits go to a ‘solidarity savings fund’ to help women in emergencies. Photograph: Megan Janetsky

People say they felt some relief after the government struck a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) in 2016, which offered respite to the fighting. But the peace process has fallen apart as different groups vie for territory, says Elizabeth Dickinson, a Colombia analyst for International Crisis Group.

The militia, Clan del Golfo, or Gulf Clan, and a handful of smaller gangs control the Montes de María.

“Instead of one dominant group, you have three dominant groups [in Montes de María],” Dickinson says. “Then everyone wants a piece of the pie, and the ones who suffer are the civilian population.”

Activists like Velasco are constantly under threat. In Colombia, at least 1,205 social leaders have been murdered since the peace accords were signed in 2016, according to Bogotá-based thinktank Indepaz.

Velasco says she has received about 500 death threats via message, 100 by phone and five written threats on her door. The threats often make reference to rape, she says.

Yirley Velasco in El Carmen de Bolívar, Colombia
Yirley Velasco has two state-assigned bodyguards when she visits rural communities. Photograph: Megan Janetsky

Sitting in her backyard under a security camera that the authorities have installed, she reads aloud a recent text. “Yirley Velasco, we are going to kill you, we have a lot of people all around you … We’re going to kill your mother and entire family if you stay here. We’ll give you two days for you to leave … we’re the Clan del Golfo.”

When she drives she is accompanied by two state-assigned bodyguards in a truck with bullet-proof windows.

Despite the risks, Velasco and Chamorro aim to expand their work. “We want to bring [new women] with us to help clear their minds so they can live in better conditions, tell their stories, and so their wounds can heal.”

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Sierra Leone abolishes death penalty | Global development

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Sierra Leone has become the latest African state to abolish the death penalty after MPs voted unanimously to abandon the punishment.

On Friday the west African state became the 23rd country on the continent to end capital punishment, which is largely a legacy of colonial legal codes. In April, Malawi ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional, while Chad abolished it in 2020. In 2019, the African human rights court ruled that mandatory imposition of the death penalty by Tanzania was “patently unfair”.

Of those countries that retain the death penalty on their statute books, 17 are abolitionist in practice, according to Amnesty International.

A de facto moratorium on the use of the death penalty has existed in Sierra Leone since 1998, after the country controversially executed 24 soldiers for their alleged involvement in a coup attempt the year before.

Under Sierra Leone’s 1991 constitution, the death penalty could be prescribed for murder, aggravated robbery, mutiny and treason.

Last year, Sierra Leone handed down 39 death sentences, compared with 21 in 2019, according to Amnesty, and 94 people were on death row in the country at the end of last year.

Rhiannon Davis, director of the women’s rights group AdvocAid, said: “It’s a huge step forward for this fundamental human right in Sierra Leone.

“This government, and previous governments, haven’t chosen to [put convicts to death since 1998], but the next government might have taken a different view,” she said.

“They [prisoners] spend their life on death row, which in effect is a form of torture as you have been given a death sentence that will not be carried out because of the moratorium, but you constantly have this threat over you as there’s nothing in law to stop that sentence being carried out.”

Davis said the abolition would be particularly beneficial to women and girls accused of murdering an abuser.

“Previously, the death penalty was mandatory in Sierra Leone, meaning a judge could not take into account any mitigating circumstances, such as gender-based violence,” she said.

Umaru Napoleon Koroma, deputy minister of justice, who has been involved in the abolition efforts, said sentencing people on death row to “life imprisonment with the possibility of them reforming is the way to go”.

Across sub-Saharan Africa last year Amnesty researchers recorded a 36% drop in executions compared with 2019 – from 25 to 16. Executions were carried out in Botswana, Somalia and South Sudan.

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[Ticker] EU to share 200m Covid vaccine doses by end of 2021

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The European Commission announced it is on track to share some 200 million doses of vaccines against Covid-19 before the end of the year. It says the vaccines will go to low and middle-income countries. “We will be sharing more than 200 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines with low and middle-income countries by the end of this year,” said European commission president Ursula von der Leyen.

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Kermadec Islands Region Hit By Magnitude 6.0 Earthquake, EMSC Says

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Asia & Pacific

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The subtropical island arc is situated northeast of New Zealand’s North Island. The region is located in the Ring of Fire, a seismically active zone that is regularly shaken by powerful earthquakes.

A 6.0-magnitude earthquake has hit the Kermadec Islands region in the Pacific Ocean at 12:51:28.4 UTC, EMSC reported on Saturday.

The powerful seismic activity, reported 1,002 km south of Nuku‘alofa, Tonga, was registered at a depth of two kilometres.

The islands are part of New Zealand that is located in a seismically active zone known as the Ring of Fire and regularly suffers from powerful earthquakes. On 22 February 2011, the 6.2 magnitude earthquake hit New Zealand’s city of Christchurch, leaving 185 people dead and more than 1,500 injured.



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