This past weekend, the Venezuelan Guard killed four protesters and wounded hundreds of others who were trying to bring humanitarian aid across the border. The Trump administration has been trying to get food, medicine and other supplies to impoverished Venezuelans — which President Nicolás Maduro has refused, arguing that it’s an attempt to undermine his leadership and the nation’s sovereignty. Meanwhile, according to the UNHCR, more than 3 million Venezuelans have already fled the country, and hundreds more cross the borders every day.
But many more humanitarian and security crises roil the Venezuela-Colombia border than just the aid blockade, argued political scientist Annette Idler in the Conversation.
That’s what my research is finding as I look into women’s experiences with violence for the Conpeace project along the Colombian border with Venezuela. Women are suffering extreme levels of assault, kidnapping and other violence, given the combination of the Venezuelan migration and Colombia’s ongoing armed conflict, which continues despite the uneasy peace with the FARC. With most media outlets focused on the aid-delivery standoff and the political turmoil between Maduro and the opposition, almost no international attention is focused on what’s happening to women.
Colombia has its own background of violence
The 2016 Peace Accords officially ended the 52-year armed conflict between the FARC-EP and Colombian government — and some guerrillas demobilized in the Catatumbo region, a far-flung part of the country that they had occupied. Almost immediately, armed groups — right-wing militias and left-wing rebels — began competing to claim the now-abandoned territory, afflicting the region with more crime and violence.
The 2018 war between two of these factions, the ELN and EPL, left hundreds dead and missing, with thousands more forced to leave. The Victims’ Unit registered a 302 percent increase in the number of victims over 2017.
Here’s how I did my research
Now add the Venezuelan migration crisis, which is so extreme that most migrants arrive with only the clothes on their back and now useless, hyperinflated Venezuelan currency in their pockets.
My research is based on interviews conducted in Cucuta with Venezuelan migrant women, members of civil society organizations, humanitarian workers and government officials. Over the coming months, it will expand to other border towns, to get a more complete picture of gender violence along the length of the frontier.
Thousands of desperate Venezuelan women — many educated professionals — turn to sex work to survive. One such woman told me, “I arrived with my young daughter and I simply couldn’t find work, so one day I said to myself, ‘I have to go into the street, because otherwise we won’t eat.’ ” Regardless of whether they engage in sex work, women endure men sexually harassing and verbally abusing them, attacking them as dirty foreigners and pressing them for sex while they work as waitresses or cleaners.
The armed conflict brings other highly risky situations. For example, trochas — the hundreds of places where it’s possible to cross the border illegally — are controlled by armed groups. These men charge bribes; if a female migrant doesn’t have money, I am told, sex is demanded as payment.
Both Venezuelan men and women are increasingly recruited — sometimes forcibly, as I’ve found in my interviews — into armed groups that operate on both sides of the border. Women are required to cook, clean, harvest coca and sexually service male combatants.
Sex workers in metropolitan Cucuta told me it is widely known that you can make more money if you go into rural Catatumbo to work in the camps of armed groups. On the other hand, they added, the risks are higher. A woman who runs a charitable foundation for migrants said that the combatants “are more aggressive, they are more violent. [If a group of] 30 girls go there, maybe 28 come back. The others are missing.”
Getting data in dire conditions
Human rights groups know that they have been unable to document the full extent of sex- and gender-based violence. Venezuelan migrants are afraid of reporting crimes to Colombian justice institutions, for fear of being deported because of irregular migration status, they tell me. Few have accurate information about their rights to access police and institutional support. Many arrive without family or support networks; if they go missing, there is no one to look for them.
Colombian women living in the conflict zones fear the armed groups that control their towns and rural areas will retaliate if they report violence. Even if they do want to report sexual violence, it’s difficult; the Colombia government doesn’t have state offices or police outposts in rural Catatumbo, and the women often have difficulty finding transportation to the urban centers.
One woman I interviewed — a Colombian who fled to Venezuela to escape Colombia’s armed conflict during the early 2000s, and then returned in 2016 — did report her paramilitary rapist to local authorities in a remote border region. She told me she wasn’t believed until the all-male committee reviewed her hospital examination results. Even then, she was told not to leave town and that she would be violently punished if she told anyone else. She now lives in a nearby city and fears her attacker will one day find and kill her and her children.
Given the pervasive fear, silence and invisibility, we do not yet fully understand the dimensions of violence against women in the region. This is not a novel phenomenon; research shows that sexual violence was widely used as a tool of territorial and social control throughout Colombia’s armed conflict. Everyone I interviewed, from the UNHCR to the coordinator of a religious charity, told me about cases of human trafficking, femicide, and sexual violence. But no systematically collected data backs up these claims.
Meanwhile, an institutional representative told me, “Perpetrators take advantage of the fact that [women] are almost invisible.” They know that they won’t be held accountable and behave accordingly.
Julia Zulver (@JZulver) is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford whose research investigates women’s mobilization in violent contexts, with a focus on Colombia. —