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Women’s Rights in Colombia: Acid Attacks on the Rise

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Elizabeth Ruales remembers the moment it hit: “Like fire melting my skin,” she says. “An intense burn.”

The bucket of Agricol 50 was meant for use on a construction site. But early last year, the thirty-eight-year-old industrial inspector was attacked with the chemical liquid by an angry male worker named Jose Espinosa after she instructed him to use proper safety measures, causing burns on her face, neck, arms, and legs. More than a year later, the mother of two still has no vision in her left eye and wears a bandage that covers her left cheek, where her deepest wound still festers.

Since 2004, nearly a thousand attacks involving chemical agents and acids have been reported in Colombia, according to statistics kept by medical examiners. Because victims largely self-report, the number is likely much higher. The figures make the country one of the world’s capitals—and virtually the only site in the region—of this brutal form of violence that leaves victims disfigured and badly burned. Between 2010 and 2012, eighty-four percent of victims of acid attacks were women and 79.5 percent of aggressors were men.

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Indeed, as Colombia emerges from fifty years of armed conflict and guerrilla war, women face a disproportionate level of violence in an ingrained patriarchal social system that has long left them out. Feminism is still elusive in Colombia, where female human rights defenders and activists learn to live with threats of violence.

“In this country, we are used to the macho man and the subservient woman,” says Cecilia Lorena Barraza Morelle, coordinator of public policy in the Presidential Office for Women’s Equality. “This idea that a man is more powerful than a woman is part of our cultural tradition.”

But traditions, like ideas, have consequences. Sexual offenses nearly doubled since 2003. Cases of domestic physical violence saw a thirty percent rise in the same time frame. Acid has become a weapon of choice in the male effort to put and keep women in their place.

 

Like the rest of Latin America, Colombia was controlled by men from the very start. As the first European settlers arrived in what was then called “New Granada,” in the 1500s, they mixed with indigenous women, often through the use of force.

These relationships were fueled by chicha and aguardiente, says National University of Colombia historian Ricardo G. Rivadeneira, the alcohol consumed in large quantities in the countryside. Catholicism, by 1550 the dominant religion in the country, was also used to justify a male-dominated society.

“Go to any place, any town in Colombia, and you’ll find a church at the center of that town,” Rivadeneira says. “So you know the boss there has always been a man.”

In 1933, Colombia was ahead of many other countries in the region when it gave women the right to attend public universities (they weren’t allowed in private universities until the 1970s). But it was not until 1954 that Colombian women were given the right to vote, following twenty countries in the region that had already adopted the reform. Abortion was not decriminalized until 2006 (and only in the case of rape, risk of death to the mother, or malformations of the fetus), and it’s virtually impossible still to get an abortion under any circumstance.

“Sure, women can now vote, women are educated, women are divorcing, but these structural changes have happened in high classes,” Rivadeneira says. “In most of the country, there still remains undue cultural and economic dependence on men.”

In 2012, there were an average of 7.5 cases of domestic violence against women per hour, according to the women’s rights organization Sisma Mujer. Documented sexual offenses rose roughly fifty percent between 2003 and 2012, from about fourteen thousand to twenty-one thousand incidents. Experts still believe many violent acts against women go unreported, because victims stay silent our of fear of retaliation and in order to protect their family. Many women also have little knowledge about their rights.

“Colombia is a nation full of women who need to be healed,” says Waldistrudis Hurtado Minota, a gender specialist who’s worked with women in Afro-descendant and indigenous Colombian communities for thirty years, currently through the USAID-funded Afro-Colombian and Indigenous Program of the US nonprofit ACDI/VOCA. Many, she says, don’t know they have the right to denounce violence, or even that it’s wrong: “They think this violence is natural, just because they’re women. So any type of violence is considered part of daily life, or their fault. Many were just born into this.”

Ecuadorian sociologist and writer Santiago Recalde, who’s studied Colombia for many years, says the blending of violence with a heavily machista society is a dangerous mix, and one that hasn’t been widely studied or discussed in academic settings or brought to public debate: “Incidence of such violent crime, like an attack with acid, is the sign of a deep structural problem with cultural problems hidden in the background.”

Acid attacks are categorized as a “personal injury” under Colombian law, on par with assault. Of the attacks reported over the past ten years, experts say only three have resulted in prison sentences.

On March 6th of this year, a judge ruled that Jose Espinosa, Elizabeth Ruales’s attacker, “was not a threat” to society, and sentenced him to a prison term of one and a half years, on a charge of injury, which is a bailable offense. He is currently free.

 

Among all cases of sexual offense, domestic violence, and failure to pay alimony (spousal support) between 2009 and 2012, between eighty-one and ninety percent are in limbo. Among sexual harassment offenses, that number is ninety percent, according to Sisma Mujer, the women’s rights group.

Other common forms of violence that don’t get punished include public touching and intimidation. Following hundreds of claims of groping and harassment of women on public transportation in the capital, Bogotá, the city’s bus system, the TransMilenio, is currently testing a pilot program of female-only buses.

Laws to promote women’s equality are new in Colombia. It was only in 2000 that amendments to the Penal Code finally recognized sexual slavery as a crime. That same year, amendments deemed rape its own category of crime—as opposed to under broader categories of sexual violence—with harsher punishments. It wasn’t until 2008, through the landmark Law 1257, that the government guaranteed women a legal right to live without “any action or inaction that would cause death, pain or psychological, sexual, physical, economical or patrimonial suffering.”

Though that legislation has been widely lauded for its innovative and far-reaching regulations, on par with the highest international standards, five years after its passage, the government is still at work on the standards that enforce it.

For instance, the law assigns responsibility for local battered women’s shelters to municipal authorities. But without a policy to enforce compliance, these shelters have not been created.

“We have a law but no shelters,” says Isabel Londoño, a well-known women’s rights activist and the former director of the Colombian Congressional Caucus for Women. “So what do you do for women who are about to be killed by their husbands?”

(In May, the Colombian Senate passed a bill that seeks to guarantee access to the justice system for victims of sexual violence within the context of the armed conflict. The bill considers these crimes against humanity, and therefore not subject to a statute of limitations.)

In addition to auditing and compliance, attorney Maria Victoria Niño says the culture and sentencing surrounding laws must also change. “A general problem with the punishments for violent crime, like rape and abuse, is that they still come with minor sentences in the legal system. And if the accused pleads guilty and acts appropriately, the punishment keeps going down significantly.”

But the popularity of acid attacks to subordinate and punish women, and the unwillingness of authorities to punish the perpetrators, has caused a surge of outrage among many Colombians.

In late March, thirty-three-year-old businesswoman Natalia Ponce de León was attacked with acid outside her home in an upper-class Bogotá neighborhood, causing a national media frenzy. In the weeks following that attack, four more acid attacks were reported across the country; three of the victims were women. The sole male victim later died.

In response to the public outcry caused by this crime spree, legislators met with victims and offered to change the law to make committing an acid attack punishable by higher prison sentences.

But victims say acid attacks should be considered an act of torture or attempted murder. “I feel like I’ve been killed, even though I’m alive,” Elizabeth Ruales says, as she recounts the horrors of the year since the attack. “When someone commits such an abhorrent act, he has marked me and destroyed my life. This takes away everything that’s called being a human being.”

In addition to the aftereffects of the assault, Ruales receives threats to her life, and worrying phone calls and e-mails. Like many victims, she hasn’t had any medical procedures or reconstructive facial surgeries, because she can’t afford it.

She finally found support in a foundation for Colombian women victims of acid attacks established by the first reported victim, Gina Potes, who was attacked in 1996 and has since had twenty-six reconstructive surgeries. The foundation provides a space for women victims to gather and share their experiences and works to elevate the importance of the issue in the public sphere.

“The act of marking or maiming the face of a woman is to treat her like an object, a thing, a private property,” Recalde says. “To mark someone means that although you’re not with me, you’re always going to be with me.”

 

In a society obsessed with beauty and with male ownership of women, branding goes deep in Colombia, and takes many forms. Today it is the scar of acid. When ostentatious drug lords ran wild in the 1970s and ’80s, extravagant plastic surgery became the norm.

Dr. Lina Triana, a plastic surgeon in Cali, Colombia, says the impact of that era is still felt in practices and clinics across the country. Though most acid attack victims cannot afford reconstructive surgery, plastic surgery in Colombia is widespread.

According to data from the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ISAPS), in 2011 Colombia was among the top ten countries by number of plastic surgeries performed. When calculated by percentage of the population, it was among the top five.

The most common procedures in Colombia, according to the ISAPS, are liposuction and breast enhancements. Buttock enhancement is an increasingly popular procedure.

Triana, the first woman to serve as president of the Colombian Society of Plastic Surgery, says the surgeries used to be just for high-class women, but “today they’re for everybody.”

University medical school programs let residents provide free plastic surgery to people in low-income communities. Triana says many of her clients take out loans, or ask family members living in the United States to send money for their surgeries.

“Of course women are going to use beauty for power,” women’s rights activist Isabel Londoño says. “Having a chest is an instrument of domination, a way to defend yourself.”

“When you’re living in a patriarchal world you have two choices,” she says: “Get screwed by the culture or play inside of it.”

In Bogotá, twenty-nine-year-old Carolina Redondo Soto, a cash executive at Bancolombia Group, tells me she was pleasantly surprised to learn that a liposuction procedure is quite affordable—about $3,000. Last August, she took advantage of a national holiday, plus two additional days of work, to have the procedure done. She says it was her decision, and hers only, but she confesses that it is “demanding” to be a professional woman in Colombia.

“It requires you to be very well put together physically,” she says. “Hair, makeup, heels; you don’t have a choice.”

 

On a recent Friday morning, thirty career women gathered in Bogotá’s Lawyers Club at 7:30 a.m. for a breakfast discussion on work, ethics, and ambition. The theme of the chat, organized by Isabel Londoño and her Women for Colombia Foundation, was a new book by Colombian author Silvana Roiter on unconventional professional paths. Men were not allowed to attend.

Londoño, who holds a Ph.D. in public policy from Harvard University and is also the founder of Colfuturo, Colombia’s largest educational loan program, says that the key to the future for Colombian women is opening their eyes to new possibilities, letting them express their fears and desires, and encouraging their ambition.

Attendees at the breakfast discussed pressures they faced in their professional life and how to square jobs with the demands of work and family. In one exchange, a conversation arose on the intrusive questions asked of women about marital status and personal life in job interviews. Londoño informed the group that those questions are illegal and don’t need to be answered.

“The problem is that the majority of women don’t take an interest in their own situation,” she says. “Women who have a voice in Colombia are wealthy and faring well and the rest feel fragile so they protect the system in place and don’t raise their voice.”

Access to education is not the problem, she says. “Women are educated, but because there was never a feminist revolution, and never strong activism, the playing field never changed,” she says. “The patriarchal reality is still so ingrained in the world of politics, culture, and labor. Women aren’t getting anywhere, they’re just trying to survive.”

In the March congressional elections, women made up twenty-one of one hundred and two elected senators and twenty-eight of one hundred and sixty-six elected representatives. But none of them ran on a platform of women’s rights.

Londoño says she’s unfortunately not surprised that women are getting hurt as they “push their way” into positions of more power. “We have a deeply ingrained system that wants to keep people in place,” she says. “These acid attacks are a brutal way to try to keep women scared. And in many cases, it works.”

In a recent interview with the Colombian magazine Vanguardia, Lakshmi Puri, the UN assistant secretary for gender equality and the empowerment of women, said it’s important that Afro-descendant, indigenous, disabled, and poor women also “show the feminine face of poverty” in Colombia.

“What these women have in common is the persistence of different forms of violence [against them] . . . and a high level of impunity and tolerance,” she said. “It needs to be understood by women, men, boys, and girls that violence is not something normal.”

Isabel Londoño points out that Colombia’s independence from Spain involved the heroism of fearless women, like Policarpa Salavarrieta, a seamstress who served the Revolutionary Forces as a spy during the Spanish Reconquista. She was eventually arrested and executed, but today she is considered a national “heroine of independence.”

Elizabeth Ruales and the other visible victims of violence are today what Salavarrieta was in Colombia’s heroic past, Londoño says. “Life is not just lived throughout a pretty face,” she says. These victims “didn’t lose their voice, and they didn’t lose their power.”

Jessica Weiss is a freelance journalist based in Bogotá.

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