December 3, 2020

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The rape of Colombia’s indigenous children

Indigenous women are often the victims of sexual violence in Colombia, but the gang rape of a young girl by soldiers shocked the country. Unfortunately, it was not an isolated incident.

“In raping this girl, security forces abused our sister and abused Mother Earth. They have gravely injured Colombia’s indigenous community,” says Johny Onogama Queragama, leader of the indigenous Embera Chami group. 

On June 23, seven soldiers from the Colombian army gang raped a young girl near the autonomous territory of the Ebera Chami, close to the city of Pereira at the base of the Andes.

On July 2, Colombian Army Commander General Eduardo Zapatiero was forced to publicly admit that since 2016 some 118 incidents of sexual violence against minors have been or are still being investigated. The incidents have taken place both within Colombia and abroad.

“I would like to make one thing clear,” says the young Onogama when talking with DW, “the Colombian government must guarantee that justice will be delivered and that no indigenous will ever be injured again.”

Women have started to make their protests in public, with posters, singing and dancing

Maria Camila Correa says this most recent incident “is a clear example of the invisibility of gender-specific violence [in Colombian society], especially against indigenous women.” Correa is a lawyer and an expert on gender-based violence at Del Rosario University in Bogota. She points out that this recent story comes on the heels of another, in which a young girl from the Nukak Maku tribe in Guaviare, a remote jungle area, was raped by members of the military in 2019.  

Another case that shocked the nation was the murder of the indigenous 7-year-old girl, Yuliana Samboni. The perpetrator was the renowned architect Rafael Uribe Noguera, who abducted, raped and then killed the girl from the Yanacona tribe on December 6, 2016. The child had come to the capital, Bogota, with her family after they fled guerrillas in the western province of Cauca.

Indigenous rights only exist on paper

“They force us out of our homes and bring us into these concrete jungles,” says Johny Onogama. He says the history of the Embera people is one of harassment, displacement, the threat of violence from armed groups, the killing of its leaders and the rape of its women and children.

Many indigenous people complain they are being driven out, and away from their traditional lives

“Indigenous people in Colombia enjoy a number of protections anchored in the constitution. But those protections are not upheld,” says attorney Correa. Speaking of the recent case of the young Embera girl, she says the most perfidious aspect of the crime is that, “Representatives of the state raped her, even though their responsibility was to protect her and her community.”

Asked if these are isolated cases, Diana Quigua, told DW, “No, not by any means.” Quigua is a legal expert at the National University of Colombia in Bogota and a member of the indigenous Cubeo tribe. She is also active in the Colombian human rights organization Dejusticia.

The rapes started when the soldiers arrived

Quigua says that Dejusticia and other civic and human rights organizations have been documenting cases of sexual violence against indigenous women for the past 12 years as part of a larger roundtable on women and armed conflict. “The long road of suffering among indigenous women in the Amazon began when soldiers arrived to fight guerrillas,” says Quigua. She says after the soldiers arrived more and more girls under the age of 14 were showing up with unwanted pregnancies and others were taken to Brazil by human traffickers.

Many indigenous women have little contact with the outside world — and no real means to make their voice heard

Speaking with Semana magazine after the murder of 7-year-old Yuliana Samboni, media analyst Omar Rincon said, “Media outlets report on the rapes as if they were covering a soccer match.” Manuela Chamorro, who conducted a study on Embera living on the streets of Bogota, agreed with Rincon’s criticism when speaking with DW: “Indigenous groups are fed up with camera crews showing up after each crime without ever bothering to ask what the group thinks or what it might need.”

Looking at the situation, Embera leader Johny Onogama Queragama draws a bitter conclusion: The 2016 peace treaty ended the civil war between the government and guerrillas, but “the war against us kept going.” Moreover, he says, “Added to the pain brought on by the rape of our children, is the hunger that has come with the coronavirus pandemic.” In desperation, he asks: “Do you know how we can get the government to help us?”

(DW)