sexual violence around the world
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Sweeping sexual violence under the rug

What’s happened — and continues to happen — in Haiti, Colombia and Mexico should awaken our collective conscience about the use of women’s and girls’ bodies as a weapon of war

Violencia sexual en Colombia
A group of women protest as part of the global day of action for access to abortion, in Bogotá, Colombia, on September 28, 2022.Chepa Beltran (Getty Images)

Stigmatization, impunity, forced displacement, hate speech, the trafficking of women and girls, the breakdown of the social fabric. Pain.

Sexual violence continues to cause all of those things around the world, amid armed conflicts in Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America. The same invisible crime, the same collective tragedy that neither States nor societies have wanted to claim and put a stop to, even though it victimizes thousands of people each year.

For the third consecutive year, the report by the United Nations Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Pramila Patten, sounds the alarm about this barbarism that war continues to feed.

While it is true that there are countries that merit special attention, like Afghanistan, Mali, Sudan, Myanmar and Ukraine, other places are ticking time bombs because rape is hidden and virtually swept under the rug.

In the Americas, a continent that has always considered itself removed from the horrors of war in the Middle East and North and Central Africa, what has happened and continues to happen in Haiti, Colombia and Mexico should awaken the collective conscience about the use of women’s and girls’ bodies as a weapon of war.

In particular, the UN report emphasizes that entire communities are destabilized through the humiliation and stigma that sexual violence causes. The ways in which impunity perpetuates these illicit acts is even worse.

In addition to these nefarious elements, there is the digital universe, which was created to connect humanity and close inequality gaps. What has the potential to provide millions of women and girls from remote communities and regions the tools that could afford them opportunities has instead become a counterweight that disadvantages them. The chasm between them and those who can access digital tools to find secure information, health support networks, protocols for care in high-risk situations and basic- or intermediate-level education that improves their quality of life is increasingly wide.

Indeed, we are not at a remove from that. In Latin America, human trafficking organizations seek out digital tools to trade in girls and adolescents. Those who gain access to these tools run the risk of falling into that digital violence, which, in turn, fuels sexual violence.

At the same time, the region’s governments continue to fail to prioritize connectivity for ethnic groups, rural and peasant women and young people from peripheral neighborhoods in third-tier cities.

From the entire South American Pacific region to the Central American Caribbean, different conflicts shaped by drug trafficking and each country’s political interests have left the sexual violence that stems from such confrontations at the bottom of the list of priorities.

In fact, they do not even want to admit that it exists.

No one talks about the rapes that occur on the long journey made by migrants of all origins and nationalities in the Darien Gap, the border between Colombia and Panama. Each day, thousands try to cross an entire continent to get to the United States.

Nobody talks about the violations, at all levels, that the dictatorships of Venezuela and Nicaragua have covered up. As victims’ support groups have documented, state security forces commit many of these abuses.

No one speaks about the women and girls who have survived — or those who did not survive — and have been branded, like cattle, by Mexican drug cartel criminals. Their power and evil has gone beyond the country of the Aztecs and spread to El Salvador, Guatemala and Colombia. They’ve even infiltrated the security forces in Paraguay and Argentina.

And Haiti doesn’t even register in the region’s news. The crimes that local criminal organizations commit against girls and teenagers are the most persuasive weapon for controlling the country. In addition, women who belong to international human rights organizations have been warned about what will happen to them if they cross the border.

The hell of sexual violence is not so remote. Not when women no older than 20 are sold in Cartagena and Medellín (Colombia) by drug trafficking networks to the highest bidder and then end up in brothels in Alicante, Mallorca, the Canary Islands or Tenerife, Spain, as exploited, walking dead. Or they wind up in elite brothels in Greece and Russia, where teenagers kidnapped from Ukraine and Sudan are also sent.

It seems like a nightmare from which it is impossible to wake up. That’s what wars beyond guns, state-of-the-art rifles and missiles do. As Representative Pramila Patten’s report underscores, “rape is the reward for men with guns.”

But it would be a mistake to say that all is lost. You can take action, and it is not necessary to have political or economic power to do so. Journalism itself is the best avenue for deterrence. Today, remembering that as you read this text, a woman or girl is being trafficked or sexually abused should be reason enough to raise your voice. Remaining silent encourages those who use bodies as weapons. Raising your voice reminds the victims that they are not alone.

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