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painting of a bowl of fruit

The Medellín-born artist, Fernando Botero, has developed a unique style of art which focuses on proportionality and volume. Also known as ‘Boterismo’, his paintings depict fleshy corporeal forms, over-sized figures and objects. Some of his artwork is displayed in the old quarter (Candelaria) of Bogotá, an area of the city which itself feels somehow out of proportion; many of its narrow, labyrinth-like streets are teeming with crowds and tourists, the brightly coloured houses and restaurants with their peeling facades appear dwarfed by the new, high-rise developments that have been built close by. Looking at Botero’s paintings, and reflecting on the women whom I have met over the last week, made me think about the concepts of proportionality and dimensionality in relation to victimhood.

Comparing Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) and Colombia, the differences are stark. Although the Bosnian war ended more than 20 years ago, many survivors of conflict-related sexual violence are firmly entrenched in a victim role. They are not politically active and are primarily represented by NGOs who purport to speak on their behalf. In Colombia, in contrast, thanks to a strong women’s movement that has existed since the 1980s, the positionality of survivors of sexual violence is very different. Many are actively involved in women’s/feminist organizations, such as Ruta Pacifica de las Mujeres and Sisma Mujer, and some of them have become social leaders in their own right. The longevity of the Colombian conflict, which has lasted for over 50 years and is still ongoing – despite the signing of a peace agreement in 2016 between the government and the FARC – has significantly contributed to changing the dimensions of victimhood. In Colombia, in short, the concepts of victimhood and resistance are integrally linked. Women are resisting the patriarchal structures of Colombian society, the persistence of violence and they are denouncing crimes such as rape and femicide. This resistance necessarily carries risks. All of the survivors whom the CSRS team has met so far have faced death threats, and one of them has 24-hour police protection. One woman gave a chilling account of how the paramilitary who raped her subsequently tracked her down in the city where she is currently living. He broke into her house, ransacked it and wrote the words ‘I have found you’ on a mirror. Despite the threats that they face, these women remain highly committed to their work as activists and human rights defenders.

In the Colombian context, therefore, being a woman who has experienced sexual violence means so much more than being a victim. It also means being an actor, being an agent of possible change. This is a striking difference between BiH and Colombia in terms of the dimensionality of victimhood and what it signifies. It is also important not to overlook men who have experienced sexual violence. In Colombia, the use of sexual violence against men has particularly targeted gay and transgender men who do not sexually ‘conform’ to social norms and expectations. However, through the establishment of groups such as Colombia Diversa, the LGBT community is resisting such ‘corrective violence’ and fighting for its rights.

In light of all the above, it is striking that the word ‘resilience’ is seldom used in Colombia vis-à-vis individuals who have experienced sexual violence – or indeed any sort of violence related to the armed conflict. A team from the National Centre for Historical Memory in Bogotá explained that they do not use the word ‘resilience’ because it suggests that victims are doing well when the reality is that they continue to face a multitude of problems, from security threats to economic instability and lack of access to justice. Yet, resilience itself is a dimensional concept. Many survivors of sexual violence are engaged in resistance in order to bring about positive change, and the very fact of their resistance is itself an example of resilience.