The Laws of Silence
We see a fragile women delivering an impressive speech. The venue is Havana, where parties in the Colombian war are struggling for years to negotiate a peace that should end 52 years of bloody conflict. The women is standing alone in front of government officials and representatives of the FARC sitting at both sides of the U-shaped negotiation table. The issue is one that haunts ten thousands of women and men in Colombia. It is an issue that has caught international public attention over the last decades – but an issue that very few individuals dare to talk about in their own private life.
Jineth Bedoya Lima, the woman speaking, has the courage to bring this explosive problem forward at the heart of the negotiations. War rape is known from the Bosnian war, the ISIS’s sale of Yezidi women as sexual slaves in Iraq and Syria, and Boko Haram’s abduction of schoolgirls in Nigeria. Jineth, journalist and activist, speaks about the plight of women who have suffered war rape in Colombia, and the need to address this if lasting peace is to be found.
In the fall of 2016 peace was finally signed between president Santos and the rebels of FARC, hopefully ending the long years of violent conflict in Colombia. In the course of this brutal war tens of thousands were killed and countless Colombian women faced the use of rape as a weapon of war – a weapon used by the FARC, by the government military and by many uncontrolled paramilitary groups that roamed the country. People in Colombia are divided: should peace prevail at the cost of justice? Should this war-rape be forgotten and forgiven? Or is justice the ultimate and necessary condition for a lasting peace?
Laws of Silence
The film takes us through the complexity of sexual violence and its effects. Rape causes more than pain and loss, it brings shame and embarrassment, and it destroys relations in families and communities. War rape is an effective means of terror because it sends a message: “We do this not only to this woman. This woman is your entire group. You are violated. You are powerless. You are ours. And, we can do this to you again and again at any time.[i]” We see the women and girls who have been violated struggling with the living death of surviving rape.
The message of war rape is loud and clear, but the response is often silence. The victims, ashamed and powerless, cannot speak. They are haunted by the experience and need to find ways to cope with this. We see how women are trying to find answers, trying to find ways to be able to move forward. Many feel that the first step still needs to be taken, even after many years for some: the silence needs to be broken to recognize the harm done. Repeating the stories of abuse causes pain in itself, and what is urgently needed is joint ideas to actually heal and move forward.
The perpetrators are still around. We understand in the film how they come from all parties in the conflict – government soldiers, private militias, left wing rebels, drug lords armies. These men and boys also need to come to terms with what they have done. Shame and fragile relations in communities where victims and perpetrators are well known to each other blocks effective healing.
Jineth Bedoya Lima
Jineth is a journalist for the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo. She was kidnapped when she visited the most infamous Colombian prison for an interview on the subject of violence against women in 2000. She was tortured and raped on more occasions when she did not stop her reporting. “Stay away from us, this is a warning for the press,” was the message from the perpetrators. Jineth continues her fight for justice and has found strength in her activism.
“For a long time I believed suicide was the only way out in this life,” Jineth says, “but now I have found how to give new meaning to my life. I can give a face and a voice to the victims and I want to fight for these women and girls to get a better future. The worst already happened to me, I hope they’ll have a better future than me.”
Jineth’s dedication brought her fame and international recognition when she was presented the Women of Courage Award by Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2012. This recognition also means she is under constant threat and stress, living a hidden life, protected by bodyguards wherever she goes.
Through Jineth’s narrative and work we see how women and men try to carve out ways forward. We see how the legal system is not sufficient to deal with the problem. Colombian is full of lawyers and has excellent laws to protect rights of women and LGBTs. But the laws are not implemented and the perpetrators may go free. Other ways have to be developed to help people overcome the trauma. Survivors need to speak, and perpetrators of all different political sides have to come forward. Some of them have started depicting their pasts in violent paintings, in a project by artist Juan Manuel Echavarría.
In the film Jineth meets women who exploring new ways to find justice and peace, and she tries to support this. She’s a journalist but also a woman of action. She created an annual national day to remember and honour the victims of sexual violence. Her friends have chosen 25 May, the day Jineth herself was kidnapped by her rapists. We see also how Jineth organizes a march to El Salado, a village where one of the worth massacres took place, in order to generate national and international attention.
The film aims to be more than a documentary about existing initiatives: the making of the film itself is meant to contribute to the efforts to find justice and healing for the survivors of war rape. Now that peace agreements have been signed at the end of 2016, the fate of these survivors is a major concern for a lasting peace for all. The making of a film about this very sensible topic is a way for people to come forward and break the silence.
As an investigating journalist Jineth talks to victims, perpetrators and other activists. She reflects on the position of both victims and perpetrators, and also on her own position as an activist. She knows that perpetrators are still around, and many of them may escape trial and justice. The women, and also the perpetrators, need to find ways to bring peace into their personal lives.
Activists like Jineth pay a high price for their efforts: they are under threat and have to keep a balance between transparency for the just cause and caution for their own safety. The film shows how difficult this is. And since her speech in Havana and her award in Washington she’s sometimes met with jealousy and even suspicion.
In the course of 2017 we keep following Jineth, and through her we meet others who find courage in participating in the making of the film. They share their stories, concerned about the danger this causes in a society where impunity is one of the biggest challenges. But they are motivated because the film itself will be used to help others to talk about what happened, and find recognition and strength.