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Colombia's Gender Problem

By Sara Lisa Ørstavik & Andrés Lizcano R. 

Andrés Jaramillo is the owner of Andrés Carne de Res in Bogotá, Colombia, one of Latin America’s best restaurants, and one which American travelers frequent regularly. A prominent restaurateur who has been featured in the New York Times, Jaramillo would appear to represent cosmopolitan, forward-thinking Colombia. But his recent and very public comments about a rape incident reveal dangerous views on women that permeate Colombian culture.

Responding to a woman’s allegations that she had been raped in the restaurant parking lot on November 2, Jaramillo made these remarks during an interview last week: 

“Let’s study what happens with a 20 year-old girl that arrives with her girlfriends, left by her father to god’s goodwill. She arrives dressed with a coat and a miniskirt underneath—well, what’s she playing at? And then, in order to absolve her sins she tells her father that she’s been raped.”  

Unforgivable remarks like these, which made national and international news, are emblematic of Colombia’s gender gap. Progressing from the status of a nearly failed state, Colombia has made impressive strides in economic development that now places it in an enviable place in global markets. But beneath the country’s rosy modernization narrative is a disturbing tale of violence against women, violations of women's rights, and entrenched gender inequity. 

According to a recent national study, 37 percent of married women have been physically abused by their husbands. Ten percent of those women report having been raped. Six percent of the women surveyed have been raped by someone other than their husband. 

Violence against women in Colombia is not only common, it often goes unpunished. 

Only 21 percent of physically abused women reported visiting a doctor or health centre for treatment and information, according to the same study. Of those that did seek help, a full third were not informed about possibilities for placing a formal complaint. 

Seeking medical support or reporting abuse to authorities carries risks too. Disturbing stories of abuse and degrading treatment by medical practitioners and police are all too common, showing a second victimization. With a low probability of winning their case in court (impunity for reported cases of violence against women is at 86 percent), women are implicitly and explicitly discouraged from seeking help and justice. 

These problems are difficult to address in a male dominated political system and society. With only 12 percent of seats in national parliament held by women, Colombia ranks 106th out of 187 countries, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. One in ten citizens agrees that “an adequate education for girls is one that develops their roles as mothers and wives”, and job openings are openly discriminatory. 

According to the United Nations Development Program’s Gender Inequality Index, Colombia ranks 91 out of 186 countries in gender equity, which puts it below the Latin American and Caribbean regional average and below countries like Oman, Libya, Bahrain, and Myanmar. Further, the country’s Attorney General Alejandro Ordóñez has received widespread critique (including a Constitutional Court ruling) for not providing true, complete, and reliable information on sexual and reproductive health for women. 

This political context, where even Colombia’s leaders are thwarting gender progress, may make Jaramillo’s remarks unsurprising, but they are no less wrong. His comments, as with many others, implicitly blame a woman for a rape. They are void of any questions or discerning thoughts about the alleged male rapist. Recent media on the issue received hundreds of reader comments defending Jaramillo or echoing his attitudes. Some commentators insisted that his business acumen was a reason to indulge his comments. One column even advocated for people to forget his mistake because justifying rape is so common and because there are “more relevant issues” to address, such as white-collar crimes.  

All this reflects a society which is not yet conscious of the gravity of the gender issues it is facing. Unless such reactions are called out and opposed, by someone other than a minority group of women’s advocates, there is little hope that future rape victims will feel comfortable seeking help from a doctor, reporting their case to the police, or hiring a (probably male) lawyer to tell their story in front of a group of (probably male) judges.

Incidents like these are reminiscent of last December’s gang rape in Delhi, after which the young woman died. The tragedy brought attention to how victims of rape in India are often blamed not only in court, but also by their own families. 

In some cases, Indian women have to undergo the invasive, demeaning procedure of “finger testing” - a barbaric practice whereby doctors determine whether or not woman was raped, and whether or not she had consented. Unsurprisingly, the conviction rate for rape cases in the country is extremely low (25 percent in 2011). All these factors discourage Indian women from denouncing sexual crimes.

Of course, the situation is different in Colombia. There are no finger tests, and familial attitudes towards a woman who has been raped are, on average, not as demeaning as in India. But, as Natalia Orduz, one of the organizers of a protest in front of Jaramillo’s restaurant last Sunday, explains: “the ruling class here feels very modern and cosmopolitan because they travel and study abroad, but they still have a very archaic mentality.” 

According to Orduz, the protest was meant to bring attention to harmful social attitudes and gender stereotypes. During the protest, people painted on the sidewalk, played music, displayed posters advocating for women’s rights, all while wearing miniskirts to combat the surprisingly widespread fallacy that a woman’s clothing is an invitation for attack. 

Though Jaramillo quickly apologized after seeing the reactions to his comments on social media, he did nothing more. He missed an opportunity to show respect towards women and their rights. Business will resume as usual, the media coverage will subside. But can Colombia afford to forget the consistent violence more than half of its population endures? 

For the country’s development narrative to be complete, gender inequities and stereotypes need to be visibly challenged in the public debate. Gender inequities can begin to be addressed by ensuring the existing legal protections for victims of gender violence are properly applied, more women are appointed to political leadership positions, and women’s needs are a government priority reflected in the budget. But to make real inroads on these monumental issues, social attitudes need to be brought to the 21st century. Colombia’s influential public figures, especially its men, must serve as examples for gender justice: by refraining from participating in and by denouncing disparaging discourse that reinforce antiquated social attitudes about the rightful roles of men and women in society. Furthermore, policies should aim at actively communicating and engaging with citizens to educate them about the social construction of gender roles that are keeping the country back.

Today is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and Colombia’s public figures in politics and business have a renewed chance to contribute to their country’s progress. Let’s hope they will not miss it. 

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Sara Lisa Orstavik is a masters candidate in public affairs at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. She specializes in gender policies and development.

Andrés Lizcano R. is communications intern at Reboot and a graduate of Columbia University and Sciences Po Paris.

[Photo courtesy of UN Women]

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