“They sell the tragic story instead of the critique”: Colombian Media’s Coverage of Sexual Violence

Justicia! Justicia! Justicia!

The voices rang out in the square in front of northern Bogota’s military headquarters as evening fell on June 29. A small group of women and girls held signs proclaiming “Las Vidas Indígenas Importan” (“Indigenous Lives Matter”), “Se Respeta Mi Cuerpo” (“Respect My Body”), and “Las Mujeres Son Seres Humanos Completos” (“Women are Full Human Beings”).

Led by women from the Embera Chamí tribe — from Colombia’s northwest mountainous regions — the feminist collectives joined in chants of “Ni Una Mas” (“Not One More”) and “Ni Una Menos” (“Not One Less”), and sang the popular Chilean feminist protest anthem “Un Violador en Tu Camino” (“A Rapist in Your Path”) as well as “Canción sin Miedo” (“Fearless Song”) by Mexican artist Vivir Quintana. Their shouts that day echoed cries across the country as hundreds throughout Colombia defied quarantine orders to protest femicide and gender violence.

Four days earlier, on June 25, seven officers in Colombia’s military pleaded guilty to gang-raping a 13-year-old girl from that tribe; six had participated in the crime while one stood watch. A mere five days later, reports emerged of a 15-year-old girl who was raped and held hostage for five days by members of the military last September. She was from the Nukak Makú tribe — the last known nomadic Indigenous community in the Amazon.

Momentum from both girls’ cases prompted other Indigenous women to speak out against military violence in their territories: as national outrage escalated, women from the Arhuaca tribe in Colombia’s northeast also denounced the military for habitual sexual violence and harassment committed against them.

While the media covered their stories in almost exploitative detail, it failed across the board to highlight the victims’ ethnicity and race, thereby following a long tradition of obscuring who in the country is disproportionately subjected to sexual violence, as well as hiding the underlying structural causes that leave them most vulnerable.

A Violent Erasure

While many activists made a point to highlight the girls’ ethnic identities, the media largely ignored the intersecting identities at play. News stories instead focused on the sexual violence, subsuming it under a narrative of gender-based violence without mentioning the specific manifestation of racism when armed forces occupy Indigenous or Afro-Colombian territories.

The few publications that mentioned that Indigenous and Afro-Colombian women are more vulnerable to this type of violence did not explicitly condemn the sexual abuse as racist.

“The media educates communities,” says Angela Yesenia Olaya Requene, an Afro-Colombian anthropologist at Harvard who specializes in forced migration and armed conflict. By ignoring the racial dimension of crimes — and, more particularly, sexual and gender-based crimes — “the media becomes complicit in this structural racism.”

She believes that one reason why media could be omitting this crucial part of victims’ identities is because it would then “contradict [the media’s] own spaces of power, alliances, and connections in some cases.”

Society is shaped by the media, which, Olaya says, implicates the media in the ways it covers or visibilizes certain populations. It is then responsible for perpetuating deeply racist stereotypes, carrying on a brutal tradition that can be traced back to — if not directly inherited from — colonial times.

An Old Colonial Violence

Indigenous women at the protest shouted that they were not “animals” but “human beings too,” citing a long history of dehumanization from colonizers.

When Spanish settlers arrived in the territory now called Colombia in 1499, they systematically mistreated, abused, and assassinated Indigenous populations, justifying that Indigenous communities were inferior to European “civilized” societies. Sexual violence was a regular tool of domination to exercise power over Indigenous women and their land.

Colombia’s government currently recognizes 102 tribes within the borders of the country. Though the 1991 Constitution specifically called for a “racial democracy” founded on multiculturalism, Indigenous tribes have denounced historical maltreatment that continues to this day.

Upon hearing reports of the two cases, Indigenous leaders voiced how the crimes could be contextualized by a “genocide against Indigenous communities.”

“What the country most offers the Indigenous communities is violence,” says Leonor Zalabata Torres, an Indigenous Arhuaca leader and defender of human rights. “Violence makes waves in history; it rises and falls but always has been present.”

'Penetration' into Territories of Ethnic Groups

The majority of Colombia’s Indigenous, Afro-Colombian and Black communities live in regions that have been marked by armed conflict. Because those largely mountainous regions are rich in natural resources, such as gold or coca plants (used to make cocaine), they have been subject to illicit mining, narcotrafficking, and decades of violence between armed rebel forces, paramilitaries, and the Colombian army.

Communities residing there, who are disproportionately Afro-Colombian, Black, and Indigenous, live in the highest levels of poverty in the country. Governmental infrastructure — public schools, accessible healthcare, transportation — has been conspicuously absent.

Colombia has a “racialized geography” that excludes communities based on a variety of economic, social, political and cultural disparities, according to researchers at the National University of Colombia. While the Andean region of mostly white and mixed Colombians holds the country’s political and economic power, ethnic communities are relegated to the geographic and economic margins.

In Colombia, Indigenous, Afro-Colombian and Black women and children are especially vulnerable to sexual violence from military forces for their gender, race, ethnicity, and — not least of all — their proximity to armed conflict.

For over five decades, Colombia’s history was marked by armed conflict between the government and the FARC, a revolutionary communist group founded by small farmers and land workers determined to fight against staggering inequalities. After over 260,000 people were killed, and more than 5 million were displaced, the two sides signed a peace treaty in 2016 calling for the reintegration of former FARC guerrillas. In reality, however, the government has barely implemented or outright neglected to enact hundreds of the initiatives from the accord, and other armed groups such as the ELN — the National Liberation Army, the oldest guerrilla army in Colombia with Marxist-Leninist origins — have asserted control in regions formerly occupied by the FARC.

Findings from a 2017 report on sexual violence during that conflict by the Center of Historic Memory — a national institution tasked with compiling testimonies from the armed conflict —concluded that, “Sexual violence is both a metaphor for domination and penetration in the territories of ethnic groups.”

Activists agree that recognizing structural racism is that much more essential to finding sustainable solutions and justice.

“Naming the act [as] a manifestation of racism allows us to place intersectional violences of race, gender, class, and territory on the table,” says Olaya. “If we talk about racism, we are making evident the racial discrimination for Indigenous women and communities, and also putting into debate: Why is the military present in these territories? What is happening in those places that cause the military to be there?”

In the report, Indigenous and Afro-Colombian women reiterated that sexual violence has persisted since colonization and continues as a tool of subjugation over them and their territories.

Though the army has excused the current cases that have surfaced as outliers, or “bad apples,” statistics reveal this type of violence is entrenched in society. Colombia’s military general Eduardo Zapatiero admitted that 118 military officers and soldiers have been investigated for sexual violence against children since 2016. He did not specify the children’s racial identities, once again erasing ethnicity in the official report of sexual crimes.

According to a 2015 report by the National Organization of Indigenous in Colombia, 86 percent of reported cases of sexual violence against Indigenous women in armed conflict were at the hands of the Colombian military; 14 percent were from the Autodefensas Unidas en Colombia (AUC), a paramilitary group primarily funded by wealthy landowners and businessmen that was present in strategic regions for decades.

Of course, it is important to recognize these statistics do not accurately measure the real number of crimes. In zones along the Pacific coast, where social leaders are routinely assassinated, speaking out against armed forces can be a death sentence. The same regions in which most social leaders are murdered also hold the highest percentage of Black and Indigenous communities.

Sexual violence is often taboo or even normalized in conflict zones, and denouncing sex crimes can be traumatic for victims. Zalabata says she’s skeptical of statistics, citing their unreliability in these circumstances and opting instead to “believe the pain of the people.”

It can also be dangerous for victims to speak out. “If you denounce [the crime], you could be threatened, punished, or violated. And that makes access to justice and the development of statistics difficult,” says Olaya. In 2001, the feminist advocacy nonprofit Casa de la Mujer found that, in a sample of 2,500 women who were victims of sexual abuse during the armed conflict, more than 82 percent had not reported the crime for fear of retaliation.

The public’s roles in revictimization

When news reports of the Embera Chamí girl’s case were released, Indigenous, Black and Afro-Colombian collectives denounced the omission of her racial identity as racism and lamented how their communities are most vulnerable to these structural acts of violence.

“When the media talks about ethnicity,” says Afro-Colombian student activist and journalist María Camila Duarte Gómez, “[it] unconsciously generates and perpetuates this image of vulnerability in Indigenous communities.”

Consequently, many Colombians fixated on the victims’ fragility, lumping their cases into other cases of femicide or gendered discrimination so that they could share a semblance of communion with the girls.

Posts by white urban Colombians lamented “the pain of being a woman.” A viral image in which half the profile of an Indigenous woman was combined with the user’s face began circulating on social media. Several white Colombian women, and even a few privileged Colombian men, also changed their profile photo to their faces blended with the Indigenous woman’s.

“It was performative,” says Gómez. “They placed themselves in the center of what was happening.”

Like the recent #challengeaccepted hashtag on Instagram, in which what began as a campaign on femicide in Turkey was co-opted into an opportunity to post black-and-white selfies of empowerment, users diverted attention from the original message to themselves.

For Gómez, one interpretation of the viral photo is, “The Indigenous girl isn’t on the same level as me, so I’ll put my face next to hers to elevate her so we are seen as equals.”

She acknowledges there are many ways to read that photo, and both she and Olaya agree that forming alliances with privileged people is necessary for anti-racist work. “But they can help without placing their profile in the center of attention,” she says.

But without the media reforming how it covers violence against Black and Indigenous bodies, public perception will always be skewed to hone its attention on what looks like the inherent victimhood of these communities.

“The media that deals with these issues still does so without going beyond the victimizing fact,” said Isabel Gonzalez in an interview with the University of Antioquia about her new project “Silenced Bodies,” a multimedia documentation of first-person narratives from women social leaders in territories decimated by armed conflict. “They only focus on [the pain] and, in doing so, make the victims feel revictimized.”

A call to action for media

Gonzales hopes that, by telling the stories through the voices and perspectives of the women who have been mistreated or abused, society can sensitize itself to these injustices and develop real empathy.

Zalabata did not read media reports on the Embera girl’s case, claiming that media treats such stories “as if to create morbid excitement of what happens to us.”

“This generates a ‘charitableness’ for Indigenous communities, saying, ‘Look, they’re being killed’ without concrete actions that state that this way of treating people is unacceptable,” she says.

“The way in which the story was published was the worst way to revictimize the Embera girl,” says Gómez. Because their focus was on the horrifying details of her rape and not the systems that allowed for it to happen in the first place, Gómez says that the media failed to connect why stories like this keep repeating.

“They sell the tragic story instead of the critique,” she concludes.

Rather than emphasize the victim’s helplessness, the media has the responsibility and opportunity to speak of larger structural powers at play. Zalabata says that “racial discrimination must be combatted with education, with culture.” While she believes the media could be an effective educational tool, she does not believe there is “real journalistic freedom to speak the truth” since most media is currently controlled by businessmen or corporations.

Gómez, who became a journalist to help course-correct the media’s impulses, believes the media should “be the bridge between people with privilege and people without.” She is hopeful that journalists will act with social conscience and write about the institutions behind injustices, not the acts themselves.

Instead of sensationalizing one case, Zalabata reiterates the importance of responsibly bringing all cases to light — and connecting the dots between them. “[The media] must offer a solution to a problem that is historic, that persists here, and that not only Indigenous communities suffer from but also other communities and people too.”

Industry norms implicitly or explicitly encourage coverage that exploits individuals’ pain rather than analyzing the institutions that codify this kind of violence, since the corporation-owned publications are often powerful institutions themselves that are complicit in this harm. If media continues to perpetuate the revictimization of Black and Indigenous women, they will continue to foment harmful attitudes and practices, rather than educating the public to identify and dismantle the underlying causes.

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