This study documents a wide range of GBV perpetrated against women in context of ongoing conflict and displacement, or multiple displacements. Armed combatants may perpetrate GBV that is related to conflict but GBV experiences by these survivors appeared to occur across conflict and displacement and is perpetrated by a range of actors. Perpetration of GBV may be augmented by new vulnerabilities attributable to displacement: economic and educational disparities, post-traumatic stress following experiences of violent events, loss of social support, changing gender roles, and loss of financial support either through loss of own employment or loss by the husband. For some women, these disparities affect decisions to stay in partnerships with violent men, become involved in new unhealthy relationships, and possibly engage in sex work for financial stability.
A dominating theme emerging from this research is the high levels of GBV, particularly IPV, which is generalized within the communities and appears to be exacerbated by the conflict and displacement. In fact, IPV among conflict-affected populations may be more common than conflict-related sexual violence (i.e. that which is perpetrated by armed combatants), while living in insecure economic situations and the resulting stress may further aggravate violence within the family structure [7, 18, 19]. This is supported by research from the general population of reproductive aged women in Colombia, including research from the 2010 Demographic Health Survey (DHS), which demonstrates substantial levels of violence against women, including non-consensual sex, physical violence by someone other than a current husband/partner, and lifetime IPV (physical or sexual violence) . Despite high levels of violence and resulting physical or psychological health outcomes among Colombian women, health seeking behaviors for care following GBV was low . Research from the Latin America region has also demonstrated increased associations of physical and sexual IPV and unintended pregnancy and abortion compared to pregnant women who had not experienced IPV . Violence and displacement, often results in trauma, social disruption, experiences of job loss by partners, poverty, changing gender roles, and general frustration; these factors appear to exacerbate existing levels of IPV that exists in non-conflict settings for these displaced populations in Colombia .
This research highlights potential patterns of intergenerational effects and transmission of violence. Survivor participants reported witnessing or experiencing violence as children and experiencing new violence as adults. Other survivors reported observing patterns of violence and victimization among their male and female children as well, fearing that their children would suffer the same experiences in their adult lives. Exposure to violence during childhood is a known risk factor for future perpetration or victimization and witness of parental violence has demonstrated increased odds for experiencing violence within a woman’s lifetime in Latin America . Exposure to armed conflict may further exacerbate these outcomes and other indicators of well-being among children and families. While the cross-sectional, qualitative design of this study limits such temporal inferences, other research among conflict-affected populations in Uganda has demonstrated the interfamilial patterns of violence among conflict-affected communities. In a two-generational study of families in conflict affected villages, the strongest predictors of self-reported aggressive parenting behaviors towards children were the guardians’ own experiences of abuse during childhood; female guardians’ victimization experiences in their intimate relationship; and PTSD and alcohol-related problems among male guardians . In a similar study of conflict-affected populations in Uganda, a woman’s prior exposure to war-related traumatic events and alcohol-related problems among men were associated with higher levels of IPV against women . Taken together, these findings demonstrate that action to care for survivors and prevent ongoing violence is vital to addressing and changing the trajectory of GBV among conflict-affected populations.
Recent media attention on events in Colombia contributes to the perception that the conflict may be resolving. In October 2012, the government commenced discussions with the leadership of the FARC, offering an opportunity for peace. No final agreement has yet been reached at the time of writing of this manuscript and the number of armed groups that exist within Colombia suggests that displacement may not end even if or when an agreement has been reached with the FARC [27, 37, 38]. In fact, 61 large group displacements were recorded between the months of January and July 2013, alone , while aerial bombardments, ground attacks on FARC operations, and bombings perpetrated by the FARC have continued into January of 2014 [39, 40]. Our findings document threats and perpetration of violence against civilians caught in the geographic crosshairs of the armed conflict and is consistent with other human rights reports . Trauma and mental health research of populations exposed to conflict in Colombia has demonstrated heighted odds of depression, somatization disorder, alcohol abuse, and anxiety-related psychopathology, compared those who did not experience direct violence [42, 43]. This suggests that international attention and efforts by the government, NGOs, and humanitarian actors towards protecting and responding to the needs of communities in conflict settings and displacement should not wane at the promise of conflict resolution. The sustained conflicts combined with reports of generalized violence against women highlight the need to recognize the patterns of GBV across contexts and develop mechanisms to efficiently and effectively address GBV such that those who are most marginalized are also able to access quality and confidential care. Understanding the overall context of violence across conflict, displacement and integration into the host communities is critical for properly addressing GBV among IDPs in each phase of transition as well as to considering issues that may affect the host populations.
While the research objective was to specifically understand the context and types of GBV experienced by women in conflict and displacement to inform programmatic and policy response, we noted substantial agency and resilience among the women interviewed. Participants often took bold actions to move themselves, and their families, out of conflict or away from violent partners and prevent future victimization or perpetration of GBV among their children. This often placed women in unfamiliar settings where they faced economic disadvantages. Participants found ways to support their families, despite disadvantages and engagement in some less than favorable jobs. In cases of reproductive control by partners, women found ways to discretely access contraceptive methods or tubal ligation. Not only does this resiliency lend to individual or family-level survival and protection, but it can be and has been harnessed for response to GBV both in Colombia and among other conflict affected populations. Many of the Victims’ Laws for displaced people and laws preventing and responding to GBV have been advocated, monitored, and/or supported by community groups for survivors or displaced women in Colombia . In humanitarian settings, individuals who have shared experiences can serve to provide support groups for survivors, provide peer education, and engage in community mobilization in others [45–47]. Ultimately, these women can play an important role in prevention and response to GBV.
This article should be reviewed in light of several limitations. First, we used purposive sampling to enroll internally displaced women who were survivors of GBV, residing in Quibdo or San Jose de Guaviare and surrounding regions, and receiving/had received psychosocial support and other care for experiences of GBV. While this is a commonly used sampling method for qualitative research and is the most ethical way to conduct such research and minimize both risk of secondary trauma and breaches of participant security, our understanding of experiences of those who never reported GBV/sought services or those who returned to living in active conflict areas is limited. Results are potentially subject to recall bias: participants who had been displaced for several years or experienced chronic or more traumatizing violence during displacement were less likely to discuss distant experiences that occurred during conflict. This may partially explain heterogeneous findings from Quibdo and San Jose de Guaviare, in which there were differences in recall on violence experienced in displaced settings compared to recall of conflict-related violence that may have occurred more distally in time for some. Nonetheless, our findings related to the conflict setting are supported by research and NGO reports, including for example, child recruitment, threats, physical violence, torture and dismemberment [48, 49]. This study ascertained qualitative, lifetime experiences of GBV, so cannot provide temporal associations of which forms of GBV are associated with conflict or were more common in the past. Similarly, these findings should not be viewed as estimates of prevalence of GBV in the regions. We were also unable to interview young women between the ages of 15-18 years, despite evidence of need for inclusion of children in violence research. This was due to regulations that require parental consent to participate in the research; thus, we chose to enroll women aged 18 years and above instead, acknowledging that parents or family members may be perpetrators of violence. Research on GBV related to conflict and displacement is certainly needed for adolescents given their increased vulnerability. Interviews among survivors of this study, however, still provided important retrospective descriptions of GBV that occurred during childhood and adolescence and observation by survivors who also witnessed GBV targeted towards their children provide perspective of GBV experiences, the potential impact of exposure to violence on children, and future perpetration and/or victimization. Nonetheless, many participants reported substantial accounts of experiences of violence and delays to reporting, allowing great insight into shared experiences of violence, barriers to seeking services and reporting experiences to authorities. Finally, as with research that is not population-based, the generalizability of our sample to broader conflict-affected populations, both within and beyond the country, is unclear. However this study provides important insight into the causes and context of GBV in this setting. Such causes and contexts may also inform and provide insight into the prevalence of and response to GBV among other conflict-affected populations.