BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Colombian authorities said on Wednesday they were investigating the reported rape of a 12-year-old indigenous girl by soldiers, spurring calls from tribal leaders to address violence against their communities they say is invisible and often ignored.
The girl from Colombia’s Embera Chami tribe disappeared from her community reserve in northern Colombia on Sunday and was found a day later at a nearby school.
She told indigenous authorities she had been sexually abused by a group of soldiers and, according to local media reports, seven soldiers could be involved.
Colombia’s military and political leaders were quick to condemn the incident and pledged that those responsible would be punished.
“I reject and condemn the sexual abuse against the minor … in which soldiers could be involved,” Colombia’s army chief, General Eduardo Zapateiro, wrote on Twitter.
He added he had given his “unrestricted support” to authorities carrying out the investigation, which Colombia’s attorney general’s office said it has initiated.
President Ivan Duque said he felt “hurt and moved” by the incident and had ordered the defence ministry to help state prosecutors to find and hold to account those responsible.
“We do not tolerate any type of abuse of minors, much less when it involves those in uniform who tarnish the honor of the forces,” Duque tweeted.
Colombia’s indigenous groups have long accused illegal armed groups and the armed forces of committing human rights violations, particularly during the country’s long civil war and struggles over land, which they say are fueled by racism.
“This is not an isolated case. It’s a structural issue,” said Aida Quilcue, human rights advisor at the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), the country’s leading indigenous authority.
“This way of looking at us is in a racist and xenophobic way,” she said, calling the violence a “pandemic of xenophobia that goes against peace” in a news conference streamed live on Facebook.
About two million indigenous people live in Colombia in 115 different groups, from the country’s northern snow-capped mountains to the Amazon rainforest in the south.
Women and children, particularly from indigenous and Afro-Colombian groups, have borne the brunt of the country’s war and land conflicts, and sexual violence has been used as a weapon by all sides, experts said.
“Sexual violence against women is a common, widespread, systematic and invisible practice within the context of the armed conflict,” said Lejandrina Pastor Gil, ONIC’s gender advisor.
Reporting by Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org