When journalist Jineth Bedoya went to Bogota’s maximum-security prison 16 years ago to interview an infamous paramilitary warlord, little did she know the visit would mark her life and convert her into a leading rights activist.
Bedoya never made it to the interview but instead was kidnapped, gang-raped, tortured and left on the side of a road.
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She kept quiet for years but in 2009 broke her silence and began campaigning against the taboos and stigma suffered by victims of sexual violence, which was used as a weapon by all sides in Colombia’s 52-year-war.
For her activism, Bedoya was awarded on Thursday the annual Reach All Women in WAR (RAW in WAR) Anna Politkovskaya Award.
“To defend the truth is one of the most difficult missions anyone could undertake, and its price can even be that person’s life,” Bedoya said in a statement. The award is named for a Russian investigative reporter shot dead in 2006.
“For her, and for thousands and thousands of women who gave their last breath for their work, we cannot fail. We cannot falter,” said Bedoya, 42, who is deputy editor at Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper.
Bedoya has become the public face for women in Colombia seeking justice in cases of sexual violence crimes. Nearly 16,300 Colombians, most of them women and girls, have been victims of rape and sexual violence, government data shows.
“Jineth is the embodiment of bravery. As a reporter she suffered a brutal attack and abduction for exposing atrocities committed by paramilitaries,” said Jimena Sanchez-Garzoli, Colombia rights advocate at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
“She then transformed her personal pain into a beacon of light for all women who have suffered abuse at the hands of illegal armed groups,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Despite receiving death threats, Bedoya started a campaign “It’s not time to be silent” on behalf of women and girls raped during Colombia’s conflict.
A peace accord to end the conflict, signed between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), is in limbo after being narrowly rejected by voters as too lenient on the rebels in a referendum on Sunday.
Under the accord, both sides had pledged to ensure perpetrators of sexual violence would not be eligible for amnesty.
About 98 per cent of rapes have gone unpunished, according to Bedoya.
But in a rare conviction this year, two paramilitary fighters were sentenced for Bedoya’s kidnapping, torture and rape.
The award marks the tenth anniversary of the killing of Politkovskaya, a investigative reporter who uncovered state corruption and rights abuses, especially in Chechnya.
She was killed in the lobby of her Moscow apartment block at age 48 on October 7, 2006.
“The bullets that took her life are the same that ended the life of over 200,000 Colombians. The business of war has not only contaminated the souls of those who profit from it, but it has also made our society hardened and intolerant,” Bedoya said.
RAW in WAR, a London-based non-governmental organisation supporting women human rights defenders and victims of war, also honoured Russian rights activist Valentina Cherevatenko, who provides legal and psychological help to civilians affected by violence in the North Caucasus, Armenia, Georgia and Ukraine.