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In late June the Vital Voices Human Rights team headed to BogotĢĮ-Colombia’s sprawling, high-altitude capital city of about 8 million-for our sixth Justice Institute on Gender-Based Violence. Led by Vital Voices with assistance from the Avon Foundation for Women, the three-day Justice Institute focused on the creation of a holistic and victim-centered response to domestic violence and sexual assault in BogotĢĮ. Over 45 local judges, prosecutors, law enforcement officials, and representatives of both governmental and non-governmental victim service providers gathered to share their experiences combating violence against women and to learn new techniques for investigating and prosecuting domestic and sexual violence cases in a more effective, victim-centered way.

Institute faculty included three U.S. experts on gender-based violence: a former prosecutor and now Human Rights Director at Vital Voices; a lawyer from New Perimeter, the pro-bono arm of DLA Piper; and the presiding judge of the first dedicated domestic violence court in Texas. Additionally, the faculty included four Colombian experts: a judge who focuses on reducing impunity for violators of human rights; a medical forensic specialist with expertise investigating sexual assault crimes; an anthropologist with years of experience improving the institutional and community response to gender-based violence; and a prominent women’s rights activist and co-founder of a women’s rights collective.

Colombia has one of the most advanced legal and policy frameworks in the region to address violence against women and girls. For example, Article 42 in Colombia’s Constitution sanctions “any form of violence in the family”, a 1996 law criminalizes marital rape, Law 1257 of 2008 addresses violence against women and ensures victims’ rights and protective measures, and a 2015 law combats femicide. Without effective implementation and consistent enforcement, however, legislation is nearly meaningless. Despite the comprehensive laws condemning it, domestic and sexual violence continue to be highly prevalent in Colombia. UN Women reported that 37% of women in Colombia will experience physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence at least once in their lifetime, and over 50% of Colombian men surveyed for a 2010 UN study admitted to abusing their female partners.

This problem of good laws and poor implementation is certainly not unique to Colombia, and continues to foster impunity for perpetrators and undermine justice systems around the world. A researcher for Human Rights Watch noted that “[t]his impunity creates a distrust of the [Colombian] judicial system, resulting in more than 80% of victims of gender-based violence in Colombia reluctant to report crimes committed against them.” An essential component of the Justice Institute therefore involved taking a closer look at how the participants could put components of these laws into practice in their day-to-day work to better protect victims of domestic and sexual violence as well as increase accountability for perpetrators of violence.

Throughout the course of the Justice Institute, trainers presented on topics such as assessing risk and lethality, assessing a domestic violence case where children are present, responding to intimidation, and conducting effective victim interviews. Participants were able to put the new techniques to the test by working through domestic violence and sexual assault case scenarios carefully designed to reflect local realities and address common challenges. By the end of the training, each multidisciplinary group of participants had successfully created a coordinated, holistic, victim-centered response to the case scenarios.

The enthusiasm and genuine passion for justice the participants displayed throughout the training was evidence of the cultural shift that is occurring in Colombia-away from the deeply-rooted machismo attitude that enforces gender inequality and legitimizes violence against women, and toward a society in which violence against women is not tolerated.

While exploring the beautiful city the evening after the Justice Institute’s successful conclusion, the rosy hue clouding my vision quickly dissipated when an obviously intoxicated man angrily threw a bottle into the street. The sound of shattering glass punctuated the accusations and menacing threats he was spewing at the woman standing in front of him. Three uniformed police officers standing less than a block away made no move to intervene, even as the man pulled free of the grip of his friend and struck his girlfriend, even as he pushed her to the ground. One of the woman’s friends approached the group of officers, gesturing back at the disturbance. They did not move. Only after the intoxicated man-arms held back by his friend-rammed his head squarely into the woman’s chest, causing her to fall to the ground once again, did the police officers get involved. I caught the women’s eyes for a split second, her gaze desperate and defiant at the same time. She winced as she pressed her fingers to her swollen, bleeding lip. I asked a Colombian women’s rights activist I met through the Justice Institute for her thoughts on the intimate partner violence I had witnessed on a crowded BogotĢĮ street the night before. “La violencia estĢĮ en nuestra ADN.” “Violence is in our DNA,” she stated matter-of-factly.

We still have a lot of work to do.