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Colombia: Justice in the Region of Death
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Colombia: Justice in the Region of Death

The Mid-Magdalena region of Colombia is one of the most macho parts of Latin America, a place where violence against women is a casual part of everyday life. But change is coming. One of the "change-makers" is Judge Esperanza Gonzalez, a woman in her late 40s who is seeking to bring justice for females both inside her courtroom and out. 

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Produced by dev.tv and UNIFEM as part of the series "Women on the Front Line."

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Segment 1

ANNIE LENNOX
It threatens the lives of more young women than cancer. It affects one in three women worldwide. It leaves women mentally scarred for life. "It" is violence against women and girls. According to the UN, this brutality is on the rise. Our series comes from the frontline of the hidden war on women and girls. The field of conflict is just as likely to be the home as the brothel. This time on Women on the Front Line we are in Colombia, to find out if there is hope for an end to violence against the women of this country where a culture of fear, conflict, and machismo still prevails.
ESPERANZA GONZALEZ [Municipal Judge, Bolivar, Colombia]
There are many cases of sexual violence, acts of sexual abuse, child abuse, and sexual offences in general. As a judge, I have had to try such offenders.
VOICEOVER
It's London May 2008, and Judge Esperanza González from Bolivar -- a small town in Colombia -- has come to Europe for the first time. She is sharing a platform with another judge, Cherie Blair, the wife of Britain's former Prime Minister.
CHERIE BLAIR
Thank you. I'm very humbled to be here tonight and to share a platform with two very strong, very competent women judges.
VOICEOVER
They're here to mark the publication of an international report on the plight of girls and women in conflict. For the Colombian municipal judge this is a universe away from her small town in the middle of one of the country's most violent regions. This is Bolivar, Judge Esperanza's town. It looks peaceful enough, but it hasn't always been this way. Colombia is home to the world's longest-running civil war, a conflict in which illegal drugs are the fuel. And women are not spared, with one woman a day dying because of the violence. The murder rate in Bolivar and the surrounding region peaked in the 1990s, but has fallen away dramatically with the drive to end the fighting.
CARLOS IGNACIO CUERVO [Vice Minister, Social Protection]
We used to have an annual rate of 350 murders per hundred thousand; today we have rates of 27 murders per hundred thousand.
VOICEOVER
But that is still five times higher than in nearby Costa Rica. The people in the Mid-Magdalena region live with the legacy of a time when they had the highest homicide rate in the world. Civil conflict everywhere retards the development of civil society, and the status of women. Colombia is no place to be a girl. If you are a girl, you have a less than 50 percent chance of receiving a secondary education, and run a one in five chance of becoming pregnant while still a teenager. Mid-Magdalena is Colombia's machismo wild west, but there's a stirring of change in the municipality of Bolivar, and that's why Women on the Front Line has come here. We were to find that everyone agrees it's Judge Esperanza who is spearheading the change.
TITLE
Justice in the Region of Death
VOICEOVER
Our Woman on the Front Line is 48-year-old mother of two Esperanza González. In her twenties she was made a judge in Bolivar. In this program we follow her on what she says is her personal mission to bring justice for young women and girls, in and out of her courtroom.
ESPERANZA GONZALEZ
I brought new things to the town and I spoke to women about them, about respecting their rights, about making people respect them in their work and in their homes. Previously you couldn't speak about such things; everything was hidden, everything was a sin.
VOICEOVER
Judge González is determined to confront what she describes as Colombia's "conspiracy of silence" that surrounds the issues of sexual abuse, domestic violence, and teenage pregnancy.
ESPERANZA GONZALEZ
Young girls in the rural areas were sexually abused by their fathers, by their uncles, by their brothers and neighbors. But because all of this was kept quiet there were no charges made and therefore no statistics at the courthouse.
VOICEOVER
The judge hears all kinds of cases in her courtroom. Today, she is hearing a case where a father is accusing a farmhand of sexually abusing his two daughters, aged 8 and 13. Judge Esperanza moved to Bolivar 20 years ago with her biology teacher husband, now headmaster of the town's main high school. In 1986, the judge's husband -- whose masters degree was in sexual and reproductive health -- persuaded her to attend a sexual health workshop with other local experts. It was to be a turning point for Judge González. She was given a list of options and was asked which she would choose if she discovered one of her sons was being taught by a homosexual.
ESPERANZA GONZALEZ
I added one more suggestion saying, "fire him." I had never felt so bad, I had never felt so small, because here were all these specialized doctors and they asked me how a municipal judge, a lawyer with additional training and all the trimmings, how could I think like this? So they gave me a tough time, they put me through the mill. I felt really bad and I changed. It didn't happen overnight, but I started to change that day.
VOICEOVER
Part of her personal journey was finding out via her husband, Luis Antonio Figueroa, that teenage pregnancies had reached very high levels in his school of 600 pupils. In Colombia, access to contraception is limited and abortion allowed only in extreme circumstances.
LUIS ANTONIO FIGUEROA [Headmaster, Judge Esperanza's husband]
I think that one of the major problems here regarding our region is the unity of the family. The fathers and the mothers don't show much affection toward their children and there is also too much violence within the family environment. There is also a huge lack of support from the parents towards their children, due to the fact that they lack sexual education themselves.
VOICEOVER
Another legacy of the conflict that increases the risks to girls, is the scattering of families. Incredibly, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, there are more displaced people in Colombia than any other country in the world apart from Rwanda.
CARLOS IGNACIO CUERVO
Conflict and displacement are risk factors. Two out of three adolescent women become pregnant when they are displaced.

Segment 2

VOICEOVER
Esperanza González believes that the decades of violence have helped keep regions such as Mid-Magdalena in ignorance about sex and all the dangers it poses to young girls. It is still paradoxically a prudish society, as they were to find out one parents evening during the screening of an educational video on adolescent behaviour.
ESPERANZA GONZALEZ
When the parents heard the word "sex" they did this, they covered their faces with their hands and lifted a finger to watch the video. When we left the meeting, my husband and I were accused of corrupting the community.
VOICEOVER
Neither Esperanza González or her husband have been put off by such charges. They have taken on the task of helping girls to stay on in education. And this is a huge challenge: 22 percent of Colombian women between 12 and 17 do not attend school, according to the 2005 population census. Judge González is visiting Carolina Mogollón. She is a similar age to the judge's son and they were at school together. They were equal academically. But Juan Luis, the judge's son, will be going to university with a professional life beckoning. His schoolfriend will not be so fortunate. Despite her abilities, Carolina's education is effectively over. The reason is her two-month-old baby.
ESPERANZA GONZALEZ
Doña Leonor what do you think about this situation? Because you were keen on her continuing her studies, weren't you?
LEONOR DE MOGOLLON [Carolina's mother]
Yes, she wanted to study further but ...
ESPERANZA GONZALEZ
But what?
LEONOR DE MOGOLLON
There is nothing that can be done now.
ESPERANZA GONZALEZ
So what you have to do is help her. Because she has a lot of goals in life. Or not? Have you given up on them?
CAROLINA MOGOLLON
No, not at all. It was very difficult for my family because they expected something different for me. They expected me to study. They had different dreams for me other than having a baby. I did not have and still don't have my father's support.
ESPERANZA GONZALEZ
The family's reaction was awful and the reaction of the community was awful. She was a student representative, and helped out in the church.
VOICEOVER
Carolina's parents divorced a few years ago and her father has shunned the family since he found out his 17-year-old daughter was pregnant.
LEONOR DE MOGOLLON
We wanted her to go onto further education. Whatever she wanted, that's what we wanted for her. Then when Carolina's father heard that she was pregnant it all turned. He hasn't spoken to her since, he hasn't given her money to finish off her studies. Yes, I told her not to go over there ...
INTERVIEWER
And her father? What does he think of it all?
LEONOR DE MOGOLLON
Nothing, he doesn't even speak to us.
VOICEOVER
It is 10 months since Carolina has spoken to her father and their shared dream of a higher education for her has vanished. Carolina is now living alone with her mother, brother, and the baby. Her boyfriend Edgar is traveling, trying to earn a living as a musician. Carolina does her best to keep in touch with him through the local internet café. Judge González has tried -- but so far failed -- to achieve reconciliation with the father and get his daughter's education back on track. Carolina's experience is fairly typical. But the judge does not give up. And we see a much darker side to life in Bolivar.

Segment 3

VOICEOVER
Esperanza González also finds time to head the Bolivar Committee on Women's Health. While we were filming, Judge González brought to our attention an altogether more serious case for which judicial proceedings are just starting. A 14-year-old girl was brought to the hospital by her mother, complaining of a severe stomach ache. To protect her identity we have called her Maria.
DR. MONICA ROJAS [Bolivar Public Hospital]
The girl came here with her mother, with a physical problem. But, when the girl was asked to sign a form, instead of signing her name she just wrote "help me."
VOICEOVER
Dr. Rojas suspected that Maria might be a victim of sexual abuse. The first person Dr. Rojas called was not the police but Judge Esperanza, who came immediately to the hospital to talk to the girl.
DR. MONICA ROJAS
I told her there were several factors that made us suspicious of a possible case of sexual abuse. Firstly, she changed her behaviour. Secondly, her desire to take a shower. A person who has been abused always feels dirty. There is a need to be clean.
ESPERANZA GONZALEZ [Municipal Judge, Bolivar, Colombia]
When she saw me, she took my hand and said, "Help me, help me," and "Bathe me, bathe me. I am dirty." "My father is bad." She told us things that affect you. I am not only a judge, I am also a mother.
DR. MONICA ROJAS
What surprised us was the reaction of the mother, there was in fact no reaction. She said, "My husband is very good. He works and I never leave the girl alone." It was not the reaction of a woman that just finds out that her daughter is being sexually abused.
VOICEOVER
While our film crew was recording this story, Maria's father, Angel María Franco, was arrested and brought to court for a preliminary hearing. Judge González told us that her extra-courtroom role meant that she might be called as a witness in the case. So another judge was appointed to preside over the hearing. The town prosecutor lays out the charges.
ARTURO RASCON
The crime which you are charged with today is that of rape. That means that you committed sexual acts of a violent and psychologically damaging nature that caused trauma to a minor.
JUDGE
The accused man wants to add something?
ANGEL MARIA FRANCO [father of "Maria"]
You are saying that I abused my daughter. That is not true.
JUDGE
Señor Angel Maria Franco you have the right to remain silent. When the police arrested you, did you suffer any injury? How did they treat you?
ANGEL MARIA FRANCO
Fine.
JUDGE
Did they read your rights?
ANGEL MARIA FRANCO
Yes sir.
JUDGE
Did they say you had the right to have a lawyer?
ANGEL MARIA FRANCO
Yes sir.
JUDGE
That you had the right to remain silent?
ANGEL MARIA FRANCO
Yes sir.
VOICEOVER
The court has appointed a defense lawyer for the accused man.
YORELY TELLEZ [defense lawyer for Angel María Franco]
Thank you sir, could you tell my client, the accused, the possible jail time he is facing?
JUDGE
The maximum sentence allowed, 33 years.
VOICEOVER
Angel María Franco applied for bail but was refused.
YORELY TELLEZ
This type of sexual offense takes place in every sphere of society, whether they are rich, poor, social strata one, two, or five. What is happening now is that the government has carried out campaigns, particularly on the television. Consequently there are more accusations. People are more aware. Children are approaching family welfare to make accusations.
VOICEOVER
After the hearing our crew manages to talk briefly to the accused man.
INTERVIEWER
Why do you think your daughter is saying you raped her?
ANGEL MARIA FRANCO
When the mother brought her to the hospital she wasn't in her right mind. That's how things are. She was with her mother the whole time. I want you to help me and find a good doctor for my daughter to find out what's wrong with her. She has made me suffer because of what she's said.
VOICEOVER
At the time of going to air, Angel Franco is in prison awaiting trial on the charge of "incest and rape of a minor." His wife still maintains she knows nothing about the abuse. No date for his trial has been set. If found guilty, Angel Franco faces more than three decades in prison. In 2007, the Colombian Congress passed new, tougher laws for crimes involving the sexual abuse of children. It is now impossible to get a reduction of sentence for a crime of this nature.

Segment 4

VOICEOVER
Judge Esperanza has also been working with the Catholic Church, a traditionally conservative institution. It has now joined in on her personal campaign to help the girls of Bolivar. She even has her own show on the local radio.
ESPERANZA GONZALEZ
In the very beginning it was very difficult to change certain mindsets in people. The first time I asked the priest to join the sexual and reproductive health team, the priest refused. He said that he didn't want to learn anything about sex. So I asked him to accompany me to a workshop on self-esteem, and from then on the priest became part of the sexual health team.
FATHER OLIVERIO MURCIA [Priest]
It worries us because we see, with great anguish, that such young girls are not ready to take up the responsibilities of motherhood.
VOICEOVER
If Judge González can change the mind of a Catholic priest in Bolivar, then surely Carolina's father should prove no obstacle.
JORGE MOGOLLON [Carolina's father]
Since she left she has not come back here because I scolded her. I said, "Why didn't you tell me it was simply dating? And that there were no commitments at all, and now you are pregnant." She left, and she hasn't talked to me since. She hasn't come back here either.
VOICEOVER
Judge González is doing her best to reconcile father and daughter.
ESPERANZA GONZALEZ [teenage mother]
Your dad is hurt because of that. I think you should talk to your dad and if he won't see you today you should go back tomorrow. And if he does not see you tomorrow go back the day after and say to him, "I'm here to show you my daughter, your grand-daughter. I made a mistake and I need your support." Is it too much for you?
CAROLINA MOGOLLON
No it's not too much, but I am scared that again he ...
ESPERANZA GONZALEZ
If you do not knock on the door you'll never get in.
VOICEOVER
In a country undergoing rapid social change, with family breakdown and teenage pregnancy at epidemic levels, Judge González is convinced that her working as a counselor and health worker together with the United Nation's Population Fund is vital to the health and future happiness of the women of Bolivar.
ESPERANZA GONZALEZ
So it started as a personal change because one has to, as they say, "modernize." You have to learn, not just to look good in front of the community but to be at peace with yourself.
JAVIER MARTINEZ [Development and Peace Programme, Middle Magdalena]
Judge Esperanza, she is a wonderful person. She understands this subject as a health issue. An issue which encompasses many agencies; it becomes more integrated.
ESPERANZA GONZALEZ
There are still incidents, but I think that now we can avoid many things because we are talking openly. Today, fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your perspective, if there is a domestic violence situation or any kind of problem with a couple, people will say: "If you carry on like that I will report you to Judge Esperanza!"
TITLE
[end credits]