When authorities pulled the lifeless body of four-year-old María Ángel Molina out of a river in rural Colombia on 13 January, the South American country mourned what was the 14th documented case of femicide this year.
Her murderer, Juan Carlos Galvis, also kidnapped María’s sister, and later admitted to authorities that he committed the brutal crimes in order to punish the girls’ mother for seeing another man.
With five more femicides, murders directly related to the victim’s gender, documented since María’s killing – 18 in total, with a further 13 to be verified – rights groups are worried about the safety of women and girls once again forced indoors with abusive men amid a new round of strict lockdowns to curb coronavirus outbreaks.
“Sadly when we speak about violence against women in Colombia, there isn’t a single place that we can call ‘safe’,” said Juliana Castillo Rodas, who works with the Femicide Foundation Colombia, an NGO that provides support for women and tracks gender-based violence. “But what we can say is that the home has become one of the most dangerous places for women.”
Throughout last year – which involved six months of lockdown – the foundation confirmed 229 femicides, of which 35 were girls, and is trying to verify a further 260 cases of violent deaths of women and girls that could be defined as femicides.
While a rise in confirmed cases did not occur, rights groups say the numbers are probably much higher, with cases often unreported by women for fear of reprisal. Women are also less likely to reach out for help when trapped at home with their abusers. When authorities are contacted, they are often unresponsive.
“We’re worried that when women inform authorities, they are not listened to by the state or its institutions,” Castillo said. “We may not have noted a rise in cases last year, though we did see an increase in the number of violent acts against women, such as disappearances, immolations and dismembering, alongside sexual violence.”
Measures such as better gender education and safer, well-lit cities could help make Colombia safer for women, Castillo said. Other activists say coronavirus measures such as bans on alcohol sales and curfews that limit parties and social gatherings can reduce some risks for women and girls who live with abusive men.
Colombia’s vice-president, Marta Lucía Ramírez, addressed the alarming situation for women on Tuesday while visiting Medellín, the country’s second city. “We have to reach zero femicides,” she said in a speech announcing opportunity programmes for women. “We have to end machismo and any kind of violence against women.”
Horrifying murders of women and girls are not uncommon in Colombia, and are sometimes committed by authority figures. Last June, scandal engulfed the military after seven soldiers gang-raped a 13-year-old indigenous girl.
“We know that this is not an isolated issue, it is structural,” said Aida Quilcue, at the time a human rights adviser at the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC).
Meanwhile, the country is still reckoning with sexual violence committed during the country’s decades-long civil war with leftist rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc). A special tribunal set up following a 2016 peace deal is working through thousands of cases.
Yet with each horrific case that makes headlines, little is done to change the way Colombian society views women, activists say.
“Femicide is the last recourse that an abuser has, but before that comes symbolic, sexual and economic violence and threats,” said Daniela Lozano, an activist working on gender-based violence in the capital Bogotá.
“We need to ask ourselves about why these femicides keep happening, though the answer is clear: it’s the way men view women in Colombia; it is machismo.”