As a 26-year-old junior reporter with the Colombian newspaper El Espectador, Jineth Bedoya Lima sought out tough assignments, despite knowing the risks it could entail. Through painstaking investigative journalism, she began to uncover an arms smuggling network between government security forces and imprisoned paramilitaries in the maximum security La Modelo prison in Bogotá.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, right; and First Lady Michelle Obama, left; pose for a photo with 2012 International Women of Courage (IWOC) Award Winner Jineth Bedoya Lima of Colombia, at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on March 8, 2012. Photo Credit: State Department
On May 25, 2000, as she arrived at the prison for an interview with a key paramilitary member, unknown men grabbed Ms. Bedoya, threw her into a vehicle, drugged her, and drove her to a farm three hours south of Bogotá. There, the men repeatedly raped her, bound her, and left her in a garbage dump at the side of a road, where a taxi driver discovered her later that evening. As the men raped her, they told her, “Pay attention. We are sending a message to the press in Colombia.” Jineth, determined to press on despite this horrifying experience, was back at work two weeks later.
Even as Ms. Bedoya’s journalistic career has continued to flourish – she is now the sub-editor for the justice section of El Tiempo, the most widely read newspaper in Colombia – she has continued to push for justice in her own case, which had languished in the Colombian courts for more than 11 years. Early last year, frustrated by the lack of progress, she joined forces with the Colombian Foundation for Free Press and began a campaign to pressure investigation and prosecution within the Colombian criminal justice system, draw more attention to sexual violence in Colombia, and bring her case before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. Since then, USAID/Colombia has supported Ms. Bedoya, along with the Colombian Foundation for Free Press, in her campaign for justice for herself and women who are victims of sexual violence in Colombia.
Ms. Bedoya’s efforts are bearing fruit. The Colombian Attorney General’s office committed itself last year to making progress in the case. After 11 years of stagnation, the pace and nature of the investigation took a decided turn. A newly-assigned prosecutor has developed solid leads and convincing testimony concerning the perpetrators, as well as the masterminds, of her abduction and rape; the case is now taking shape and moving forward. Evidence and testimony have also been received in proceedings currently pending before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights.
In addition to a test of journalistic freedom, Jineth’s case has become a symbol for widespread impunity in the Colombian justice system for crimes of sexual violence against women. Ms. Bedoya was already a recognized figure before she began to raise the profile of her own case. She has served as the spokeswoman of Oxfam’s campaign – “Rape and Other Violence: Take My Body Out of the War” – and now appears in TV ads denouncing sexual violence as part of that campaign. Ms. Bedoya hopes that her efforts to investigate and resolve her own case will help end the stigma and silence surrounding sexual violence.
Journalists play a critical role in Colombia uncovering scandals, reporting on abuses committed by all actors in the ongoing internal armed conflict, and documenting how the conflict affects civilians. Ms. Bedoya has come to view herself as a standard-bearer for women as victims of sexual violence because of the voice that she has as a journalist; she speaks on behalf of so many women in Colombia who cannot speak out, or are not heard.
In November 2011, after Ms. Bedoya testified in Washington before the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, The Atlantic ran an article recounting Ms. Bedoya’s compelling story, indicating that she may be the only journalist in the world publicly seeking justice as a victim of sexual assault resulting from her work.
Ms. Bedoya continues to receive threats from paramilitaries and guerrillas alike, evidence of her effectiveness in denouncing both. Recognizing the risks Ms. Bedoya faces, the Colombian government has provided her with an armored vehicle and bodyguards under a national protection program. That protection program began a decade ago with USAID support and is now almost entirely funded by the Colombian government.
On March 8, 2012, International Women’s Day, Ms. Bedoya was one of ten women to receive the prestigious International Women of Courage Award from Secretary of State Clinton for her unfailing courage, determination, and perseverance in fighting for justice and speaking out on behalf of victims of sexual violence in Colombia. USAID has been proud to support Ms. Bedoya, along with the Colombian Foundation for Free Press, in her battle to seek justice for herself, for women, and for journalists.