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En el plan del ICBF, una de las estrategias clave está dirigida a “transformar las normas sociales y valores que sustentan la ocurrencia de las diferentes formas de violencia contra niños, niñas y adolescentes”. | José Méndez, EFE

With the launch of the Alianza initiative, there is hope for a comprehensive change in sexual violence against children. But as always, effective implementation of such an ambitious program will undoubtedly have many challenges.

With the launch of the Alianza initiative, there is hope for a comprehensive change in sexual violence against children. But as always, effective implementation of such an ambitious program will undoubtedly have many challenges.

There are few crimes that create such social indignation as crimes committed against children, particularly those that are sexual in nature. According to the Instituto Nacional de Medicina Legal (INML), out of the 26,065 medical evaluations conducted in 2018 for alleged sexual crimes, in 22,794 cases (87.5%), the victim was a child. Moreover, in about half of the reported cases, the perpetrator was a family member, and the majority of sexual violence occurred in the home.

The Instituto Colombiano de Bienestar Familiar (ICBF) defines sexual violence against children as “every sexual action or behavior exercised over a child or adolescent, that uses force or any form of physical, psychological, or emotional coercion, by taking advantage of conditions of helplessness, inequality, and power relations existing between the victim and aggressor.” In addressing this problem, the government has repeatedly instituted a punitive approach (e.g. life sentences for sexual crimes against children), a strategy which has often utilized populist rhetoric and has appeared to have little to no measurable effects on reducing sexual violence against children.

On 14 August 2019, in a marked shift in governmental strategies, to combat sexual violence against children, as well as other forms of violence against children, the ICBF launched a new initiative entitled “Alianza Nacional contra la Violencia hacia las Niñas, Niños y Adolescentes” (Alianza initiative). The initiative, among other things, aims to reduce the rate of violence against children by 14.3% by 2022. To achieve this goal, the plan takes an integral approach focused on both prevention and effective response and contains 6 essential strategies.

Among the strategies, the Alianza initiative aims to mobilize civil society in transforming norms of what is acceptable, to empower children in self-protection, and to strengthen and reform legal institutions.  While the ambitious initiative appears to be a step in the right direction towards reducing sexual violence against children in Colombia, it is too early to analyze the effectiveness of such a plan. Instead, it seems more appropriate at this point to highlight some of the key challenges in tackling sexual violence against children and outline 4 strategies that will be necessary for the initiative’s successful implementation.


1. Addressing the Impunity Gap through the Strengthening of Investigative Capacities

One fundamental strategy in reducing sexual violence against children is effectively tackling the impunity gap. In addressing crimes, the Colombian government has too often opted for increasing the penalties of the offenders, instead of addressing other failures in the criminal system. For example, a proposed Constitutional amendment, which would modify the Constitution to allow life sentences for crimes of sexual violence against children under 14 years of age, is currently making its way through the Colombian House of Representatives. Although not stated in the new Alianza initiative, ICBF has publicly expressed  its support of the proposed amendment.

Such penalization measures, which use up many resources, fail to take into account deeper systemic problems within the criminal system. In fact, it is important to note that there is evidence  showing that increases in punishment do not decrease crime rates. One prominent study shows that it is the perpetrator’s perception of the certainty of apprehension, rather than the severity of punishment, that creates a strong deterrent effect.

Therefore, instead of increasing prison sentences, what is needed is a focus on enhancing the investigative and enforcement capabilities of the police and judicial systems. In fact, Juliana Pungiluppi, Director of ICBF, astutely mentioned in an interview with El Tiempo that reducing the impunity gap requires the strengthening of investigative bodies. Therefore, resources should be focused not on increasing punishment for offenders, but instead, on strengthening the enforcement and investigation of crimes of sexual violence against children.


2. Effective Inter-Institutional Coordination

In its 2018 report, the INML states that mere knowledge of the facts, without inter-institutional cooperation, will not result in effective implementation. Indeed, the Alianza initiative highlights that one of the key factors for its successful implementation will be adopting one single strategy by all the involved institutions, instead of distinct, parallel strategies. The World Health Organization (WHO), in its report entitled INSPIRE: Seven strategies for ending violence against children (INSPIRE Report), emphasizes the importance of multi-sectoral actions and coordination.

Especially important in implementing large-scale policies is the existence of coordination mechanisms, both on the national and international level. Accordingly, actions undertaken in the initiative should ensure the involvement and input of a multiplicity of actors, such as the Ministries of Health, Education, the Attorney General, and both national and international civil society organizations. In this regard, inter-institutional coordination will be key.


3. Adequate Resources and Experienced Staff

Another critical factor in the successful implementation of the initiative will be the sufficient amount of resources and skilled workers. Although the launched Alianza initiative does not mention the budget or resources that will be utilized in this endeavor, Juliana Pungiluppi stated in an interview that they are currently working on the budget. While the initiative’s budget remains to be publicized, it will be crucial to identify sustainable sources of financial support.

Similarly, as the INSPIRE report states, successful implementation requires that the staff be sufficient in number, so as to avoid overworking, as well proficient, since “[a]n effective, well-staffed violence prevention programme can lead the implementation of interventions to reduce the toll of violence against children.”


4. Social Transformation

Out of all the challenges proposed by the new Alianza initiative, perhaps the most difficult will be that related to social transformation. In the initiative, one of the key strategies is aimed at “[t]ransforming the social norms and values that maintain the occurrence of the various forms of violence against children and adolescents.”

According to Andrés Casas, visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania Social Norms Group, violence against children in Colombia appears to be based on gender roles and how people believe they are supposed to behave. Casas highlights that the Alianza initiative will not have an impact “if Colombians don’t start having frank conversations about violence.” Similarly, the INSPIRE report lists the importance of three strategies in changing the norms on violence against children:

1.) changing adherence to harmful gender and social norms,

2.) community mobilization programmes, and

3.) bystander interventions. Currently, the University of Pennsylvania Social Norms Group, contracted by ICBF, is conducting a comprehensive study on the identification of values and norms in Colombian society that lead to violence against children. It will be crucial for the Alianza initiative to implement this research into its strategies, in order to target the root issues that perpetuate sexual violence against children.

With the launch of the Alianza initiative, there is hope for a comprehensive change in sexual violence against children. But as always, effective implementation of such an ambitious program will undoubtedly have many challenges. With the 4 key strategies in mind, implementation of the Alianza initiative will have a greater chance of success.

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