Community-Engaged Research Spurs Change in Policy on Domestic Violence in Colombia

Greta Friedemann-Sanchez (left) and Margaret Grieve

Greta Friedemann-Sanchez (left) and Margaret Grieve at the UN CEDAW when Colombia is being reviewed.

In 2018, two University of Minnesota researchers traveled to a United Nations council meeting to advocate for changes to address an epidemic of violence against women in Colombia.

Abuse against romantic partners and spouses tends to become more prevalent and severe following armed conflict, and Colombia had just brought more than five decades of civil war to an end. A study by the country’s National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences found 73 percent of all crimes involving violence were against women and girls. Despite tough laws already on the books, 86 percent of those crimes were committed by an intimate partner in the home.

While their visit highlighted the issue, it didn’t directly result in the policy change Greta Friedemann-Sánchez, PhD, associate professor in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and Peggy Grieve, JD (then a graduate student in Humphrey’s Master of Public Affairs Program) hoped to see. So they kept working, finding new avenues to apply their research and continually working with practitioners and policy leaders in Colombia. Through persistence, their efforts gained more and more traction—and then took off.

“By January 2020, five years after its start, the national government knew about the project and was asking my colleague and I to comment on a draft amendment,” Friedemann-Sánchez said. “By March, I was being approached to provide public comment on the finalized draft that was submitted to Colombia’s congress.”

A few months ago, changes to the laws impacting how the country provides services in cases of intimate partner violence became official, incorporating many of the researchers’ recommendations.

Policy and Persistence

Why the need for new policy when strict laws around intimate partner violence were already in place?

In Colombia, family commissioners are the gateway professionals who help victims of intimate partner violence access justice, protection, and services. The demand for their services is greatest in small towns, rural areas, and low-income urban neighborhoods, which tend to be home to ex-combatants like guerilla fighters and paramilitary, as well as the millions displaced by the civil conflict.

Through their research, Friedemann-Sánchez and Grieve found family commissioners often juggle too many other duties and operate with too few resources to effectively carry out their jobs around intimate partner violence. These professionals are funded at the city level, meaning they can lose funding based on local budget constraints or the political views of the mayor.

When Friedemann-Sánchez and Grieve brought results from this research to the UN Human Rights Council in 2018—supported and guided by The Advocates for Human Rights, a group that holds special consultative status that allows it to appear before the council as well as other bodies of the UN—they hoped to persuade other nations to put pressure on Colombia to better address intimate partner violence. After the visit, they continued to develop relationships with stakeholders, collect and analyze data, and provide preliminary findings to cities and towns.

The following year, again with help from The Advocates for Human Rights, they returned to the UN, but this time to advocate before a different body: the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Ultimately, their involvement led CEDAW to issue recommendations for Colombia to consider restructuring family commissioners under the national Ministry of Justice, increasing resources to their offices, and limiting the variety of legal services the office performs. These were “priority recommendations,” meaning Colombia had to report back to CEDAW within two years saying how it had addressed each issue.

“This was a huge success because treaty obligations have to be followed under Colombian law,” Friedemann-Sánchez said. “It was exciting because in advocacy you don’t often get such a direct connection between what you push for and the actual recommendation that is made.”

In summer 2019, she met with Colombia’s Ministry of Justice to provide a draft of a book she and Grieve were putting together on their research and recommendations on the subject. The book came out in December of that year. In the following months, they distributed 1,500 printed copies in Colombia and shared a digital version widely. Meanwhile, Friedemann-Sánchez and Grieve continued to meet with a wide variety of stakeholders, from family commissioners to governing agencies like the Ministry of Justice, the Ombudsman’s Office, and the Office of the Attorney General.

After the researchers reviewed a final draft submitted to Colombia’s Congress in July 2020 and provided commentary in a public national forum, the proposed legal amendment became law in August of this year.

A New Structure for Services

The new law removes a wide variety of responsibilities from family commissioners that do not connect to their role addressing domestic violence, freeing their time to focus on intimate partner violence.

While family commissioners are still located under the municipal government, their officers are now responsible to Colombia’s national Ministry of Justice. The ministry can discipline mayors who provide insufficient resources to family commissioners and hold mayors accountable if they assign commissioners extra responsibilities. The law also ensures there is one family commissioner for every 100,000 people in a city, but mandates hiring more experts based on the rate of violence the demand for their services.

Achieving these changes required countless hours’ work over the course of years and continuous engagement with professionals and communities. In addition to trips to Colombia and appeals to the UN, the researchers interviewed family commissioners, prosecutors, family judges, advocates, high-level officials, city managers, and several victims of intimate partner violence. Their research spanned the capital city, Bogotá; Medellín, Colombia’s second largest city; and 42 other cities and towns, providing insight that had not been previously available in Colombia.

“Latin America has a very long history of engaged scholarship addressing needs in the community,” Friedemann-Sánchez said. “This was my motivation for this project. As a Latin American and Colombian, I could not possibly conduct theoretical research in an area where women’s suffering is so high and extreme — and their access to justice was effectively being denied — and then not advocate for the changes that our research showed were critically needed to improve the system for the common good, for Colombia.”