(CNN)Colombia has introduced the possibility of a lifetime jail sentence for the rape or murder of children, following shocking allegations of child sexual assault by members of the military.
Colombia changes Constitution amid allegations of child rape by soldiers
President Ivan Duque signed the constitutional reform on Wednesday, saying its purpose was "the unrestricted defense of the children of Colombia."
The move -- already approved by Congress -- marks a historic shift in the Colombian penal code.
Until now, jailing for life was not a penalty for any crime in Colombia. Under the reform, the prohibition on 'life imprisonment" in Article 34 of the constitution is lifted and lawmakers have a year to set new sentencing guidelines for cases of child rape and murder.
The change followed revelations that dozens of members of the armed forces allegedly abused minors over a four-year period. Allegations in June of two separate cases of soldiers sexually assaulting indigenous girls snowballed this month into a national scandal.
On July 1, Army Commander, Mayor General Eduardo Zapateiro disclosed that at least 118 military members had been investigated since 2016 for "alleged sexual abuse and violent acts against minors." Forty-five had been removed from the military, he said.
Two days later, the army said an additional 31 soldiers had been kicked out of the military, including "12 non-commissioned officers and 19 soldiers."
None of the soldiers investigated have yet been charged.
Sexual violence is common in Colombia. According to the 2019 UN Human Development Index, one in three Colombian women say they have been victims of sexual violence, and the majority of such violence is directed at minors.
According to figures collected by the Colombian Femicide Foundation, 8,532 women and girls reported that they had experienced sexual violence in the first five months of 2020. More than 5,800 were under the age of 18.
Those figures are consistent with the numbers of cases collected so far this year by Colombia's National Institute of Legal Medicine: Of 7,544 medical examinations performed across the country since January to determine whether sexual violence was committed, 6,479 were performed on minors.
The two incidents that shocked the nation emerged in June.
First was the case of seven soldiers who confessed to sexually abusing a 12-year-old girl from the Embera Katio indigenous group, in the northwestern region of Risaralda on June 25. The seven soldiers are currently detained and awaiting trial.
Five days later, Colombia's Deputy Attorney General Martha Janet Mancera said a 15-year-old indigenous girl from the Nukak Maku community in the south-central region of Guaviare, told authorities she had been sexually abused by soldiers in September of 2019.
A military report obtained by CNN details a complaint filed by the state's Colombian Family Welfare Institute which describes the girl's alleged capture and rape by eight soldiers. "[She] indicated she was sexually abused many times by the [soldiers] during the term of her retention," said the report dated January 20, 2020.
Mancera confirmed details of the military report to CNN. "We are investigating based on what the minor has told us in her reduced knowledge of Spanish. She said a soldier took her to the battalion where she was raped for 5 days," the deputy attorney general said.
Another 12 cases of sexual abuse against indigenous girls in the Nukak Maku community are also being investigated, Mancera announced after a trip to the region on July 4. Three of the 12 cases involve members of the military, she said.