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Including Women in the Colombian Peace Process
March 12, 2013|Michele Cantos
After half a century of brutal armed conflict, and the resulting death, displacement, and disappearance of millions of Colombians, the peace negotiations between the government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have brought a glimmer of hope to a country ravaged by war. Colombia has never been closer to ending the conflict, as the FARC finds its military becoming increasingly weak and their ideology increasingly isolated from Latin Americas’ left. However, aside from some empty promises from Colombia’s leadership, no real efforts have been made to ensure that the perspectives and aspirations of its women and minority groups are represented at the peace table. With deliberations expected to end in the latter part of 2013 with the signing of a peace agreement, it is crucial that both parties revise the structure of the peace process and construct a proper integration framework to allow (and encourage) a greater participation by Colombian citizens, in particular women.
BackgroundColombia’s long history of armed conflict, in which the warring sides are left-wing guerrilla groups, right-wing paramilitary organizations, and the government, has led to the death of hundreds of millions of Colombians, the displacement of over 5 million people, and the world’s highest index of enforced disappearances, with over 32,000 people missing to this date (Sanchez, 2012). Insurgent groups in Colombia resort to terrorizing and forcibly displacing civilians as a deliberate strategy of war and the violent acts perpetrated against women are, often, sexual in nature. A recent study of 407 municipalities between 2001 and 2009, conducted by Oxfam and the Casa de la Mujer, documented 489,687 women victims of sexual violence. Every hour over the nine-year period, on average six girls and women were victims of rape, sexual slavery, abuse, and exploitation (Sanchez, Lopez, Rubriche, 2011). It is also well known that in high conflict areas the commanders abduct women and force them to engage in abusive sexual relationships. This is the reality that Colombian women have faced for the last 50 years.
For the first time in a decade, the Colombian government and the FARC began official negotiations in an attempt to resolve the conflict that has afflicted the nation for half a century. Though both sides agree that there is a need for social and structural changes, achieving peace in Colombia will not be easy as each side has a different vision for the negotiations. The items to be discussed during the peace negotiations are as follows; rural development; guarantees for the exercise of political opposition and citizen participation; the end of armed conflict; drug trafficking; and the rights of victims of the conflict, all of which are expected to lead to the signing of a peace agreement that will put an end to the violence. The first item on the agenda, rural development, is of the utmost importance for women, in particular those of indigenous and African descent who tend to live in rural areas. In Colombia, the war targets the land as it can be used for the cultivation of illicit drugs and, more recently, for the exploitation of natural minerals. In addition, issues of land development and ownership were a major reason for the uprising that led to the establishment of the FARC in the early 1960’s. Currently, paramilitary groups and organized bands of crime are systematically displacing people in the gold-rich area of Northern Cauca. There, Afro-Colombian women are baring the brunt of a conflict that is less ideologically driven than it is driven by a greedy quest to control the land (PBS, 2011). The people of Cauca previously made a living from small-scale subsistence gold mining, but now paramilitary groups seeking to overtake the mineral rich lands are expropriating them through violent acts. This method is not only effective in ensuring that the community will understand the dangers of staying and fighting for their land, but also destroys the moral fabric of communities and any desire to return. Those that dare to stay behind are the victims of threats and abuse, if they are not killed.
Policy IssueThe deliberations, so far, have only highlighted both sides’ fixations on their own political agenda, exposing the views of a select number of Colombians. While many sectors are marginalized and excluded from the negotiations and the wider peace process, exclusion is especially pronounced for Colombian women and ethnic minorities. Two months after the deliberations began we have yet to see a defined mechanism for including a gendered perspective into the peace negotiations. It is reported that there will only be four women (two insurgent combatants; one from the Ministry of Defense and one from the Office of the Presidency) present at the negotiations, but none of these women are listed as part of the five-man negotiating teams on each side.
The signing of a peace agreement will not bring immediate peace, rather it will put a legal end to the armed conflict. A “triumph” of this kind will be very costly to the thousands of Colombians caught in the middle of the conflict, and will not bare a sustainable fruit because the real issue in Colombia is, and has always been, social inequality. However, social parity can only be achieved through democratic means that cannot occur if women and minority groups (a sizeable percentage of the population) are overlooked during the peace process. With lack of a voice in shaping the public policies that affect their daily lives, a gendered perspective on the conflict and how to achieve peace will not be considered, severely impacting the potential role that women could play in creating and maintaining peace. The lack of representation at the peace table undermines the role of Colombian women in society and will most likely just portray women as just victims of conflict, as opposed to active partners in a solution.
What are Colombian women doing?Despite the high risk involved, Colombian women have organized and have positioned themselves at the forefront of peace and justice initiatives throughout the country. UN Women reports that there are more than 16 nationally active women’s networks and hundreds of civil society groups (organized by women) that are working to build peace and bring justice across Colombia–often receiving death threats from the rebels (Sanchez, Line, 2012). The aforementioned women from Cauca argue that during times of conflict they are able to organize more freely than men, as the perpetrators of violence do not see them as a threat. Afro-Colombian women have organized and brought their issues to the international community and have made great strides for peace, earning the right to sit at the negotiating table to ensure that their voices be heard and needs be met.
RecommendationsWithout a bilateral cease-fire, and after three already failed attempts in negotiating peace in the past, Colombian women are still in the frontlines of the battle and are often the prime targets of violence. Neglecting to include women into the peace process, and future post-conflict reconstruction efforts, can present immense challenges to creating a sustainable peace. The international community, in particular the United States, should support local efforts to ensure that the peace process is not male-dominated and that it will not lead to concessions that will further perpetuate inequality and uneven power relations. The first steps towards achieving these goals is to jointly develop a strategy for inclusion of women in the peace process and all future peacebuilding and reconstruction efforts, support efforts to litigate cases of abuse, and use them to raise awareness about the abuse of women in conflict. Planning for a peaceful and democratic future, Colombia must; ensure that women are provided with educational opportunities that will allow them to occupy positions of power and correct the deficit of female participation in government; empower them to mobilize and organize when their rights are being violated; strengthen relationships between civil society leaders and government; and promote civic education to help citizens understand and interact with public institutions. Women and all citizens of the world have the right to physical safety and the right to control their own lives. If the warring parties hope to achieve a peace that is sustainable and goes beyond temporarily halting the armed conflict it is crucial that women are invited to the peace table.