As in many armed conflicts around the world, in Colombia, men and women did not have the same experiences of violence. “The armed conflict has had a disproportionate impact on women,” said Germán Espejo, a Colombian government representative at a recent conference in London.
While more men were killed in the conflict, women and girls were more likely to suffer sexual violence, rape, enslavement and forced labour, prostitution and abortions. A recent Oxfam survey found that between 2010 and 2015, 400 Colombian women a day suffered gender-based violence.
“The armed conflict has had a disproportionate impact on women”
58% of the internally displaced population is also female, creating particular vulnerabilities for rural women, who often lack official land titles, and for indigenous women for whom land is central to culture and spirituality.
“Women are particularly vulnerable in the context of return to land because it’s hard for them to prove ownership. Often those women who are murdered or threatened are leaders of the land restitution process,” said July Farjado, a research coordinator at Humanas, an organisation that promotes human rights.
Despite the well-known gender differential impacts of violence, in 31 peace processes around the world over the last 20 years, women have made up only 2% of chief mediators and 9% of negotiators. Yet, peace agreements involving women are in fact more likely to last longer (35% more likely to last at least 15 years).
Innovations in female participation
The 2016 peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) opened a door for a new, less violent future for the country, an achievement for which President Juan Manuel Santos won a Nobel Peace Prize.
Less well known, however, is the groundbreaking inclusion of both women and LGBTQ groups in the peace process, making the final accord by far the most inclusive in history.
Formal peace talks opened for the first time in Cuba in 2012, and at that point just one of the 20 negotiators was female. But a national summit on women’s participation organised by civil society leaders changed everything, bringing together hundreds of representatives from women’s organisations from all over Colombia to force gender onto the table. By 2015, women made up 20% of the government negotiating team and 43% of FARC delegates.
“The subcommission was unique of its kind in peace processes around world”
The most innovative institutional mechanism for including women was the gender sub-commission, an official bipartisan group formed in 2014 of between five and six delegates from each party. “It was [the first] of its kind in peace processes around the world. It had the mandate to ensure the peace agreements made had adequate gender focus,” said Espejo.
The subcommission’s main purpose was to review all the peace documents from a gender perspective, including the agreements that had already been reached on rural development, political participation and resolving the drugs problem.
Critically, it also invited several delegations of women and LGBTQ people affected by the conflict to come to the formal talks in Havana and meet the negotiators. Former female fighters, women farmers, indigenous women, and sexual violence survivors and experts were all called on to put forward their views. This process was unprecedented: the government and FARC panels received 60 testimonies and recommendations from conflict and sexual violence survivors, including 36 women.
Another – perhaps unexpected – group invited to Havana in 2016 were former female fighters from countries including Indonesia, Guatemala, Northern Ireland, and South Africa. These women spoke about the challenges of their reintegration into civilian life, with men often expecting them to return to more traditional roles. They gave the subcommission advice on possible programs, urging the importance of education, jobs, and psychosocial support.
“We are coming from insurgent groups – for 25 years I was in the mountains”
“We are coming from insurgent groups – for 25 years I was in the mountains – and it was essential to learn best practices from women in other countries,” Victoria Sandino, the FARC Negotiating Team member responsible for gender, said at the conference. “For us, it was very important for there to be a dignified process of reincorporation of women into civilian life. Now we have created a strategy: better political participation, economic empowerment, social guarantees, and safety guarantees.”
The involvement of so many women has had innumerable impacts on the peace process. The final agreement has an entire chapter devoted to gender – the first of its kind – and every time the word “men” is mentioned it’s followed by “and women.”
Many sections are sensitive women’s needs, such as that around land and rural issues. The document now explicitly refers to women’s right to own land, says women should get preference in the distribution of land through the land fund, and that women should have priority access to subsidies and credits.
The accord also states that there will be no amnesty for crimes of sexual violence, and a special unit will soon be set up to investigate conflict-related sexual violence. There are also special provisions for women’s political participation.
Looking to the future
The peace process and agreement so far have been highly innovative and inclusive, but perhaps the gravest challenge is still to come – in implementation. There have already been implementation delays, and, with elections in 2018, Santos’ government needs to show results, fast.
“The gender focus will face long-term challenges”
While the conflict is formally over, other illegal armed groups are filling the vacuum left by the FARC, and insecurity is even increasing: since 2016, more than 200 civil society leaders have been killed. Forced displacement and illegal land grabs also continue.
“The gender focus will face long-term challenges,” said Espejo. “But it’s important to remember that the implementation of the agreement in all its components is not an exclusive task of the government and FARC – it involves the active participation and commitment of local government, civil society, and the international community.”
(Picture credit: Flickr/USAID)