Colombian women waging peace

par Simon Pierre B. Martel

The 2030 Agenda Sustainable Development Goal Number 5 and the Peace Process in Colombia. Goal number five in the 2030 Agenda stipulates that gender equality is an imperative for the advancement of sustainable development globally.

Recognizing diverse inequalities that exist between women and men, the goal underlines that all women and girls should be empowered and that all forms of discrimination and violence towards them, both in the public and private spheres, should be eliminated. Another important target related to this specific goal advances that all countries should « ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life« . 

In Colombia, the realisation of such goals is particularly significant in the context of the on-going peace process between the government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Ejército del Pueblo (FARC-EP). Most importantly, the Havana peace agreement signed between the Colombian government and the FARC-EP in 2016 is one of the first accords worldwide to recognise the role of women in armed conflict and includes a gender focus that is transversal in its implementation.

I met with some of the women* at the forefront of the implementation process of the peace deal in order to discuss some the challenges they face and their expectations in this unfolding moment in Colombian history.

This article draws from the perspective of women’s rights activists from different backgrounds as well as FARC-EP women combatants. 

Challenges to peace and women’s participation in Colombia

The women I met during the research for this article underlined that Colombian women made some important gains in the past years, but several challenges remain. With the Law 581 of 2000, the Colombian state guarantees the presence of women in decision-making positions within the state apparatus. The law stipulates that women should occupy at least 30% of the positions at the highest decision-making and other levels of decision within public institutions. Law 1475 of 2011 further adds that political party lists for elections where 5 or more seats are contested should include at least 30% of women or men. While those measures are important milestones in the advancement of women’s participation in the country, there are still several hurdles for equal participation in political affairs. Although there are signs of improvement, no more than 22,5% of elected seats in the different levels of government are occupied by women. 

In one of my interviews, Maria, a university professor and a women’s rights activist, emphasized that women who obtain political leadership positions do not incarnate feminine projects, as they have to change their agenda in order to be heard and recognised in the political arena. Women politicians, in that sense, adapt to the men’s way of doing politics impeding their full participation as women and ability to put their issues on the agenda. 

For the women activists I interviewed, the peace process is an opportunity to recognise the historical processes leading to the discrimination of women in Colombia and to improve their condition. According to Nidia, a union leader, the peace process could, on the long term, improve the situation for women in the country, especially if the gender focus of the agreements is adequately implemented. In a similar vein, Maria underlined that one of the most important problems in Colombia is the unequal distribution of lands. She argued that this problematic affects women more negatively than men as there is a lot of discrimination against women in rural areas. She noted that rural women’s livelihood could improve if the rural reforms included in the peace accords are implemented. Hence, the peace process may open possibilities for women from different backgrounds in Colombian society. This is also the case for FARC-EP female combatants.

For the FARC-EP women combatants I met, the peace process represents an opportunity to move on with their lives and make use of their experience in the guerrilla to take part in civilian life. For instance, Camilla, a FARC-EP fighter, said that « My individual dream, as a person, is to finish realising myself, study and prepare myself to become a more useful person for society ». She mentioned that she wanted to become a social worker using her singular life experience within the guerrilla as well as in jail to bring something to society and help women who face discrimination. 

While the peace process opens a possibility for both women and men from the guerrilla to reintegrate into different roles in civilian life, the challenges ahead can be different for women and men. The women combatants I met, underlined that FARC-EP is an anti-patriarchal organisation, meaning that, according to them, women and men have access to the same roles and opportunities within its ranks. They told me that they were not interested to depart from the equalitarian ideals as they lived it in the guerrilla to transition into traditional gender roles. They thought it would be challenging to be accepted as a woman and a former guerrilla fighter in a conservative society such as Colombia. Coexistence is thus another important challenge for both FARC-EP combatants and the civilian population.

The reintegration of combatants and the peace process at large remains contested by many. In October 2016, the population rejected the peace agreement by a thin margin and while the implementation was carried out after an approval from congress, many feel that the government conceded too much to the guerrilla. This apparent division within the population also underlines the challenges of coexistence in the post-agreement context. As an example, Jenny, a young women’s rights activist, told me that the FARC-EP had harmed her family directly. She said that many of her classmates had experienced the same and, like her, were not supportive of the peace process. The legacies of the armed conflict surely represent an important challenge to reconciliation. On another front, the perpetuation of violence in the post-agreement context also has an impact on women’s lives.

Societal violence and the threat to peace 

Both FARC-EP combatants and women’s rights activists I encountered voiced their concerns about the security situation in Colombia. While, in the recent years, the level of violence in the country has been steadily going down, the end of armed confrontations between the government and the FARC-EP does not mean that the country is free from armed violence. Since the signing of the peace accords, 37 social leaders were assassinated and many others have received threats from paramilitary groups. Some women activists told me that they were subject to such threats, but that did not stop them from continuing to defend human rights. In addition to those challenges to the peace process, violence against women remains an important issue in the Colombian society. In 2015, 970 women were assassinated in Colombia and numbers from 2010 show that 74% of Colombian women had experienced some form of gender-based violence. According to women’s rights activists, those alarming statistics should be understood as a symptom of the social and armed conflict that Colombia has experienced over the past decades. They underlined that women should be guaranteed to live a life of dignity and without violence in order for peace to be durable. 

After handing in their weapons FARC-EP combatants – both women and men – have been facing some challenges that are to some extent similar to civil society activists. They have to reintegrate to civilian life while coping with a complex security situation. The FARC-EP leadership received threats from criminal gangs and despite the security guarantees provided by the Havana agreements, some amnestied combatants have been killed. Camilla explained that many actors within society would like to silence the voices of the guerrilla combatants. She expressed that she was conscious that there are major security risks related to combatants’ reintegration but that the number of deaths in times of peace would never be the same as it was during the armed conflict. From another perspective, violence against women has implications for the reintegration of FARC-EP women. A recurrent theme addressed by FARC-EP female combatants is that they joined the armed group in order to leave violence they were experiencing in their communities or even sometimes in their homes. In that sense, a common challenge that Colombian women face in the peace process is to ensure that violence does not remain part of their life in the post-agreement.

Security, political guarantees and education for a durable peace

The women I encountered during my research for this article seemed to converge on three key solutions to improve the lives of Colombian women and foster women’s empowerment. First, on the short and medium-term the women I interviewed said that the priority should be given to security guarantees for the full exercise of political rights and political guarantees to be able to impact the policies that affect women directly. On the long-term they mentioned that education is an important tool for peace and for reducing violence in Colombia. 

For women’s rights defenders, education is a major tool for women empowerment. According to Lucia, an activist from the afro-Colombian community, women activists have the role of defending the individual and collective rights to improve the society they live in. In such quest, women activists should use their knowledge to put women’s issues under the spotlight and become actors that take part in social change equally with men. Drawing on her experience, she explained that, as an afro-Colombian woman, she had been the subject of discrimination but that education helped her gain knowledge to overcome those obstacles and become a community leader. Maria added that education is key in order to make women realise their condition in relations to men therefore empowering them to change their roles within society. She also noted that reforms in the traditional education system were key since it can foster a cultural change in how men see their female counterparts. She underlined that on the long run, redefining masculinity through the educational curriculum can foster a culture of equality enabling men to accept women as equally capable to assume leadership roles and prevent gender based violence.

For the women combatants, education is important to transform some of the skills they acquired in the guerrilla in order to transit in new roles in society. For instance, Tatianna and Inés, two women combatants who joined the FARC-EP before finishing their secondary education, told me that in the armed group, they were assigned to the nursing tasks and learned a lot from this experience. However, in order to continue undertaking such occupation, they needed an official education so that the skills they had acquired could be recognised for nursing in a civilian context. Education is hence an important component of the reintegration process. 

While the women I interviewed for this research had very different experiences and expectations regarding the current period of transition in Colombia, they shared a common hope that the situation in their country, including gender equality, would improve for all Colombians. It remains to be seen, however, to what extent the peace process will be able to meet those expectations.

*The names of the respondents were changed in order to insure their anonymity.

À propos de l’auteur

Simon Pierre Boulanger Martel est candidat au doctorat en science politique de l’Université de Montréal. Son projet de recherche doctoral, sous la direction de Lee JM Seymour, étudie les dynamiques de légitimation dans les processus de transformation des groupes armés en partis politiques.

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