Bojana Djokanovic analyzes the key role of gender perspectives in Colombia’s peace process.
The Colombian conflict started in the 1960s as a rural uprising for land rights that spawned the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Peace talks to end the longest -running conflict in the western hemisphere began in Havana in 2012 and have led to the warring sides reaching an understanding on peacebuilding measures that includes transitional justice, accounting for the disappeared and a plan for demobilizing the rebels’ estimated 7,000 fighters.
On 26 September 2016 the Colombian government, represented by President Juan Manuel Santos, and the FARC, represented by Commander-in-Chief Timoleon Jimenez, known as Timochenko, signed a historic agreement to bring an end to 52 years of conflict. However, on 2 October in a referendum in which the public were asked to approve or reject the peace agreement, 50.21 percent of those who voted said “no”. Although the plebiscite was not legally binding, it meant that the peace deal could not be carried forward on the basis of a popular mandate. The government and FARC quickly announced that they would not revert to violence and that negotiations to modify the settlement would begin immediately.
Despite this failure to win overwhelming popular approval (and supporters of the deal were quick to point to the low turnout caused by a widespread assumption that the agreement would be easily approved and that for this reason it wasn’t necessary to vote), the Colombian peace agreement may be regarded as pioneering for a number of reasons.
As of October 2015, the agreement included an Accord on the Missing which commits the parties to a series of confidence-building humanitarian measures and institutional changes to alleviate the suffering of families of those who disappeared in the armed conflict.
The agreement explicitly includes a gender perspective, and women participated in the negotiations, on an individual basis and through organized networks, to an extent that begins to reflect the overall makeup of the population.
UN Security Council Resolution 1325, adopted on 31 October 2000, “reaffirms the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, humanitarian response and in post-conflict reconstruction and stresses the importance of their equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security”. Though it has been 16 years since the adoption of this resolution, the absence of women as peace negotiators and peace signatories worldwide remains unacceptably high, and the Colombian peace process has set a global example in this respect.
This is crucially important because excluding the experience and the needs of women in societies that are dealing with armed conflict and its aftermath means excluding the experience and the needs of half the population. This is a recipe for failure. It is not only short-sighted, it is unjust.
Armed conflict and its consequences, including enforced disappearances, affects women and men in different ways. Crimes perpetrated against women during conflict include violations of human rights such as sexual violence and exploitation. Colombia’s Constitutional Court has ruled that sexual violence committed against women was a “habitual, extended, systematic and invisible practice” in the conflict. Furthermore, in armed conflict and post-conflict scenarios, women and girls are customarily depicted as victims, and passive bystanders whose agency and participation in re-building their countries and societies once the conflict ends is often taken away from them. For example, no women were principals in the peace negotiations or the signing of the Dayton Peace Accord, which ended the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This continues to have vast ramifications for long-term peacebuilding and the rebuilding of society in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Precisely for these reasons, the peace deal to end the Colombian conflict deserves close attention. Pressure by women’s groups resulted in the creation of a gender sub-commission during the negotiations. This sub-commission was tasked with ensuring that women’s perspectives were presented. It also sought to ensure the representation of the rights of LGBTI communities. This supported the inclusion of measures to tackle gender discrimination in the peace settlement that was put before the electorate.
In May 2014, the Colombian Senate passed a Law to protect victims of sexual violence. The Law specifically addresses sexual slavery, serial rapes, and forced prostitution that occurred during the conflict and establishes that acts of sexual violence in conflict may constitute crimes against humanity, war crimes, or acts of genocide. This makes sexual violence an imprescriptible crime that can be prosecuted at any time.
The Colombian government and FARC rebels have agreed to create conditions “for women and people in sexual minority groups, to achieve equal access to the benefits of living in a country that is not at war”. Members of the LGBTI community are to be encouraged to take part in politics, and may receive land to farm, or receive compensation to stop growing drug crops, among other benefits; perpetrators of sex crimes against women are not eligible for amnesty. As Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin has said, “putting gender in a peace agreement is a first. It has never before been done in (ending) war.”
However, following the rejection of the peace deal, comments on whether attention to gender and LGBTI rights and their inclusion may have threatened the agreement have begun to emerge. The leader of the opposition, former President Alvaro Uribe, has openly opposed the introduction of educational measures and manuals designed to help prevent discrimination and bullying against LGBTI students in schools; religious groups have expressed concern about how the peace deal’s gender provisions would affect the traditional societal order; the National Movement of the Family, a new group describing itself as non-religious and non-political, has begun fighting to retain traditional gender identities in society.  These are just a few examples to illustrate opposition to gender and LGBTI provisions of the peace deal.
Enabling women and girls to become active agents in negotiating peace agreements and societal re-building facilitates a holistic approach to addressing the needs of the entire population, including minorities, and acknowledging the harm that may have been inflicted on them. It helps to ensure that the socio-economic and legal rights of the entire population are taken into consideration and it supports the restoration of societal trust. These are essential elements in achieving long-term peace and stability. The opposition to new gender roles, which accompanied the resumption of negotiations to adjust the agreement rejected in the plebiscite (a revised settlement was approved by the Colombian Congress on 30 December 2016) clearly illustrates the resistance to change that is deeply rooted in the patriarchal order of society.