By Alexandra Brookbanks
From the start of this incredible journey in Colombia just under a month ago, the theme of conflict has been apparent. Conflict is a space of unrest; it is an uncomfortable space of tension that lies between construction and destruction. Conflict is an inherent part of any society on macro and micro levels, from wars and armed conflict, to relationships within families. Even within our group of students, on a much smaller scale, instances of conflict have arisen in clashes in culture, ideology, political opinions and values. Conflict does not have to be viewed as a negative concept, but instead, it can be seen as a space in which change can be made. Power balances may be challenged, new discourses can be formed, and world views can be altered.
For women in Colombia, this arena of conflict over the decades has challenged traditional patriarchal social hierarchies. There has been huge destruction, that is certain, but progress has also been made towards greater gender equality in Colombia. This reflection will explore the many roles of women in the Colombian conflict and peace process and analyse the use of gender as a tool for peacebuilding.
Women participated in the conflict in Colombia in many ways, from serving as armed combatants to providing food for those fighting, to servicing the more intimate desires of men at war. Analysis of gender in the Colombian conflict zone reveals an inequitable distribution of power. Women are not understood to be capable of violence because they have not classically been permitted into positions of armed conflict. This was, however, not the case in Colombia. Women in many cases were viewed as a commodity for war, used for whatever was required, expendable. Despite this, women involved in the conflict, experiencing violence, tend to have more positive coping strategies than men. The reason for this is likely related to their family responsibilities, children dependent on them, they focus not on themselves but others. Women tend to be willing to do whatever is necessary to provide for those that they love.
In some cases, in which women served as fighters within the armed conflict, they were coerced into action. Some had their families threatened. Some were threatened with violence and feared death. This begs the question: are they not also a victim?
Survey data found that women are less willing to reconcile with perpetrators of the armed conflict than men. There are many possible reasons for this, but some include that women are more vulnerable than men through the process of conflict and displacement and additionally women and girls suffered 90% of sexual assaults during the conflict. It astounded our group that sexual violence in the armed conflict was considered the lesser of many evils. It was considered something to be endured, a comparative “minor harm” when viewed next to land-mine amputations and death. This view needs to be deconstructed and re-framed to do justice to the victims of sexual violence in the Colombian conflict, to begin to understand the trauma that they have suffered and admire their resilience. It is no wonder that women are more sceptical than their male counterparts when considering the peace agreement and its implications for reconciliation. Reconciliation, constructing a new future and forgiving the past, requires a full understanding and acknowledgement of the harm that has been suffered, the time, energy and innocence lost to war, and the making of adequate reparations.
An incredibly important session in this course, particularly regarding the theme of gender, was the attendance of Yineth Trujillo and hearing her story. Yineth was once a FARC soldier, she was once a single mother on the streets, she was once a prostitute. She was both perpetrator and victim. Her life had been centred around conflict. Her movement has been towards construction. She wrote a book of her memoirs, started a charity by women, for women named “Empoder Acciones” or “Empower Actions” which challenges gender norms and patriarchal values, and now empowers women around the globe. Her story was inspiring and she as a person simply radiated hope. Hope for a more equitable less patriarchal future for women in Colombia.
The peace agreement can be understood as a step towards deepening political dialogue in a historically polarised country, and the voices of women were present at the heart of initial peace negotiations. There were only 4 women involved in the 1991 constituent assembly, and from these consultations, small wins included a generous equality clause and a clause on the protection of motherhood. It was in 2005 that feminism began to be articulated clearly for transitional arrangements, and it was demanded that there should be a gendered approach to transition. On the road to La Habana, women were included as negotiators, in expert visits, and even with the consultation of feminist non-government organisations. Gender was an important feature of the peace accords, with gendered issues being recognised throughout the agreements.
Unfortunately, as in many situations seen around the world, the voices of Colombian women with unpopular demands for reconciliation, an end to war and eradication of weapons, and for the institution of peace and justice with feminist principles, were marginalised, even silenced, by conservative actors. An example of this is evident in the plebiscite “no” vote. There had been a great focus on gender in the negotiation of the peace process, however, there has been very little emphasis on this essential element in the implementation. This is resultant of opposition to the inclusion of gender ideology in the peace accords by conservative voices, reasoning that “because it has gender in it” it was of the devil. Obviously. The plebiscite “no” vote signalled a gender-inclusive loss to conservatives, and presently gender is no longer significantly mentioned in the peace accords. Despite the omission of gendered elements, the peace accords remain a useful model for peacebuilding in Colombia.
In the process of reintegration, it has been increasingly acknowledged by major actors in Colombia that a gender-sensitive approach is required. This is principally considering that women make up 25% of former combatants. There has been a notable differential treatment of women in the reintegration process, and many benefits of the peace process and reconciliation programs remain difficult for women to access due to structural constraints and inequitable laws. Action must be taken to break down the barriers that women face so that they may access the benefits of the peace agreement. One barrier to access for women is family responsibilities that keep them at home and do not allow them to attend meetings or workshops. Another barrier is geography: if some women live very far away from councils where they can access benefits, they may have no opportunity or ability to get transport to council centres. It is of utmost importance that the hierarchical structure of government organisations be distributed out into communities for a greater sense of community ownership and for greater accessibility for those who most need services.
In 2011, the truth commission for women was formed by Ruta Pacifica de las Mujeres, which is a local platform for the sharing of stories and discussing the impact of the armed conflict on women in the Coastal areas of Colombia. Since this time, an official truth commission has been formed to officially log accounts of the conflict’s effect on women across the nation. This is one way in which historical cases of violence against women are being addressed and, with recognition, it is hoped that future cases of violence may be prevented. Regarding the peace process, a recent publication by the Council for Foreign Relations has pointed out that peace agreements have higher success rates when women are involved and taken into account. There is no question that women should be given equal opportunity to contribute to the building of peace and the construction of a better future in Colombia.
Another important consideration is the rights, wellbeing and inclusion of LGBTQ individuals and communities into the peace process. When talking about gender, women are not the sole concern. There are vast numbers of people who are made vulnerable because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. These individuals are frequently targeted and are often on the receiving end of violence. Government organisations, including the Presidential Office for Stabilisation and Consolidation, have programs that work to reduce stigmatisation against those who identify as LGBTQ in the most violent communities and drug abuse guidelines have been targeted for these minority groups. The welfare of those who identify as LGBTQ remains at risk with few programs available nationwide, with particularly few support networks, programs and organisations located in the most geographically inaccessible regions of Colombia.
Most recently, in August this year, the Government’s High-Level Forum on gender discussed gender-related actions under the national reintegration policy. The most important needs that were highlighted during this forum included: access to funding and resources for community initiatives led by women; increased access to education and work opportunities; childcare support and improvement of sexual and reproductive health services; and strengthening women’s organisations on a local community level. Now that these key areas of concern have been highlighted, it will be fascinating to watch Colombia’s response and to see how these areas of concern are addressed.
While meeting and interacting with intelligent Colombian women in both Bogotá and Cartagena it has become apparent that not all hope is lost. Recent nationwide protests for peace have illustrated the desperate desire for peace held by millions of Colombians. There are still many gaps in gender equality in Colombia, but the people are speaking out for peace and demanding respect for human rights. Bullets have written Colombia’s conflicted past, but with the help of powerful, intelligent and passionate women, we hope that peace will write Colombia’s future.