‘There is no peace without women!’: Gender and the Colombian peace process

One of our goals of our #FaceHerFuture campaign, a coalition of women’s and equalities organisations who are working to make sure women’s issues are at the heart of the Brexit negotiations, is to make sure women have a place at the decision-making table. This week’s blog comes from Cherilyn Elston from Justice for Colombia, who campaigned to build international support for the Colombian peace process and have facilitated experience sharing between Colombian peace negotiators and politicians and trade unionists involved in the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. The landmark inclusion of a gender subcommittee in the negotiations is a great example of women being at the decision-making table to create better change. 

On 24th August 2016 the Colombian government and the FARC announced they had reached a groundbreaking peace agreement, hoping to bring to an end to a war that has lasted more than half a century.

Negotiations have been ongoing in Havana, Cuba since 2012. The peace agreement, which Colombians will vote on in a plebiscite on 2nd October, covers six main areas: land, political participation, end of conflict, drugs, victims and implementation.

Yet just a month before the final agreement, another landmark announcement came from the peace negotiations – the conclusions of the gender subcommittee, whose mandate was to review the peace accords to ensure they had an adequate gender focus.

The creation of a gender subcommittee in the Colombian peace negotiations is unprecedented, challenging the historic exclusion of women from peacebuilding. Whilst evidence shows that peace processes are more likely to be successful and long-lasting if women and civil society are involved, according to UN figures, between 1992 and 2011, less than 4% of signatories and less than 10% of negotiators at peace tables were women. The majority of peace agreements are gender-blind and make no reference to issues such as sexual violence during war.

Colombian feminist and women’s organisations, peace activists and LGBT organisations have worked to ensure the Havana negotiations don’t follow this trend. At the start of the formal talks they mobilised into action to demand their recognition and inclusion in the peace process, organising forums, sending proposals to the negotiators in Havana and putting pressure to ensure the representation of civil society at the talks.

In September 2014 the government and the FARC peace delegations officially created the gender subcommittee, which included members from both peace delegations. It is the first subcommittee of its kind in a peace process anywhere in the world. UN gender experts have referred to it as ‘a unique mechanism in the history of conflict resolution’.

The creation of the subcommittee reflects the specific issues facing women in Colombia. Of the 7.8 million victims of the armed conflict registered with the National Victims’ Unit, nearly half are women. There are around 16,000 reported cases of sexual violence, which has systematically been used by armed groups against women, and activists have worked to highlight how the conflict has specifically affected LGBT communities. However, women are not just victims of the conflict but are prominent political actors. Women make up to 40% of the FARC and have participated in political organisations across the political spectrum and in civil society organisations.

Recognising the diversity of women’s experiences of conflict in Colombia, the subcommittee invited three delegations of women’s and LGBT organisations to Havana to provide analysis of how the conflict has specifically affected those communities and recommendations to protect their rights in a post-conflict scenario. Witnesses included former female combatants, women displaced by the violence, women farmers, representatives of Afro-Colombian and indigenous women and LGBT activists, and experts on sexual violence.

The strengths of the subcommittee’s conclusions lie in their focus on the empowerment of rural women – as land is one of the root causes of the armed conflict in Colombia – and the strengthening of women and LGBT political actors in Colombia. The agreement also importantly incorporates a differential gender approach in terms of transitional justice. Within the truth commission that will be set up to investigate the causes and consequences of the armed conflict, a gender working group will be established to investigate how the conflict has specifically affected women. There will also be a specific unit to investigate cases of sexual violence in the conflict; under the terms of the victims’ agreement, sexual violence was included in the crimes not eligible for amnesty.

The implementation and monitoring mechanism of the agreements will be key to ensure that the recommendations of the gender subcommittee benefit women and sexual minority groups in Colombia and produce structural changes to transform the role of women in Colombian society. Nonetheless, the Colombian peace process has set an example for the inclusion of women and a gender perspective in peace accords in conflict zones around the world.



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Cherilyn Elston
Cherilyn Elston is the Programme Assistant at Justice for Colombia, a solidarity organisation set up by the British trade union movement that campaigns for human rights, labour rights and peace with social justice in Colombia.