National Security

Women play expanded role in Colombian peace process

Women make up as much as 40 percent of leftist rebels. In this Jan. 6, 2016, photo, Gisell, 18, a rebel soldier of the 36th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, treks to a new camp in Antioquia state, in the northwest Andes of Colombia.
Women make up as much as 40 percent of leftist rebels. In this Jan. 6, 2016, photo, Gisell, 18, a rebel soldier of the 36th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, treks to a new camp in Antioquia state, in the northwest Andes of Colombia. AP

When armed groups lay down their weapons, women have rarely been part of the conflict negotiations.

But in Colombia, where up to 40 percent of leftist rebels are female, women have had a much more prominent role in the anticipated peace agreement between the Colombian government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, who have been engaged in more than a half century of armed conflict.

Not only have women been at the negotiating table, but they also have been working behind the scenes to ensure that gender issues were addressed in any final agreement. A sub-commission was established early on to ensure gender perspective in the negotiations and that women’s groups were properly heard. Women already have won one major victory: ensuring that sexual violence is not absent from the final accord.

“The jury is still out,” said Virginia Bouvier, a senior adviser for the U.S. Institute of Peace, which is providing resources and training in the Colombian peace process. “They’re still negotiating, so we don’t know exactly what the final reports will be, but the provisional agreements that have been reached do allow for sexual violence to be considered as a crime against humanity.”

That’s a major step, as the United Nations reports that just 6 percent of 300 peace agreements in the past 25 years mentioned sexual gender-based violence, and even fewer set steps to ensure that those responsible were held accountable.

On International Women’s Day, Bouvier joined Kåre R. Aas, the ambassador of Norway, which is helping to facilitate talks, in Washington to press the Colombian government and FARC negotiators to keep gender-based issues in the final deal.

The two sides face a March 23 deadline for a plan to end the conflict, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions since 1964.

The Obama administration has pledged to contribute $450 million to help fulfill a post-conflict peace agenda that would help pay for regional development and would demobilize and reintegrate around 7,000 fighters from Latin America’s oldest and largest insurgency into law-abiding civilian life.

Advocates for women also will be looking for job training and reparations for victims of sexual violence. During the conflict, Aas noted, many women rose to leadership positions within the FARC. They’re unlikely to want to return to stereotypical gender roles, he said.

It’s not only female combatants whose perspectives must be considered. Women living in the communities that receive disarmed fighters will also be crucial. In Colombia, female community leaders can help returning fighters obtain local services and job training though community groups and churches. They can determine whether they’re welcomed or ostracized.

Considering that women make up half the population, Aas said, including them is key to the legitimacy of the peace process and helps ensure success.

“They need to see the rights and needs of the whole population are fulfilled,” Aas said.

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