The Colombian Peace Accords are the most inclusive and comprehensive peace agreement in recent history. Signed on November 24, 2016, Colombian women’s groups ensured there was a gender perspective throughout the agreement and implementation. Despite this, challenges remain for Colombian women, in both urban and rural areas.
The success of the peace talks that led to the accords was no small feat after 50 years of conflict, which saw over 7 million victims of multiple forms of violence, including forced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, kidnappings, torture, and various forms of sexual- and gender-based violence. By 2015, internally displaced persons numbered 5.859 million, giving Colombia the largest IDP population in the world after Syria. Around 58 percent of those IDPs are female.
Over the years, Colombia has had numerous peace processes, all of which had different outcomes. Some resulted in the demobilization and disarmament of armed groups, while others, particularly those negotiated with the guerrilla group Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejercito del Pueblo (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), have been incomplete. During these talks, women have rarely held roles on the negotiating teams, yet, with each new process, they have built on what came before. They have also found ways to pressure for their interests and influence the process and, therefore, have gotten closer to the peace table.
Prior to the start of the most recent, successful peace talks, Colombian women established the Women’s Initiative for Peace (Iniciativa de Mujeres por la Paz) and coalitions like the 1325 Coalition, working to ensure women a place at future peace negotiations. Colombian women also had considerable power through a series of mechanisms that had been established. These include commissions, subcommissions, thematic working groups, and a drafting commission. Two of the key subcommissions in which women played roles at the peace talks, include the Technical Subcommission on Ending the Conflict and the Gender Subcommission. Established in 2014, the Technical Subcommission on Ending the Conflict was established to address the issues of a bilateral cease-fire, the laying down of weapons, FARC prisoners, criminal organizations, and security guarantees. For this subcommission, women made up 25 percent of its members, with three of those being on FARC’s side and two representing the Colombian government.
The Gender Subcommission’s main purpose was to include the voices of women by reviewing the peace agreement with a gender perspective. Establishing such a subcommission to include a gender perspective in the peace talks was unprecedented. Cuba and Norway, neutral parties to the talks, each provided a gender expert to provide technical advice to the subcommission when requested to do so. The Gender Subcommission not only had a spot at the table but also was welcomed by the leaders and large parts of the negotiating parties’ delegations. This was important, as the heads of delegations made a commitment to integrate the gender approach into the peace talks, for which they could be held accountable.
In addition to the above subcommissions, there were visits to Havana by female leaders, parliamentarians, and experts in various fields such as gender equality and sexual violence. The UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zainab Bangura and UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka were among those who met the delegations. By 2015, women comprised 20 percent of the government negotiating team and 43 percent of FARC delegates, a number consistent with the percentage of women fighters in the group.
Despite the unprecedented participation of women in the peace talks, as well as the gender perspective within the accords, Colombian women continue to face challenges. The accords are in the implementation phase, and there are still a lot of questions surrounding it. Will the truth, land, and reconciliation commissions; peace constituencies; and other mechanisms established as part of the accords include gender parity in their implementation? Will gender-sensitive budgeting exercises help ensure that the budgets for projects designed to pull Colombia out of war benefit men and women equally? In-country women’s organizations and their international allies will have to persist in ensuring that these questions are raised and addressed as the implementation continues.
It is also known that international human rights frameworks, peace accords, and other legal protections do not ensure women’s and indigenous women’s rights. High levels of impunity for violations and lack of implementation of policies and legislation create the risk that legal mechanisms do not lead to practical change.
Additionally, there is no doubt that the normative framework for gender equality within Colombia is solid. It is, however, a fact that this has yet to be transformed into real conditions of equality and guarantees for women’s rights. Colombia also still lags in terms of the political empowerment of women.
There is also a major challenge in how to reintegrate female fighters back into civilian life. In terms of the reintegration programs laid out in the peace accords, female ex-combatants from previous peace processes within Colombia found that the programs were not available when they needed them. In the context of El Salvador and Guatemala, experience also shows that women in guerrilla groups experience relative equality with men in the field but were expected to return to traditional gender roles after the respective peace agreements came into force. Ultimately, the main challenge is the implementation of the peace accords while ensuring a continued focus on gender perspective. The peace accords called for a special unit to accomplish this, but to this date, the special unit has not been established, although preparations for doing so are under way. Political, technical, and financial support for this special unit will be crucial for its success.
There are a lot of moving pieces and challenges for the Colombian Peace Accords. The signing of the accords is an opportunity for more than just the cessation of violence and hostilities. It offers Colombia the opportunity to address the underlying social inequities and injustices that are prevalent within its society. It will also be critical for women’s groups to build on the already inclusive dialogue spaces created during the peace talks to have conversations within their own communities on how they can better serve both men and women during implementation. Doing so will impact society positively and ensure the accords don’t break down prior to being fully implemented.