SEATTLE — The Colombian government had been at war with a left-leaning paramilitary group commonly referred to as FARC for more than half a century, making it the longest-running conflict in Latin America. The death toll exceeded 220,000 people and 80 percent of these victims were civilians. Additionally, more than five million Colombians were displaced as a result of this conflict.
After many failed attempts by previous presidents, in 2012, President Santos began negotiations with FARC in order to put an end to the war. Women’s groups advocated for gender inclusion in the negotiation. Not only did the women in Colombia’s peace negotiation succeed in creating the first gender subcommittee in internal conflict negotiations, but they also managed to include a section with a gender focus in the final agreement. The executive director of U.N. Women released a statement calling this “an opportunity to transform the status of women in Colombian society through fundamental structural change.”
Women’s Social and Political Exclusion an Ongoing Issue in Colombia
Colombia has a long history of unaddressed gender inequality. Nearly half a million women in Colombia have experienced gender-based violence. Women are also more severely affected by unemployment. According to the World Bank, the female unemployment rate in Colombia is around 11 percent, compared to only 6 percent for men. Even with female inclusion laws in place, Colombia still ranks 70th out of 190 countries in female political representation, with less than 19 percent of political seats being held by women, according to the World Bank. Additionally, 58 percent of those displaced by this conflict were women.
Women in Colombia are subject to political and social exclusion; however, this is not uncommon for women in post-conflict countries. U.N. Women found that in peace negotiations with female inclusion, there is a 20 percent increase in the probability of the agreement lasting at least two years, and a 35 percent increase in the chance that it lasts at least 15 years. However, throughout history, women have always been underrepresented at negotiating tables and rarely hold roles in peace talks. Between 1992 and 2011, only 4 percent of signing parties to peace agreements and less than 10 percent of negotiators at peace tables were women.
United Nations Focuses on Female Participation in Conflict Resolution
The U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1325 to address the lack of participation of women in conflict prevention, resolution and peacebuilding. The goal was not only equal participation in the negotiations, but also to bring up women’s issues within conflicts. The U.N. also set up a Verification Mission to implement this resolution in Colombia, consisting of 48 percent women.
When the peace talks were launched in Norway in 2012, men occupied all the decision making seats. At the start of the Havana negotiations, each side could have 15 members on their negotiating team and only one of these was a woman. Women’s organizations in Colombia wanted to include more female participants in Havana, but it was reported that even when they were included, their contributions were often undervalued.
The National Summit on Women and Peace of 2013 was a turning point that brought together many women from different backgrounds, organizations and networks. Together, more than 400 women discussed how to prioritize getting a seat at the table in these negotiations. The women organized a public hearing discussing gender inequality in these negotiations. This summit made the issue of gender inclusion in the negotiations public and encouraged many to advocate for female participation.
The organizers directly link the summit to the appointment of two female negotiators, Nigeria Renteria and Maria Paulina Riveros, in 2013. That same year, Commander Victoria Sandino of FARC also joined the negotiating team. By 2015, FARC’s delegation was made up of 40 percent women, reflecting the actual percentage of women in FARC.
Women in Colombia’s Peace Negotiations Contribute to a Breakthrough
Another key accomplishment of women in Colombia’s peace negotiations was the Sub Committee on Gender. This was a novel and unique form of incorporating gender into conflict negotiations and it mainly served to address women’s rights in the context of this issue. It served not only to give women representation and an outlet to voice their opinions, but also addressed issues specific to women in this conflict. This committee was primarily made up of women and one male member of FARC.
Although this was a great accomplishment, the committee had no decision making authority and could not guarantee that their suggestions would be accepted by the negotiating group. Additionally, little time was allocated to this subcommittee and many of the women that were a part of it said their meetings were often on their own time. However, this did not hold the members back. The women choose to put their time and effort into this subcommittee and managed to include a gender chapter in the final peace agreement. In this chapter, the signatories acknowledged the need to recognize the different ways the conflict has affected women, and how reintegration needs to be approached differently based on gender and age. Additionally, they recognized the importance of women’s participation and empowerment in post-conflict reconstruction and the importance of guarding the rights of female victims.
This agreement was a historic moment for women worldwide, but it did not come easy. Thanks to the great effort of many Colombian women and supporting men on both sides, a section on gender was specifically included in a peace agreement for the first time in history, thus breaking political barriers in order to participate in the historic war-ending negotiations.
– Luz Solano-Flórez