11. März 2018

The Colombian Transformation Process: Why Gender is Key

The end of the Colombian civil war in 2016 and the transformation of the FARC guerrilla into a political party has been met with international praise, especially with regards to the inclusive process focusing on women’s perspectives. While their role is crucial, consequent political events threaten to put this ambitious project in jeopardy.

A Comment by Frauke Seebass


Decades of civil war have officially come to an end with the signing of a peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla in 2016, although many barriers remain. A key issue during the negotiations was the role of women as part of the peace process, both as co-facilitators and subjects in the efforts of transforming fighters into citizens and reforming the security sector. This inclusive approach corresponds to a 2015 UN study confirming that post-conflict agreements involving women early on result in more durable and sustainable peace. But why should women be singled out in the efforts of national reconciliation, disarmament and reintegration in the first place, and what remains of these ambitions after the 2016 referendum?


Security Sector Reform: objectives and shortcomings

As a reaction to persistent insecurities after civil war, the United Nations have developed the Security Sector Reform (SSR) in the 1990s as a central contribution to post-conflict peace and state building based on liberal ideals of democratic societies. SSR measures include the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) of rebels, the (re-)building of democratic security institutions and the establishing of national forces accountable to all parts of the population. To achieve these goals various actors and tools are considered including the role of civil society, relocation of military capacities to tasks of reconstruction, professionalisation of security forces and measures of transitional justice.

However, the concept lacks clear definition of both its mandate as well as its extend in the broader peace process and its objectives bear complex problems of implementation, especially given the context of countries emerging from violent conflict with security institutions often directly involved in atrocities. In the context of Colombia, after decades of conflict, misunderstanding and rejection of reintegration efforts are widespread as most families have been affected by different forms of violence.

Apart from more general criticism targeting the application of universal toolkit measures to very different realities on the ground, a major shortcoming was identified in the narrow understanding of rebel fighters as young, mostly uneducated men ignoring alternative narratives. At the same time, changing demographics of conflicts now include child soldiers and diverse male and female players either themselves guerrillas, supporters (e.g. cooks) or dependents of those involved. What is more, victims of (sexual) abuse and crippled families are a reality of post-conflict societies, and traumas need to be addressed as part of the transformation process and as a prerequisite for reconciliation and reintegration of ex-combatants.

While this is recognised by the UN, DDR efforts continue to be directed at ‚traditional‘ male combatants, adding to the already disproportionate effect of war on women and children and their victimisation and dependency. This is especially true in a country like Colombia where gender roles are often not challenged in the wider society, making reintegration a special challenge for female fighters and their families.


Women, peace and security: Resolution 1325 and the UN toolkit

In October 2000, the UN Security Council adopted a landmark resolution on women, peace and security, widely known by its official number as Resolution 1325. Although this was not the first initiative of its kind, for the first time it offered a nuanced approach to different gender realities in conflict situations. The aim is to incorporate gender perspectives as it acknowledges the gendered impact of violence and its aftermath.

Two main concepts were introduced in order to facilitate gender sensitive SSR, namely gender mainstreaming (considering implications for both men and women throughout the transformation process) and equal participation, as negotiations and reconstruction involving women from early on have proven effective for more durable and sustainable peace. In the following years, efforts to adapt this broadened perception were undertaken especially in the UN toolkit tasks of SSR and DDR, both by practitioners and in academia.

The Colombian peace process was to become a rare example of successful implementation of gendered perspectives, a milestone for the sub-commission on gender in the peace process formed in 2014. Their reports acknowledged that gendered SSR is not only about engaging women but it can also serve as a tool to debunk the prevailing mainstream perception of sexuality, making gendered analysis part of a multilayer transformation including transitional justice processes. As an example, the international NGO Saferworld has published a toolkit for gender analysis in conflict in 2016.

Abolishing persistent forms of daily violence in post-war societies can accordingly be aided by the reconstruction of pluralistic masculinities away from the self-maintaining, one-dimensional military image that is necessarily inflated during conflicts and will not be challenged through or by female fighters. Kimberly Theidon’s research with former Colombian combatants indicates that this is very much true for the country where traditional gender roles are almost undisputed in society, additionally complicating the transformation from guerrilla fighters into ordinary citizens. While many former female combatants embraced a more traditional role as mother and wife after the agreement, many men and women struggle to find their identity and role outside the FARC.


The gender challenge: women as volatile subjects in peace and conflict

When talking about traditional roles and family values, we must keep in mind the particularities of the Colombian society and the differences especially the urban-rural divide and income disparity. In February of 2018, UN Women launched the report Turning Promises into Action: Gender Equality in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, in which they aimed to track progress as well as the remaining challenges for one of the cross-cutting goals the international community recorded in their 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), namely SGD 5: Gender Equality.

Colombia is featured as a case study and the data clearly shows how disadvantages are multiplied amongst women depending on their ethnicity, wealth and especially whether they live in urban or rural areas. Adolescent marriage and childbirth for example are much more likely to occur in poor, rural minority groups, where women are more likely to lack education and basic training to work and provide for their children thus remain poor, a vicious circle that transcends generations. These women and their children are also more likely to face health issues during pregnancy and birth due to limited quality medical services. This is but one example of the divers yet very concrete challenges that make women vulnerable.

Large-scale transformation has a price, for challenging dominant structures will always question the power of those profiting from them. In this vain, opponents to the peace deal fueled fears especially among the rural population that a “gender ideology” as propagated by the document would put traditional family values in jeopardy and promote homosexuality among youth. While ethnically diverse, Colombians are dominantly of Christian faith, giving church groups extensive leverage which they used to support this view.

The former president Álvaro Uribe used the widespread opposition in order to exert political pressure. The rest is history. In 2016, the referendum resulted in the narrow rejection of the peace deal, the agreement was revised and today shows little of its former milestone dedicated to diversified perspectives and equality. At the same time, an abstention rate of 62.57 percent raises the question of democratic legitimacy.


Transformation or stalemate? Looking ahead

In the meantime, the peace process stagnates in a society where gendered discrimination prevails, domestic violence and rape often go unpunished especially in rural areas, and traditional notions of family and sexuality often remain unquestioned. Whereas disarmament has been celebrated as a great success, the morning after shows dire conditions in reintegration camps, and both reintegration and reconciliation slowly seem to slip out of reach.

While civil society organisations and former fighters continue to promote an active role of women and their narratives in the ongoing reconciliation process, the FARC political party (Common Alternative Revolutionary Force, retaining the Spanish acronym) halted their preparations for national elections this March, as their members continue to be targets of revenge assassinations.

At the same time, FARC leader Rodrigo “Timochenko” Londoño has withdrawn as presidential candidate as he is recovering from heart surgery, adding yet another challenge. In view of fragile peace and stagnating talks with other rebel fractions preceding parliamentary elections, gendered perspectives increasingly lose ground threatening to undermine the historic momentum for inclusive reconciliation and societal transformation in Colombia.


The Polis Blog serves as a platform at the disposal of Polis180’s members. Published comments express solely the authors’ opinions and shall not be confounded with the opinions of the editors or of Polis180.

Image source: “Sandra”, Laura Avellaneda-Cruz, http://bit.ly/2todjlO, licensed under Creative Commons license 2.0.: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/.


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