Post-conflict in Colombia (4). Uninvited: women in Havana

The participation and influence of women in peace negotiations around the world is usually low. What is the situation in the current negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC? Español Português

Isabela Marín Carvajal
4 February 2016

Rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). RICARDO MAZALAN / AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

After almost one year of progress in the peace process between the FARC and the Colombian government, in the second semester of 2013 the Negotiating Table in Havana was formed by almost exclusively male voices. It had, by the time, only one woman among the negotiators. She was Judith Simanca Herrera, alias “Victoria Sandino”, who started to be part of the Negotiating Table in April 2013. However, the scenario changed considerably in the two following years.

There are some factors that place the negotiating process of Havana as a model in relation to the participation of women in the peace talks and the opening of areas in which women can have an impact when planning post-conflict and peace construction. These factors are the actions performed by women to increase their influence in the peace talks; the presence of actors who can influence the decision making in the negotiations and who take on the role of women allies; and finally the formal mechanisms set to guarantee the participation of civil society. Colombia has become one of the few cases, together with countries such as the Philippines, Guatemala and North Ireland, in which it has been possible to find these factors that change the disparity in terms of gender found in this kind of decision-making areas.

The fight of women’s organizations and their achievements in front of the peace process  

The Cumbre de Mujeres y Paz (Summit of Women and Peace) in October 2013 was the first event that made the difference during the peace talks. The Summit took place thanks to the initiative of ten Colombian women’s organizations and the support of UN Women. With this Summit they sought to gather a great variety of women’s organizations to achieve a larger involvement of women in the peace talks. More than 500 women from different social sectors participated in the Summit. From the event, a document collecting 810 suggestions made by the women was prepared and presented to the Negotiating Table in 2015. The document included some general consideration, including the basic principles for the inclusion of the gender focus in all the aspects of the agreement.

The efforts of the women’s organizations and the support of UN Women attracted the attention of other members of the international community, who also started to put pressure on the Colombian government underlying the importance of including women in the Table of Negotiations and in the verification and implementation of the agreements. Consequently, the names of two plenipotentiaries were announced a month after the Summit, at the end of November 2013. These two women were going to take Luis Carlos Villegas place (who was President of the National Association of Industries of Colombia for some years, before being appointed plenipotentiary in September 2012) as representatives of the government in the Table of Negotiations. The appointed women were Nigeria Rentería (Senior Advisor for Women) and María Paulina Riveros, at the time Director of Human Rights of the Ministry of the Interior.

Moreover, between November 2012 and September 2013, the Forums and the Working Tables at the regional and national levels were set. These allowed women to put forward their proposals about the General Agreement, known as the General Agreement for the Termination of the Conflict and the Construction of a Stable and Lasting Peace. According to the UN, the number of women participating in these formal areas was 4.276, which represents a 45% of the total participants. The forums had representation of native women, women of African descent, peasants, young women, Raizal women, LGBT, women victims of the armed conflict, entrepreneurs, Human Rights activists, peace activists, trade unionists, and women from political movements and parties. The results were systematized by the UN and delivered to the Table of Conversations through the two guarantor countries, Cuba and Norway.

The topics highlighted by women in the forums were truth, reparation and justice (included in the item “Victims”), and social and rural development and effective mechanisms to promote political participation. Some of the proposals implied that, once the truth has been established, the legal and illegal actors must take responsibility for the facts. The need to create Truth Commissions that include women in the team was also highlighted, and also Special Subcommittees to deal with gender issues. In relation to the reparation component, the focus was on the need to create programs for the protection of women who were victims, and of women leaders who find themselves at risk. These programs are aimed at adopting special preventive mechanisms, protection and guaranteeing stability, most of all in areas of reintegration of combatants.

The proposals framed in the agrarian development item were focused on the need for education, health, housing and income. In addition, it was recommended, as a basic point, the need to include in the future law on land and rural development a specific chapter about the Rural Woman (Law 731 of 2002 that seeks to favour the rural woman). Concerning political participation, the demands aim to close gender breaches in the decision-making areas like political parties, public administration and citizen participation, as well as transforming discriminatory practices in political parties and other expressions of political and public participation. Finally, it was highlighted a proposal -that is part of the cross-cutting subjects of the Agreement - which refers to the contributions in terms of peace-culture through the rejection of militarization, war and violence against women, as examples of patriarchal cultures in which the patterns of discrimination prevail.

Finally, in September 2014, the creation of a subcommittee of Gender located in Havana was announced. The subcommittee has a technical character, and its function is to examine the agreements in light of recommendations presented by experts in gender studies. It is composed of five representatives of the Government and five from the Guerrilla. The heads are María Paulina Riveros, in representation of the Government, and Victoria Sandino, in representation of the Guerrilla. Different groups travelled to Havana: among them were national and regional organizations of women victims of the conflict, organizations for the empowerment and the defence of women’s rights, peace building from the arts, ex-combatants, LGTB organizations and other native, peasant and black women’s organizations. In representation of these organizations, 16 women and 2 men travelled to Havana.

The goal of the trips was to provide space to the representatives to present their positions and demands, mainly before the Gender Subcommittee and, in some cases, before some of the negotiators. In the same way, the representatives delivered a collective proposal about the agreements being negotiated. In the Cycles of Visits of the Delegations of Victims, there was also a large participation of women: out of the 60 people that were part of the five delegations of victims, 36 were women, that is to say, the 60%. In light of these mechanisms, the issue of sexual violence in the armed conflict was put forward strongly. The latter is one of the matters of greatest interest to the organizations in the Peace Talks. One of the worries is the lack of recognition of this crime from the illegal armed actors’ side, although the Registry of Victims (Registro Único de Victimas, RUV) documented 1.724 cases of sexual violence that happened between 1985 and 2012. In the case of the militia, during the process Justice and Peace with the AUC (United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia) only 96 of those were admitted.

In relation to the advantages of the creation of the Gender Subcommittee, one of the gender experts that travelled to Havana, interviewed in March 2015, considered the following:

 ‘(…) I believe that this Gender Subcommittee is really achieving something; it has earned recognition and legitimation from the negotiating table. When someone reads the items agreed, he or she knows that someone rose the hand in favour of the perspective of the rights of women, not because they are the most feminist, but because there is clearly the evidence of a work made basically by the Gender Subcommittee.’

It’s not all a bed of roses

Despite the latter, there are still some parallel areas in the Negotiating Table in which essential issues are being discussed in terms of truth, transitional justice and the planning of post-conflict in which the participation of women continues to be very low. Some of these areas are: the National Peace Council, which only has a quota for women’s organizations and the Commission for Historical Clarification, in which out of 12 commissioners and two reporters summoned to write the reports, there was only one woman. Moreover, there have been no women among the national and international experts who have stayed in Havana giving advice to the delegations, the advisors that discuss important matters in the negotiation, and the experts that were summoned to discuss every item in the agenda. The exception has been the Victims item.

Furthermore, the women’s organizations have a pessimistic vision about what can be achieved in the context of the negotiations and the Peace Agreement, in relation to their demands around the topic of sexual violence. The reasons are: the difficulty for the perpetrators to take the responsibility for these sort of actions; the small amount of documentation and investigation made on how sexual violence has been exerted in the armed conflict in Colombia; and also the obstacles when trying to lodge a formal criminal complaint. These obstacles are mainly due to the social stigma that falls on the victim and for the consequent double victimization that they suffer from the officials who are supposed to assist them. As one of the gender experts that travelled to Havana, intyerwied in Bogotá in March 2015, declared:

‘We highlight with more strength the effect of justice on women victims of sexual violence since it appears that it does not consider that a raped woman has rights. Even the most discriminated person of this country perceives that war has strongly violated his or her rights, but women tend to believe that it is not a right of their own that they shall not be raped. It is not a right not to be abused, it is not a right to have a life free from violence. They think that “he hit me because the food was not ready, the man raped me because of this or that…” The only case in which the victim feels guilty and ashamed is sexual violence. And even if the woman forgets that she is the responsible for what happened to her, or she starts to overcome it, the community, the family, or the administration of justice will remind her of her guilt.’

However, related to this issue, it can be considered a partial achievement the fact that sexual violence has been declared as one of the crimes in which there will not be amnesty or pardon in the Special Jurisdiction for Peace and in the draft of the Agreement on the Victims of the Conflict, published in December 2015. It is also established that the Unit for Investigation and Accusation will count on the participation of a special investigation team for cases of sexual violence, and that they will rely on “the special dispositions about the practice of proof in the matter included in the Rome Statute”.

In conclusion, the experience that Colombia has undergone in relation to the inclusion of women and the incorporation of a gender perspective in the negotiations and the Peace Agreement in Havana is encouraging. We still have to see if this force is kept during the period of implementation of agreements and in the mechanisms that will be established for its design, or if instead, the women’s organizations will have to shake things again in order to make sure their voice and agenda are taken into account in the construction of a peaceful country.

Translation by Victoria Gómez, member of the Volunteer Program of DemocraciaAbierta

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