Tables Turned

How two women could shake up Colombia’s unprecedented peace talks with the FARC.


When government negotiators sit down with representatives from Colombia’s largest insurgent group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), at continuing peace talks in Havana on Nov. 28, there will be two new faces at the table. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos recently announced the appointment of María Paulina Riveros, current head of the Interior Ministry’s human rights work, and Nigeria Rentería Lozano, the president’s senior advisor for gender equity, to the negotiating team. This is the first time that any woman has been named among the government’s five lead negotiators.

For Santos, who is up for reelection in May, the presidential campaign will be a referendum on the peace talks with the FARC. While appointing two women (one of whom is Afro-Colombian) can be seen as a boon to Santos’s campaign, the real gain lies in the fact that these women may just provide the missing pieces needed to nail down and implement a comprehensive peace deal.

Peace talks were launched in October 2012 and, after 17 rounds, two historic agreements have now been reached to address the roots of the conflict — agrarian reform and opening Colombia’s democratic system to greater political participation. The remaining agenda items include illicit crop cultivation and drug trafficking (which is first on the agenda when talks resume this week), victims’ rights, and the particulars of ending the conflict — including the terms of demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration of FARC ex-combatants, some 35 to 40 percent of whom are women. Riveros brings substantive expertise on these topics and on the territorial dimensions of the conflict, and Rentería has been charged by Santos with ensuring that the table "continues to maintain a focus on gender and equity in the conversations."

A gender lens will be especially important when the table turns to the delicate question of reparations for women who have been victims of sexual violence, as well to the design of ceasefire agreements and DDR programs for female ex-combatants.

The government strategy thus far in the talks has been to cultivate the support of potential spoilers by granting representatives of the business, military, and police sectors coveted seats at the peace table. But the Colombians most affected by the conflict and with the most to gain from peace have been largely excluded from the table. The 50-year war has seen the death of 220,000 people, some 80 percent of whom were civilians. Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, which are granted lands, autonomy, and authority under Colombian law, assert that the government does not represent them and worry that reforms will not take into account their hard-earned gains. And women, who constitute more than half of the Colombian population — and the majority of the conflict’s victims — argue that they have contributions to make, but their voices are being ignored. A peace agreement without the support of these sectors will not be sustainable.  

Colombia isn’t alone in its slowness to include women in the center circle of peace talks. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and at least six U.N. Security Council Resolutions recognize women’s important role in all phases of conflict prevention, management, and resolution. Yet women’s absence at peace tables around the world remains the norm. The United Nations reports that of 31 major peace processes between 1992 and 2011, women were 9 percent of the negotiators, 4 percent of the peace accord signatories, 3.7 percent of witnesses, and a mere 2.4 percent of mediators. There is nonetheless a strong historical case that having women at the table produces better outcomes. In El Salvador, Northern Ireland, Philippines, and South Africa, women have helped to craft agreements that reflect the broader concerns of civil society, especially vulnerable and marginalized populations.

Colombia hadn’t completely neglected its obligations. In fact, women have been key actors behind the scenes of the peace talks. There are currently two women on a second tier of the government team: Elena Ambrosi, director of the human rights office for the Ministry of Defense, and Lucía Jaramillo Ayerbe, from the president’s office. Both women contributed to and signed the initial framework agreement of August 2012, following six weeks of secret talks in Havana, but neither was granted a spot at the final negotiating team. Indeed, the top tier of negotiators — those who have the full authority to speak on behalf of the government — has proven particularly difficult for women to crack. (In his speech announcing the appointment of the two new negotiators, Santos did recognize Ambrosi and Ayerbe’s contributions, as well as those of the staff of the Office of the High Commissioner of Peace, which he noted is "entirely run by women.")

The fact that Riveros or Rentería are both women and that Rentería is Afro-Colombian brings with it high expectations that gender and ethnic concerns will be given greater attention at the table. The war has accentuated the poverty of already marginalized groups. Afro-Colombians and indigenous communities often occupy lands coveted by the armed groups, and they have been especially hard hit by displacement. Furthermore, just over half of all internally displaced persons (IDPs) are women. Ninety-seven percent of all IDPs live under the poverty line in a state of extreme vulnerability.

One reason that having women at the table is so important is that men’s experiences of war are not the same as women’s. Men in Colombia are more likely than their female counterparts to face murder, kidnapping, torture, arbitrary detention, and conscription by both official and non-state armed groups. Women and girls, on the other hand, are more likely to be forcibly displaced and to be subjected to sexual violence, forced labor, prostitution, and enslavement. "Social cleansing" practices favored by paramilitary groups in some regions of Colombia impose hefty punishments, including death and forced labor, on anyone who challenges traditional gender norms.

Violence against women in Colombia’s conflict has been perpetuated with virtual impunity by Colombian security forces, guerrillas, paramilitaries, and drug-traffickers alike. These groups have used sexual and gender-based violence to terrorize, displace, and extort women, their families, and their communities. A U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees report in 2011 found that 17.7 percent of Colombia’s 3.4 million IDPs were forced from their homes because of sexual violence.

But the problem isn’t limited to the battlefield. Rather, conflict violence is an extension and perversion of a pattern of violence against women that is widely tolerated. Some 80 percent of rapes in Colombia occur in the home and most go unreported and unpunished. Government ombudsman Jorge Armando Otalora warned on Nov. 24 that violence against women is on the rise in Colombia. In the first six months of 2013, the governmental agency, Instituto Nacional de Medicina Legal, documented 15,640 cases of domestic violence against women, 5,545 cases of sexual abuse, and 514 resulting homicides of women.

There’s a cyclical connection between domestic violence and the conflict, too. Male and female ex-combatants alike frequently cite domestic and intra-familial violence as a key reason why they left home to join armed groups in the first place. Furthermore, studies by Corporación Humanas and the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) have found that when Colombian ex-combatants return to their communities, domestic violence often skyrockets, opening the way for new cycles of violence.

When women have served as combatants and in related support roles — at least one-third of FARC are estimated to be women — many have suffered gender violence within the ranks, including for
ced abortions and serving as sexual slaves for their commanders. Female ex-combatants also face huge obstacles in reintegrating into a society whose gender roles they transgressed when they left their families and picked up weapons, and their comrades, families, and communities often leave them destitute and abandoned.

In response to these problems, a strong, female-driven peace movement has been gaining force. Women have a long record of negotiating hostage releases and partial ceasefires, securing demining agreements and humanitarian accords with the country’s armed groups, as well as crafting human rights legislation. In October, 450 women came together for a National Women’s Summit for Peace to offer their proposals for the talks. At the local level, women have sounded a steady drumbeat calling for political solutions to the country’s ills. On Nov. 21, Colombian women and their supporters marched in the port city of Buenaventura to demand justice and protection from a wave of particularly brutal violence against Afro-Colombian women there. The following day, thousands of women marched from the worst conflict zones to Bogota calling for an end to the war, urging the negotiators not to get up from the table until a final agreement was reached, and demanding that women be part of the peace process. "Without women, it won’t happen," was one of their banners. It looks like someone is finally hearing them.  

The inclusion of women — including an Afro-Colombian woman — as full members at Havana’s negotiating table challenges some of the stereotypes behind gender and ethnic discrimination that permeate Colombia. But it also has the potential to be transformative in other ways: As the president’s senior advisor for gender equity since last June, Rentería was charged with mitigating "intra-familial violence, child pregnancy, sexual abuse, and human trafficking." Before joining the government, she worked as a lawyer and as the regional director of the Colombian Institute for Family Welfare for Colombia’s most impoverished state, Chocó. Riveros has been a liasion for the Interior Ministry with ethnic communities on human rights issues presented before the Organization of American States’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. If she and Riveros can use their backgrounds to help ensure that the peace table addresses the gendered and ethnic dimensions of violence that permeate Colombian society, they could reshape the face of long-term peace in Colombia.

This will be no easy task. Rentería and Riveros are already coming to the table a year late, and they will need to get up to speed quickly. They will need to build alliances across gender, ethnic, and class lines on their own team before they will be heard. They will need to convince the men on their team and on the FARC delegation that supporting the claims of women and ethnic minorities will be critical to building long-term peace. They will also need to build alliances with civil society leaders, especially women’s groups, and the international community. These groups will be key in determining whether the agreements reached at the table will be translated into peace on the ground-for women and men.

Women have a long history of being ignored in Colombia, and this will need to change if peace is to stick. In the long fight ahead for Rentería and Riveros, the peace talks are just the beginning, but a vital one.

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