An expert's point of view on a current event.

Are Women the Key to Peace in Colombia?

As the country's five-decade war winds down, how the government disarms female fighters could define the coming truce.


After 50-plus years, 222,000 deaths, $9 billion in U.S. aid, and 34 rounds of negotiations, one of the world’s longest civil wars might finally be nearing its end. The Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by its Spanish acronym, FARC) have agreed to terms for political participation, land reform, mine clearance, and stemming the cocaine trade. Colombia’s president wants an agreement signed within months. Still to be resolved, however, is the question of how to return over 8,000 FARC fighters to civilian life, often within communities that bore the brunt of the violence.

The stakes are enormous. If this process is ineffective, as it’s been in so many countries, the risk is not just that men and women from the FARC will return to the mountains to take up arms. There’s also a high chance that disaffected or underemployed ex-combatants will be recruited by drug traffickers, who added thousands of demobilized paramilitaries to their ranks after the country’s last peace process.

But perhaps the most critical factor for the viability of the coming peace is the inclusion of women in the conversation. Around the world, when armed groups lay down their weapons, women are rarely part of the equation. In Colombia, where an estimated 30 to 40 percent of FARC members are female, this would be a crucial mistake. As the parties negotiate, they must consider the perspectives of female FARC combatants — as well as women from communities where former fighters will resettle. In studying 174 countries, Harvard researchers found that the single best predictor of a state’s peacefulness is not its level of wealth or democracy, nor its ethnoreligious identity; it’s how well its women are treated.

Last month, a colleague and I met with government and civilian leaders in Colombia to share insights from decades of similar processes around the world. To avoid the mistakes made elsewhere, the parties negotiating now in Havana should heed several lessons.

As a first step, implementers need an accurate picture of how many women are in the FARC, what roles they play, and how their experiences and needs differ from those of their male counterparts.

For over half a century of conflict, Colombian women have filled a wide variety of tactical, recruitment, support, and combat roles in the FARC. Many were attracted by its egalitarian ideology and the chance to escape traditional gender roles; yet women who’ve left the group report being subjected to sexual assault and slavery, as well as forced sterilizations and abortions. This abuse happened at the hands of their fellow fighters as well as those of rival armed groups. The Colombian process cannot ignore these experiences.

Peace planners also frequently underestimate the extent and nature of women’s participation during conflict. At the end of Liberia’s second civil war in 2003 to 2004, for instance, the U.N. expected to disarm no more than 2,000 women, but ended up working with over 22,000 (missing an estimated 14,000 others). Without reliable data, service providers won’t be prepared for the influx of female ex-combatants or for meeting their unique needs.

This will require disseminating information in ways that explicitly target women, using language and imagery that reflects their reality. It also means creating reintegration packages that address women’s unique physical, psychological, and economic requirements. For instance, globally, many programs offer lump sum cash payments to demobilized fighters. But these disbursements are often determined by rank — which disadvantages women who fill non-combat support roles. And when packages are issued to couples instead of individuals, as sometimes occurs, men typically retain the cash awarded for both. In Afghanistan in 2011, for example, women emphasized the importance of designing packages that benefit entire families and increase their investment in the combatant’s continued participation in reintegration programs — suggesting components such as educational vouchers for children and gas for cooking stoves.

Job-training programs to provide ex-combatants with economic alternatives to armed struggle will be essential. During the conflict, many women rose to leadership positions within the FARC. They’re unlikely to desire a return to previous social roles. Yet, globally, jobs envisioned for female ex-combatants are often stereotypically traditional. Imagine telling a battalion commander that her only options are to become a hairdresser or a seamstress. Jobs that build upon unconventional skills that FARC members acquired during the insurgency — such as police officers, election organizers, and political candidates — may be better received. Without decent options, demobilized women will be at higher risk of recidivism or recruitment into organized crime.

The best way to ensure programs are designed in ways that meaningfully incorporate women is to interview former and current FARC members and hear directly from the women themselves. Starting now, the peace process must consult a diverse swath of Colombian women — making sure to include minority Afro-Colombians, for example. But it’s not only female combatants whose perspectives and insights need to be incorporated; women living in the communities that will receive reintegrated fighters are also key allies. When researchers in Sierra Leone asked predominantly male ex-combatants to identify who played a significant role in helping them reintegrate, 55 percent named women in the community (vs. only 32 percent who cited international aid workers and 20 percent who named local or traditional leaders).

In Colombia, as elsewhere, women in the community can help dictate whether returning fighters are welcomed or ostracized. They can also provide services through civilian groups; share resources like childcare, clothes, and food; and facilitate skills training and education for ex-combatants, which will ultimately ease fighters’ return to society.

Getting this right is critical for both sides at the negotiating table. For the FARC, ensuring women’s full inclusion in the process positions the group to transition to a political body. It enables FARC leadership to sustain narratives about commitment to gender equity and fairness that could translate into votes during upcoming elections. For the government, focusing on women could solidify the country’s reputation as a leader in defining global standards for addressing the aftermath of war.

The practice of disarming combatants and transitioning them to civilian life is complicated, messy, and rarely effective. The Colombian negotiators in Havana now have an opportunity to succeed where so many others have failed; and, in doing so, to reduce the risk of a return to violence that neither side can afford.


Jacqueline O’Neill is the director of the Institute for Inclusive Security. She works with leaders in the United States and at the U.N., NATO, and elsewhere around the world to increase the inclusion of women in peace and security processes.