COLOMBIA: Women on the Frontlines of the Colombian Peace Movement


7 November 2016
COLOMBIA: Women on the Frontlines of the Colombian Peace Movement

 By Kate Paarlberg-Kvam

[Note:  This article
originally appeared in the NACLA
Report on the Americas
14 October 2016.] 

Alejandra Miller Restrepo of the civil society organization Ruta Pacifica in Cauca in 2015 (Twitter/@MujeresValle)

Last September, two graying fighters in the hemisphere’s
longest-running armed conflict consented to an awkward handshake. Ernesto
Londoño wrote in
the New York Times that he watched Juan Manuel Santos and Timoleón Jiménez,
alias “Timochenko,” head negotiator for the FARC, shake hands “in stunned
silence,” astonished at the diplomatic successes of Colombia’s four years of
peace talks. On the evening of October 2nd, international observers reacted
once again in stunned silence—this time, however, because the prospects for
peace were thwarted by an entirely unexpected outcome. The “Yes” vote lost by
less than 1% in a surprise to most observers
, who predicted that the
referendum would pass. Subsequent analyses have cast the vote as Colombia’s
Brexit, an electoral coup carried out by a disaffected anti-establishment
voting bloc. 

The “No” campaign, however, was anything but
anti-establishment. Though Colombians whose territories have suffered the most
direct violence overwhelmingly
voted to support the accords, the country’s white and mestizo Andean centers of
power, where urban violence has been on the wane, carried the “No.” This
seeming paradox, in addition to being a tragedy, illuminates the fact that
Colombia’s conflict is no longer—  if it ever was— a conflict between
the state and the guerrilla as much as it is a conflict between elites and the
popular sector. Chief among those who stand to lose if the hard-won peace
accords are discarded—and chief among those who fought hardest for them to
happen in the first place—are women.

Women peace activists played key roles in the Havana
negotiations, both in the talks’ preparatory years and in their execution.
Networks of women’s and feminist organizations like Ruta Pacífica (Peaceful Path), the
Organización Femenina Popular (Popular Women’s Organization), and other
members of the Movimiento
Social de Mujeres Contra la Guerra
 (Social Movement of Women Against
War) had been demanding a negotiated solution for two decades, softening the
ground for the Havana talks. Once they were announced, women lost no time in
advocating for civil society to have a place at the table, and organized
several parallel events to amplify women’s voices. When civil society was
initially excluded, women organized parallel summits and
roundtables, gathering proposals to be delivered to Havana. They held “cortes
de mujeres
,” public hearings designed as spaces for crimes committed
against women in wartime to be made visible. And they traveled the country and
collected women’s testimonies of violence to be published in Colombia’s Truth and
Memory Commission
report, a key tool in any campaign for a peace with

Women’s advocacy was largely responsible
for the diversification of government negotiators to include two high-profile
women at the table, and for the installation of a Gender Sub-commission,
intended to ensure women’s access to the benefits offered by the accords. This
marked a departure from the country’s—and indeed, the world’s—experiences with
peace accords; among the thirty peace documents signed in Colombia since the
1980s, only
15 signatories have been women
, compared to 280 men. The result of this
activism was a peace
that paid significant attention to men’s victimization of women in
wartime, and stipulations intended to assure women’s ability to benefit from
the accords and which gave particular attention to their differentiated
suffering. The accords also made mention of Colombia’s LGBTQ community. They
affirmed the distinct wartime experiences, and therefore distinct peacetime
needs, of diverse sectors, including indigenous peoples, Afro-Colombians, rural
communities, and people with diverse sexualities and gender identities. And the
accords called for state recognition of and attention to violations against
LGBTQ Colombians. These gains were hard-won, and the focus on gender and
sexuality came only after years of women’s, feminist, and LGBTQ
activism both in civil society and, one might imagine, among women guerrillas.

But these modest gains did not go unnoticed by Colombia’s
conservative establishment. In the debate leading up to Sunday’s vote,
prominent voices on the right and in the Church called attention to what they
referred to as the “gender ideology” of the accords. “No” campaigners warned
voters that the accords were a Trojan horse intended to smuggle in the
destruction of the heterosexual nuclear family. Despite the fact that many
similar or equal measures were included in the 2011 Victims’ and Land
Restitution Law, and that no measure went so far as to accord marriage or
adoption rights to LGBTQ citizens, the Colombian Right warned of a “homosexual
” looming on the post-referendum horizon.

The wave of patriarchal indignation broke when the Ministry
of Education, whose minister, Gina Parody, is an out lesbian, published “convivencia
(“living well together”) materials for schools, which included anti-bullying
and anti-discrimination recommendations. After false and inflammatory imitations
of the manuals were distributed to parents, the resulting outcry
focused attention anywhere that adhered to the narrative of the state imposing
a so-called gender ideology. The accords, it seems, were in the wrong place at
the wrong time. Combined with the backlash against the April vote for
marriage equality, a perfect homophobic and masculinist storm emerged. The Evangelical
argued that a “No” vote was a valiant defense of the heterosexual
nuclear family against an insidious onslaught led by gay and feminist rights
activists. Former president Álvaro Uribe, a right-wing Catholic and generally
an ally of Colombia’s evangelicals, referenced the defense of the family in his
desperate diatribes against the passage of the accords. Ricardo Arias, of the
Libres party, went so far as to count the number of times the word “gender”
appeared in the agreements, saying:
“The presence of the gender focus included in the accords is unnecessary. We’re
talking about an end to conflict, and they never told us they’d be talking
about the transformation of society.”

Arias’ comment shines a light on the unwillingness of
Colombian elites, in spite of the stated commitment of many on the Right to a
negotiated peace, to alter any of the structures that hold the armed conflict
upright. War cannot be understood unless gender dynamics are also
understood, as feminists have long asserted. Arias’ indignation at the
idea that elites should surrender any of their symbolic or material power – as
if a conflict built on the backs of so many could be resolved in any other way
– reflects a conservative backlash against
feminist gains in society and the law.

This backlash found a willing ally in the “No” campaign,
whose organizers used hyperbole and false claims to incite voters against the
accords, threatening that Colombia was going to “turn into Venezuela” and be
handed over to Marxists. “We were trying to get people to go out and vote while
they were pissed off,” admitted
Juan Carlos Vélez, head of the “No” campaign. The fact that the word Vélez used
to describe right-wing anger—“verraca”—derives from the word for a male boar is
not insignificant. Though Vélez resigned
his post a few days after making this admission, apologizing to the Colombian
people for having disseminated false information, the damage was done. The
European right-wing Catholic news site Infovaticana published
an article the day after the vote, gloating that with the defeat of the
so-called “pretext of peace” presented in the accords, the ideology of gender
was also kept at bay. The colonial legacy of the seigniorial order was
unwilling to permit a left voice into politics— perhaps for fear of how many
followers it would win. But the Church was also so eager to slam the door in
the face of the women’s movement that it sacrificed a chance at peace.

Since the October 2 vote, women’s concerns have largely
been sidelined. As Roxanne
points out, three days after the referendum, Santos and Uribe met
behind closed doors to discuss revisions to the accords. There was no gender
sub-commission in the room, nor were there any representatives of the
priorities for which feminist activists had pressed. Santos did, on the other
hand, hold meetings
with Christian evangelicals and business owners. According to one evangelical leader who
sat in the meeting, “[The president] has said to us very openly: ‘We’re going
to review this, we’re going to take out everything that threatens the family,
that threatens the Church and we’re going to look for a phrase, a word, that
doesn’t worry the believers.”

In other words, Santos—despite his erstwhile willingness to
work with entities like the gender sub-commission—is seeking to mend
relationships with the Right, and has asked women to put their concerns
somewhere between the back burner and the trash can. In a study of the role of
gender in nationalist conflicts, Cynthia Enloe has noted that women’s and
feminist interests are often sidelined at moments of national transition. “‘Not
now, later,’ is weighted with implications,” Enloe writes. “It is
advice predicated on the belief that the most dire problems… are problems that
can be explained and solved without reference to power relations between women
and men.”

The victory of the “No” vote was devastating for women peace
activists and other progressive sectors. But there are signs that Colombia
may still be witnessing a moment of consolidation and empowerment for the
women’s peace movement, even after the referendum’s failure. Catalina Rojas writes
that after then-President Andrés Pastrana’s failed peace talks with the FARC in
2002, peace activism on the whole was sidelined and disillusioned—“frustrated
and powerless,” in Rojas’ words, in the face of increasing militarization
wrought by Plan Colombia. But women activists maintained their demands, and
their movement strengthened in that moment, organizing an historic march in
June of 2002 that brought 40,000 people to Bogotá under feminist banners. The
event was a “salvation for civil society,” said
Gloria Tobón. Women organizers from various sectors of society demonstrated to
the country that the movement for peace was active and committed, and
throughout the subsequent decade, they assumed a place at its vanguard. As an
organizer with Ruta Pacífica told me in 2013, “The first to start talking about
peace here in Colombia were us women.”

In the days since the referendum, women’s peace
organizations have been among the many social movements mobilized in the
streets. Groups of women wearing white or carrying white flowers to symbolize
their commitment to peace have flooded public squares all over the country.
They are demanding that an accord be implemented that includes women, and they
have called all members of civil society to the streets to ensure a peace deal
is eventually ratified. Using the terms often invoked by Ruta Pacífica
activists, women are demonstrating the difference between being “pactadas,” by
a peace accord—that is, constrained as administrable State subjects with no
voice in the process—and “pactantes,” active drivers and signatories of
conflict transformation. As Alejandra Miller Restrepo, of Ruta Pacífica in
Cauca, said to me in 2013, They have to invite us to implement (pactar) the
peace. Women have no reason to be in the backseat of the peace process.”
 In the coming weeks and months, we can expect women’s peace organizations
to be far from the backseat as they continue to lead the charge for a true
peace with justice.


A Racial Analysis of Colombia’s Peace Plebiscite

By Chris Courtheyn on ZNet

Like Black Lives Matter has forced racist violence into public debate in the United States, listening to the voices of Indigenous and Black organizations in Colombia, such as Black Communities Process (PCN) and the Association of Indigenous Councils in Northern Cauca (ACIN), will be paramount to deconstruct and undo the racism at the root of Colombia’s war. Read Here

 Christian Peacemaker Teams – Colombia has partnered with women’s organizations working sacrificially for peace since the beginning of the project.  Will you stand with these women too? donate

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