Women are needed, not only in the home, but also at the negotiating table, to achieve peace. Decisions made without women not only are less likely to include consideration of women and their specific struggles, but also such decisions willfully perpetuate inequality, uneven power relations, and minimize the both the suffering and potential contribution of women.
As the negotiating teams were announced for the forthcoming peace talks, I, as well as several others have noted the complete absence of women from the official peace talks and what that might mean for the process. Such observations are not the fringe observations of trenchant feminists, but go to the heart of the potential success or failure of the peace process.
While the FARC did have one woman present for the exploratory talks, and the Colombia government team included two women witnesses, the negotiators for both sides of the formal talks commencing next week are set to be all male. Several women’s organizations for peace have collectively written to President Juan Manuel Santos expressing their concern with this state of affairs. The exclusion of women from formal peace talks repeats historical mistakes, and is a profoundly damaging decision for the legitimacy and implementation of the outcomes of the peace talks, as well as being a blow for gender equality and inclusion. Women’s absence from these talks should not be a peripheral concern, and there are several very compelling reasons for this.
Tapping into existing expertise
Women, along with young people and children, have borne the brunt of violence in Colombia’s protracted conflict. While the majority of conflict-deaths are male, the consequences of conflict often fall on women who do much of the rebuilding of families and lives. More than half of those internally displaced are women, who often must single-handedly raise children and negotiate the difficulties of relocating to urban environments and adjusting to new precariousness. The recent study by Casa de la Mujer and Oxfam highlights the hidden cost of conflict, in alarming statistics about the sexual and gender-based violence committed by all of Colombia’s armed groups against women and girls. Almost half a million women reported suffering rape, assault or other forms of gender-based violence between 2001 and 2009. Silke Pfeiffer, the Colombia/Andes Director of International Crisis Group argues that it is experiences such as these which must be heard and responded to. The effects of such violence should not be dismissed as merely a ‘women’s issue’. Such challenges and violations impact on all of Colombian society.
In light of the consequences of conflict for Colombia’s women, it is obvious that women deserve, and moreover, require a place at the peace talks. However, in speaking of women in formal peace negotiations, please let us move past Piedad Cordoba and her success or failure. Cordoba should not be the immediate and only woman who springs to mind when the issue of women and peacebuilding is brought up. Many, many women have worked tirelessly and often in extremely dangerous and difficult circumstances to foster and build peaceful communities and grassroots peace endeavors nation-wide. They have mediated conflict at the local level, successfully negotiated hostage release, the provision of food and aid to conflict areas, marched for peace, organized at considerable risk to their own security, and built networks with other women activists.
Such activities provide a wealth of experience, knowledge and capacity to draw upon in strengthening whole community participation. Inclusion of women, in this perspective also recognizes that women, particularly Afro-Caribbean and indigenous women have borne the worst of the violence of Colombia’s conflict, often invisible but profoundly damaging.
Organizations such as the Red Nacional de Mujeres, la Oganización Feminina Popular, la Ruta Pacifica de las Mujeres, la Iniciativa de las Mujeres Colombianas por la Paz, and la Mesa de Trabajo Mujer y Conflicto Armado, are but a few of the many women’s organizations who have worked ceaselessly for peace in Colombia. These organizations are diverse in origin and make up and while they do not share a single agenda, they all work for gender equality and the inclusion of women’s issues in public debates. While various organizations have participated in peripheral forums and activities around past peace processes, none have been part of previous peace talks in a formal capacity.
International recognition of importance of including women
The international community has recognized the significance of including women in formal peace building work for many years. Most significantly the UN Resolution 1325 (2000) stresses the need to increase women’s participation and outlines the mechanisms by which member states (which includes Colombia) can do this. In 2008 Resolution 1820 was unanimously adopted by the UN Security Council which not only reaffirms the importance of women’s inclusion, but notes persistent inequality and under-representation of women in all aspects of formal peace building and post-conflict reconstruction.
The brief diversion into international resolutions is important because it underlines the observation that the absence of women from Colombia’s peace talks is not only an issue within Colombia. An argument can be made that Colombia is in contravention of its international obligations under Resolutions1325 and 1820 (as well as other declarations and agreements it is party to); and it is an argument that should be made, because such resolutions emphasis the importance and need of women to be involved at all stages and in all aspects of peace talks and post-conflict peace building. The 2011 Monitoring Report on Colombia’s compliance with Resolution 1325 starkly noted the complete absence of women at the negotiating table for any of the formal peace talks between the government and armed groups in the past couple of decades. Such a fact must be addressed.
Fighting for gender equality and peace for all
Finally an argument can be made that the exclusion of women reinforces patriarchal narratives of exclusion and masculine dominance; where women’s voices, experiences and bodies count for little in a militarized and politicized sphere.
International conflict mediators note that the more participants are involved in negotiations, the harder it is to reach a solution. By excluding certain groups, all included parties can increase their chances of reaching agreement. However, the questions must be raised: what is the value of an agreement that has been made without full consideration of those it claims to represent?
Often it is argued that formal peace talks are not the place to deal with ‘gender issues’ and these can be ‘sorted out’ after agreement has been reached. Indeed, in recent discussions concerning Colombia’s peace process I have heard this very objection to women’s inclusion raised. However, experience demonstrates that not addressing women’s concerns at the peace table makes it more difficult to address them at a later date. If women are included from the outset, ‘gender issues’ would not be a secondary or subsequent concern, but would be considered with the weight and value they deserve, alongside other obstacles and challenges in building peace.
This is not to reinforce stereotypes of peaceful women, but to recognize that men and women have different experiences of violence and conflicts and excluding women is not only a matter of gender (in)equity but results in a less secure, less responsive peace.
Colombians, of all genders, ethnicities and origins deserve peace. But peace negotiations that do not include women run the significant risk of perpetuating exclusion and reinforcing (often violent) inequalities. Women, and their struggles and successes are at the heart of the struggles and successes of Colombia’s future. Colombia cannot afford to sacrifice the concerns and suffering of half its population for an ‘easier’ solution. It is a shame that this is what seems to have happened here.
Helen Berents is a PhD Candidate in International Relations and Peace Studies at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. Australian-born, she has lived in both Venezuela and Colombia. She is currently writing her dissertation, which explores young people’s responses to social exclusion and conflict in Colombia. You can find her on Tumblr and on Twitter.