The success of any future peace negotiations in Colombia depends on the country’s women, according experts in conflict resolution.
As Colombia makes tentative steps towards peace talks, it must be remembered that the lack of female involvement in previous negotiations played a key role in their failure, said Virginia Bouvier, of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).
USIP, alongside Georgetown University, Bogota‘s Los Andes University, and Colombian Jesuit Research Institute CINEP, closely analyzed the last round failed peace talks in the demilitarized zone of El Caguan between 1999 and 2002, producing two reports ten years apart. Both highlighted the lack of female involvement as a key reason behind the failure — and Bouvier, USIP’s Latin America expert, told Colombia Reports that women would be critical this time around.
“They will make or break this process,” said Bouvier. “There’s a number of reasons why. Firstly, women are half the population and so should be included — and to exclude them means missing out on key perspectives, strategies and ideas. Secondly, what we’re seeing is that when women do take part in negotiations, peace agreements last longer and are more sustainable.”
Peace accords are not just about solving disputes but about creating means by which all groups in society can be heard and included, so they won’t take up arms to make their point, said Bouvier. While acknowledging that women can be armed actors too, they are traditionally “strong advocates for peace”, meaning they can play a crucial role in keeping that inclusive society on track. “To the extent that women are included they will feel like stakeholders. They will hold the actors to account and do a better job of implementing the accord,” she explained.
A string of United Nations security resolutions have codified the importance of female participation in peacebuilding — that their inclusion at every stage of the process is crucial, and that violence against women is a theme of national security.
Sexual violence was completely ignored during the El Caguan negotiations, a failure which must not be repeated, according to Bouvier. “Sexual violence is often a part of the modes of operation of an armed conflict, and that is certainly the case in Colombia.” Studies have found that violence against women in conflict is related to violence against women in civil society — and that during a DDR process (disarmament, demobilization and reintegration), which are a key part of peace accords, violence against women rises.
“Men turn in their weapons and then violence against women surges ahead,” said Bouvier. “So what peace means for men may be very different to what it means for women — their lives may not be more secure. Peace agreements set the terms of what will happen to the weapons. But sexual violence is a weapon of war too, so if you’re going to disarm, you have to disarm sexual violence too.”
War affects men and women differently, and so do peace accords, which is why both sexes must be involved in forming an agreement for it to be successful, concluded Bouvier, pointing out there was no shortage of volunteers in Colombia.
“Women have been working extremely hard for peace in Colombia,” she said. “If you go down and meet with human rights organizations, although they’re usually led by men, most of the participants are women, with a tremendous capacity to mobilize, analyze and implement. They are not just waiting to be included, they are demanding it.”