Today, the government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) insurgency group meet in Oslo, Norway, to begin deliberations aimed at concluding a 48-year civil war. The Colombian armed conflict has resulted in the estimated deaths of around 100,000 people, forcibly displaced more than 5 million people, and produced as many forced disappearances as the most egregious cases in Latin America. In addition to the terrible human costs, the violence has facilitated an atmosphere for illicit drug trafficking and paralyzed the nation’s economic development.
This is an historic opportunity to end the last cold war conflict in Latin America. While the combatants at the negotiating table may finally end the fighting, greater participation by Colombians, especially Colombian women, is critical for laying the foundation for a lasting peace.
For Colombian women the armed conflict is an everyday reality. A study of 407 municipalities between 2001 and 2009 documented 489,687 women victims of sexual violence. Every hour over the nine-year period, on average six girls and women were victims of rape, sexual slavery, abuse, and exploitation. It has become normal in the conflict areas for commanders to force women into abusive sexual relationships.
Despite this stark reality, and at great personal risk for their security, women have been at the forefront of peace and justice initiatives in Colombia. More than 16 nationally active networks and hundreds of local organizations of women work to build peace and justice across the country. Paramilitary organizations, ostensibly demobilized in a five-year transitional justice process, continue to target these organizations with threats of violence.
Women have led the struggle for land restitution and for the rights to truth, justice, and reparations for victims. Women have placed the issue of more than 32,000 forced disappearances on the national and international agenda. Women teachers defend their students from forced recruitment by armed groups. Women have recovered and buried the bodies and found ways for victims to survive in the midst of conflict. Their participation in the peace process is not a demand to be considered, it is a right they have earned.
Despite assurances from Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos that women will have a defined role in the process, the parties to the negotiations have yet to define mechanisms for their meaningful involvement. Historically women have only represented 8 percent of negotiating teams, a tremendous deficiency that the United Nations has committed to reversing. Evidently, there are going to be four women (two insurgent combatants; one from the Ministry of Defense and one from the Office of the Presidency) present at the negotiations, but they are not listed as part of the five-man negotiating teams on each side.
Even if officially included, they appear to be representing the parties to the conflict more than a gendered perspective of the impact of violence on Colombian women, with strategies to end the impunity for sexual violence committed by their forces, or with proposals to counter the historical exclusion women have suffered. Colombian women and their substantive proposals, beyond the combatants, must be incorporated into the peace process.
As Marcelo Pollack of Amnesty International states, “By failing to investigate effectively sexual violence against women, the Colombian authorities are sending a dangerous message to perpetrators that they can continue to rape and sexually abuse without fear of the consequences…Respect for human rights must be at the top of the agenda in the forthcoming peace talks between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Without a clear commitment from all the parties to the conflict to end sexual violence and other human rights abuses there can be no lasting and stable peace in Colombia.”
Professionals who study peace processes distinguish between ending the fighting – negative peace – and transforming the underlying causes of conflict – positive peace. For the millions of Colombians caught in the crossfire or forced to leave their homes, any end to the savagery – even a negative peace – would be welcome relief. Yet to make an eventual peace accord last it will be important to address the historic inequities that underpin conflict. To do so effectively will require both security and social inclusion, as pointed out by President Obama, and broad international support, including that of the United States.
Colombian women – and also the millions of Afro-Colombians, indigenous peoples, rural peasants, and trade unionists brutalized by the conflict – should not simply be relegated to observe the process from afar. Their perspectives, and aspirations for justice, must be included in the negotiations to ensure a lasting peace – because Colombians caught in the conflict, especially women, are not simply victims. Many have worked tirelessly for peace and reconciliation despite the risks.
Social exclusion has been one of the underpinnings of conflict in Colombia, and it should not be replicated in these talks. Social inclusion, where citizen “change agents” can be an integral part of the negotiations and their outcomes, is crucial for a sustainable peace.
Nancy Sánchez has worked as a human rights defender for decades in Colombia, most recently in Putumayo. She is currently a Woman PeaceMaker in residence at the University of San Diego. Milburn Line is executive director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice at the University of San Diego. From 2007 to 2009, he managed a project in Colombia that worked with civil society and government institutions working to protect human rights.