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In Colombia, Female Ex-Combatants Still Face Risk of Stigmatization


Victoria Sandino, an ex-FARC commander, participating in peace talks in 2015 in Havana between the Colombian rebel group and the Colombian government. Despite the peace agreement’s breakthrough advances for women, former female soldiers still contend with potential marginalization.

United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 and the resulting agenda on women, peace and security has called for more inclusive peace processes, stressing that women’s specific needs and experiences should be taken into account during and after peace negotiations. Yet the role of female ex-combatants in peace processes remains understudied and somewhat neglected in policy circles. As a result, female ex-combatants often remain marginalized during peace talks and stigmatized during peace-building.

This omission may contribute toward new social tensions and relapse into conflict, especially in contexts with large numbers of female ex-combatants. Excluding female fighters may also exacerbate pre-existing gender inequalities and generate new ones.

For instance, gender-blind reintegration processes can fail or further stigmatize female ex-combatants, preventing them from participating fully in the country’s social, political and economic life as it attempts to build a peaceful landscape. Some women end up hiding their status as ex-combatants, which prevents them from taking part in disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) and related processes.

They also face hurdles in accessing public services such as education and housing, especially in countries where women traditionally have little access to land and property. When training and education opportunities are offered to female ex-combatants, they typically follow gender stereotypes that fail to take into account the preferences and abilities of these women.

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Overlooking female ex-combatants partly results from broader gender stereotypes that present women narrowly as victims of conflict. Despite this persistent belief, empirical studies, such as a 2015 study of Maoist women in Nepal, shows that the “continuum of inequalities” faced by female ex-combatants may result in new types of violence and victimhood even after a peace process is signed.

This finding suggests that acknowledging the role of female ex-combatants requires tackling two contradictory dimensions of their experience: both victimhood and agency, including in the direct commission of violence.

In Colombia, women are estimated to make up 29 to 40 percent of Marxist-inspired guerrilla groups, including the FARC-EP, which signed a peace agreement with the Colombian government in late 2016. However, attempts to incorporate the voices of the female ex-combatants in the country’s long list of attempted peace talks date back to decades, and these experiences underscore the importance of two strategies in ensuring that peace negotiations and transitional processes like accord implementation, security-sector reform and DDR-related efforts and truth commissions are not gender-blind. The strategies are: network formation and information exchange, both within countries and across borders.

During the 1989 peace process with the M-19 guerrillas, which resulted in its transformation to a political party, a group of female ex-combatants came together at the group’s peace camp in Santo Domingo, Cauca, to have their concerns heard during the negotiations. Although the group proved short-lived, some 10 years later the Collective of Women Ex-Combatants (Colectivo de Mujeres ex-Combatientes) was founded in 2001. The Collective brought together women from different illegal armed groups (not just Marxism-inspired guerrillas but also right-wing paramilitary organizations), drawing on their common identity as female ex-combatants to press for more inclusive peace processes.

The Collective organized national, regional and even international meetings through which female ex-combatants from Colombia and Central American countries shared ideas and experiences and brainstormed solutions. They were motivated in part by the heavily gender-blind DDR processes in these countries, including by the Colombian Reintegration Agency (Agencia Colombiana para la Reintegración, ACR).

In 2013, during the last peace talks with the FARC, the Collective presented a Letter for Peace (Carta por la paz) to the negotiators in Havana and met female delegates from the Colombian government to provide inputs into gender-sensitive policies. Thanks to persistent efforts by women’s organizations, Colombian women managed to play a visible role in the FARC negotiations, both at the high table in Havana (most notably through the work of the Gender Subcommission) and through parallel efforts, such as the organization of national women’s summits and community-level initiatives.

Although the incorporation of a gender perspective in Havana faced challenges, the negotiations offered a window of opportunity to make the voices of female ex-combatants heard more broadly. Civil society has shed more light on these experinces. For instance, in 2016 the Observatorio de Paz y Conflicto at Universidad Nacional issued a publication titled, “Women Ex-Combatants: Significant Experiences and Contributions to Peace,” which offers recommendations from 122 ex-combatants from the FARC ELN, among other illegal armed groups, on gender-responsive policies.

In Havana, guarantor states and the UN Women agency also supported information exchanges among female ex-combatants. In May 2016, as part of the dialogues promoted by the Gender Subcommission, 13 women were invited to Havana to share their experiences, views and recommendations on how to make negotiations and peace-building more inclusive, focusing on the roles played by female ex-combatants.

Women came from Colombian armed groups (Partido de los Trabajadores, PRT, M-19, Ejército Popular de Liberación, EPL and Quintín Lame) but also from other countries — the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional, FMLN, from El Salvador; the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional from Guatemala; Movimiento de Liberación Nacional-Tupamaroes from Uruguay; African National Congress (ANC) from South Africa; Irish Republican Army, IRA, from Northern Ireland; the Free Aceh Movement in Indonesia; and a Maoist group in Nepal. They all met with government and FARC negotiators.

Participants discussed topics such as laying down arms and reintegration of ex-combatants into political, social and economic life. The meeting was also attended by the foreign minister of Colombia, María Ángela Holguín, and leaders from the FARC, as well as the government negotiator, María Paulina Riveros, all of whom recognized the event as an innovative opportunity to share lessons learned (both successes and failures).

However, the extent to which female ex-combatants will have their voices heard in the implementation of the FARC agreement remains unclear. On the one hand, there have been efforts to boost their role in the political party that was created, amid concerns that it has not properly reflected the role that women played in its ranks during the armed conflict. In February 2017, around 70 FARC women from around the country met in Bogotá, the capital, for a two-day workshop led by a former guerrilla leader, Victoria Sandino, to define their the role in the new political party and in Colombian society more broadly.

Within the zonas veredales — zones for societal reintegration — where the ex-combatants gathered last year to lay down arms, communities are emerging in which women are taking an active role in local organization and economic initiatives. When I visited Agua Bonita, in the Amazon department of Caquetá, in mid- and late 2017, women who had commanded guerrillas during combat were taking leadership roles in organizing the community’s collective projects.

Despite these initiatives, concerns remain that needs-assessment for the reintegration of women ex-combatants often fail to incorporate a gender lens, and that in Colombia changes to the national reintegration agency may not promote inclusive and gender specific responses adequately. And evidence from a variety of contexts indicates that without effective gender-based reintegration approaches for female ex-combatants, these processes run the risk of generating new forms of exclusion, social tension and even conflict.

This article was originally published by the Igarapé Institute. 

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Adriana Erthal Abdenur

Adriana Erthal Abdenur is the executive director of lataforma CIPÓ, a Brazil-based, women-led institute dedicated to issues of climate, governance and peace.

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