November 16 marked an important change in Colombia's peace negotiations -President Juan Manuel Santos announced that a woman would finally secure a place among the all-male negotiating table between the government and the FARC guerrilla. Santos' announcement was welcome news to civil society organizations in Colombia, particularly women's groups advocating for increased participation of women in the establishment and implementation of any accords, despite the fact that the move is likely linked to a desire to shore up votes for his reelection campaign. Furthermore, while the appointment of Nigeria Rentería to the negotiating table is an important step towards deepening the gender analysis at of the negotiations, many recognize that the participation of a one-woman minority at the table is insufficient. Women must be equal players in the processes of securing truth, justice, reparation, and the guarantees of non-repetition necessary to putting an end to the decades-long armed conflict in Colombia. Last Friday, November 22, thousands of people, mostly women, united in Bogotá to demand this gender equality as an essential part of the resolution to the conflict. The march was part of worldwide mobilizations surrounding November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. In highlighting the connections between gender violence and the Colombian conflict, the November 22nd march sought the elimination of such violence as an essential part of the resolution of the conflict and is a concrete example of women's important contributions to building sustainable peace. Human rights groups denounced over 100 arbitrary detentions in the context of the march, but fortunately acts of physical violence and repression were not reported this time.
The bold efforts of women's groups in Colombia are part of a global movement highlighting women's meaningful efforts in peacebuilding. The UN recently affirmed the important role women must play in the construction of peace in its Resolution 2122, which outlines specific measures for women's empowerment and gender equality, particularly in contexts of the resolution of armed conflict. The UN Security Council's September report on Women, Peace, and Security highlighted the importance of women's role in formal conflict resolution and in post-conflict reconstruction efforts, including elections, demobilization and reintegration, and transitional justice.
Concrete examples abound of cases in which the active participation and bold contributions of women have been integral in securing and sustaining peace, underscoring the urgency of ensuring women's participation in the Colombian context of the negotiations and in any implementation and transition processes that follow.
In Liberia, women came together and organized under the Women in Peacebuilding Network, becoming well-known as objective mediators between the Liberian State and rebel leaders. Once an accord was reached, the Women in Peacebuilding Network became involved in ensuring implementation, conducting a five-day workshop to establish deadlines for the realization of all points in the accords and disseminating this information particularly to women, empowering them to be active monitors and watchdogs in the peace process.
In the aftermath of civil war in both El Salvador and Guatemala, women played an important role in reconstruction efforts. In El Salvador, the NGO Las Mujeres por la Dignidad y la Vida provided key input for the government's plan for women and carried out health and education programs for women at the community level. Following the Guatemalan civil war, women's group Mama Maquín was a key player in transferring people out of refugee camps and advocating for women's needs in processes of reconstruction.
In South America, the prominent example of the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo highlights how women have been essential in establishing the truth behind cases of enforced disappearance during the dirty war. United as women driven by the insufferable loss of their children, the Madres transformed their grief into concrete action to call for truth and justice and catalyzed an international movement of the families of the disappeared.
Women represent a significant portion of the strength and energy behind similar efforts in Colombia. In organizations such as ASFADDES and the Fundación Nydia Erika Bautista, women and families unite under the common loss of their children, spouses and siblings, calling for the construction of an accurate historical memory concerning the fate of their loved ones and making visible the systematic use of enforced disappearance as a tool of war in Colombia.
Other organizations in Colombia similarly exemplify women's efforts to serve as voices of victims. United under the banner of “las mujeres no parimos hijos e hijas para la guerra” or “We women do not bear children for war,” the Ruta Pacífica de las Mujeres is a feminist movement promoting a vision of non-violence and peaceful resistance to war. Most recently, the group organized a truth commission focused on women victims of the armed conflict and published a report on the findings of the commission, based on 1000 testimonies of women and aiming to place their voices at the center of the process of the establishment of truth regarding the armed conflict in Colombia.
The report highlights the essential need for women's participation in peacebuilding by emphasizing the disproportionate effects of the conflict on the lives and livelihoods of women. Among its conclusions, the report finds that 1 in 10 women victims of the conflict suffered from sexual abuse, a finding that evidences the systematic use of sexual violence as a tool of war. A previous report by the campaign “Rape and other violence: leave my body out of the war” emphasized the systematic role of sexual violence in the armed conflict. According to the study, which surveyed a period from 2001-2009, the rate of sexual violence in over 400 municipalities with the presence of paramilitaries, guerrillas, the armed forces, and other armed actors was 17.58%, translating to a total of 489,647 women victims of sexual violence in Colombia.
Denouncing their systematic victimization throughout the more than fifty years of the armed conflict, women in Colombia continue to unite in peaceful resistance to war. Just last month, over 450 women from all over Colombia convened in Bogotá for a National Summit on Women and Peace in Colombia. Organized by nine women's organizations and movements and involving coalitions from different ethnic, regional, cultural, and political backgrounds, the summit culminated with an open statement to President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC commander Timoleón Jimenez which outlined women's wholehearted support of the peace process, the urgency of securing an end to the conflict in Colombia, and the need for a more holistic inclusion of women in all phases of decision-making and implementation of any accords.
Just before the historic women's march in Bogotá, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the US Congress held a hearing on Global Gender-Based Violence. As part of his opening statement, Representative James McGovern (D-MA) stated:
We know that violence against women is also weapon of war. In Colombia, unspeakable acts of violence have been commonplace against the women of that country, carried out by all the armed actors. The violence continues even after women and children are displaced or seek to rebuild their lives. Colombian women – like their counterparts around the world – are often leaders in their local communities and neighborhoods, and therefore targets of threats and violence. But they are not just victims – they are leaders of change and reconciliation. This Friday, November 22nd, thousands of Colombian women will gather in Bogota to march in support of peace, an end to violence, justice and reconciliation. I hope I speak for all of us here in this room when I say that we stand with these brave women as they unite for peace and an end to violence and conflict in Colombia.
This show of support from a prominent US Representative is key in this moment in Colombian history. Women are taking a stand after decades of repression and conflict-related violence and their struggle must be supported by the national and international community in order to ensure that Colombia continues to move towards a sustainable peace with justice for all.