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For Women, A Contradictory Peace in Colombia

by Kate Paarlberg-Kvam, for NACLA

So long as Colombia’s peace accords fail to contend with the liberal economic order or challenge extractivism and militarism in the country, they will fall short of achieving true gender justice.

There is much to celebrate about the novelty and importance of the 2016 peace accords between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), not least due to their explicit focus on gendered experiences of war for women and LGBTI Colombians.

This “gender focus” of the peace accords results from the tireless advocacy of women’s social movements for the recognition of the role of gender in shaping experiences of conflict. The incorporation of gendered concerns at the highest levels of national and international governance has advanced significantly in the last 20 years, and Colombia’s accords have lit the way forward for building a peace defined by gender justice.

Yet more than two years later, the prognosis appears less optimistic. The Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies reports that the provisions of the accords related to women and gender—land tenure programs with a focus on women and the incorporation of women into decision-making spaces—have been the least implemented, and many feminist gains envisioned in the accords are not reflected on the ground. Women’s participation in policy planning remains low, commitments at the state level (particularly those to ex-combatants) have been broken, and, most appallingly, there have been close to 500 assassinations of social movement leaders, the vast majority of them Afro-Colombian and Indigenous, by neo-paramilitary groups since the accords were ratified. Women’s groups also report that violence against women has increased since accords were signed, a common trend after peace agreements elsewhere in the world.

Despite their innovations, the accords remain stubbornly rooted in a neoliberal paradigm that privileges a militarized export economy fueled by resource extraction—a paradigm that perpetuates gender violence. Furthermore, the notion of gender justice presented in the accords is rooted in a singular understanding of what it means to be a woman in conflict. The very peacebuilding model on which the accords are based is an obstacle to the gender justice that they purport to advance.

A Flawed Model

The shortcomings of the peace agreement are in large part due to its failure to challenge the neoliberal economic model that characterizes Colombian politics—a failure that has also hurt its gender-based outcomes. The shortcomings of the peace agreement are in large part due to its failure to challenge the neoliberal economic model that characterizes Colombian politics—a failure that has also hurt its gender-based outcomes. While they certainly represent a “hybrid” form of peacebuilding in terms of grassroots participation and locally-negotiated forms of justice, the accords were conceived under a traditional liberal peacebuilding paradigm. They privilege most of the central axes of the liberal model—free market integration, “good governance,” and private property rights, for instance—highlighting some of that model’s contradictions and hypocrisies. Colombia’s application of a liberal peacebuilding model predicates itself on corporate extractivism and the militarized enforcement of market priorities. Both militarism and extractivism constrain the lives of women and reinforce traditional gender roles, belying the gendered progressivism so often ascribed to the accords.

These contradictions are particularly visible with regard to the country’s extractivist priorities. In the peace negotiations that took place in Havana between 2012 and 2016, the government conspicuously refused to discuss the country’s economic model, despite interventions by grassroots women who urged negotiators to consider the gender violence extractivism often entails. The result was an accord with hundreds of provisions about economic recovery, small-scale productive projects, and crop substitution, all nestled within a neoliberal framework centered on mineral and monocrop exports as drivers of the national economy.

Given the conflict’s roots in issues of land tenure, the focus on land reparations and redistribution is a welcome part of the accords. Yet many of its provisions in the area of comprehensive rural reform are likely to be at odds with the dominant economic model if they are ever fully implemented. The result is a tepid state commitment to implement the rural reform provisions for fear of alienating investors (and their lawyers). This contradiction has meant lukewarm and ineffectual state protections for social movement leaders who defend campesino land rights.

The 2011 Victims and Land Restitution Law, a transitional justice measure that prioritized corporate monocropping over the rights of land claimants who had been displaced or otherwise victimized by armed actors, foreshadowed the contradictions of Colombia’s peace model. The law allows for the restoration of victims’ land ownership—except when the plot being claimed is being used for productive agro-industrial projects. Unless the claimant can prove that the current owner purchased the land in bad faith—a tall order given the threats of retribution they would likely face from paramilitaries—the original owner is forced to become an “associate” of the new corporate owner, meaning their name would be on a joint title with the understanding the project can continue.

The obvious beneficiary here is the palm oil industry—reflected by the recent appointment of the former head of the palm growers’ federation as the head of the Land Restitution Unit. This neoliberal model of transitional justice, to echo the words of Robert Meister, is “a continuation of the counterrevolutionary project by other, less repressive means,” in which victims “become ‘reconciled’ to the continuing benefits of past injustice that fellow citizens still enjoy.”

Gendered Effects

Both extractivism and megaprojects have gendered effects that the peace accords overlook. Mining booms in Latin America are correlated with a rise in HIV/AIDS, sex work, growing precariousness of women’s labor, birth defects, and the violent enforcement of traditional gender roles, often carried out with paramilitary assistance. Not only does the economic model of the accords fail to address certain kinds of gender violence, it is in fact likely to exacerbate them.

The peace accords’ narrow definition of “violence against women” includes only direct physical and sexual violence as paradigmatic crimes of war, obscuring other kinds of violence, like economic dispossession.What about the feminist gains in the accords? While celebrating their advances, feminists should be wary of discourses that legitimate capitalist projects and flatten the diverse identities of “women,” especially Afro-Colombians and Indigenous women. The peace accords’ narrow definition of “violence against women” includes only direct physical and sexual violence as paradigmatic crimes of war, obscuring other kinds of violence, like economic dispossession.

But as the administration of Colombian President Iván Duque attempts to tame the role of gender in the country’s peacebuilding mechanisms through legislation that would change the gender focus in post-conflict justice processes, grassroots feminist organizations in Colombia are committed to holding the government accountable to its promises. Feminist organizing is at an important regional conjuncture, with challenges ranging from the rise of extreme-right misogyny in Brazil to Colombia’s move to entrench its role as the U.S.’ military outpost for regime change in Venezuela. Feminist organizing in this moment—particularly that of Afro-Colombian and Indigenous women—could illuminate a path forward for resistance across the continent.

A true model of progressive gender justice would look to the experiences of those at the peripheries of power. For example, in the majority Afro-Colombian and historically excluded Caribbean coast, women are seizing the post-accords moment. The rural areas, notes a Red de Mujeres del Caribe Colombiano (Colombian Caribbean Women’s Network) statement, are where “changes in the living conditions of the most affected groups can tell us how close or how far away we are from moving toward the construction of a stable and lasting peace in the country.” Networks of women’s and LGBTI advocacy organizations in the Caribbean region, including the Red de Mujeres del Caribe, Caribe Afirmativo, the Red de Mujeres Afro-Caribes, and the Colectiva Feministas Emancipatorias, are advocating for a peace project that is structural, heterogenous, anti-extractivist, and decolonial.  

A Structural Project

Feminist organizations in Colombia depart from the mainstream narrative of the armed conflict by seeing the treatment of women during wartime  not as exceptional, but rather as part of a continuum that stretches from everyday patriarchy and racism to colonial systems of domination. “What we cannot expect is that these [accords] by themselves will transform the conditions that cause violence against women,” states an unpublished report by the Red de Mujeres del Caribe. “They serve to make it visible, generate mechanisms of control and punishment of the victimizers, but they cannot extinguish it as long as the heteropatriarchy and all the forms of oppression that intersect with this sociosexual order survive.”

Colombian Caribbean feminists’ post-accords proposals take aim at this “sociosexual order” in various ways. The Red de Mujeres Afrocaribes (Afro-Carribbean Women’s Network) in Barranquilla, for instance, responded to the city’s initiative to create a new city development plan for the post-accords period by gathering more than 200 women from Barranquilla to create and propose an alternative plan demanding the city address the historical memory of femicide, promote adequate housing for women, incorporate a gender perspective into secondary and post-secondary curricula, eliminate sexist language, and focus on new forms of masculinity and femininity.

The LGBTI advocacy network Caribe Afirmativo (Affirmative Caribbean), meanwhile, demandedthat the state move beyond its promises to provide “equal opportunity” for women’s political participation and instead create the conditions for that participation—including healthcare, adequate employment, food security, land rights, and education. The Red de Mujeres del Caribe has continued its longtime organizing for increased economic autonomy in the Caribbean region in the face of state centralization. The network also aims to transform Colombia’s relationship to peace, moving from binary thinking, amnesia, and vengeance, to openness, using art and culture as tools for this transformation. Transforming indifference and aggression through nonverbal forms of human engagement takes aim at conflict structures rarely addressed by mainstream efforts. For these Caribbean women, peace is comprehensive, aiming at the conflict’s foundations, support structures, and social manifestations.

A Heterogenous Project

The kind of peace that Colombia’s accords advocate follows a pattern seen across UN-influenced post-conflict peacebuilding efforts that homogenize women’s experiences of war. Colombian activists, peace practitioners, and critical peacebuilding scholars have criticized such policies. “Public policy on women established women as a singular subject,” said a member of the Red de Mujeres del Caribe in 2017. Conversely, Caribbean women’s peacebuilding focuses on the movement’s plurality and the coexistence of diverse voices and thought processes that characterize the Caribbean’s social movement panorama. The network’s summits and conferences include rituals invoking community ancestors, and call for the women’s movement to “bring to our practice the true recognition of our differences.”

As sociologist Marie Berry points out in an examination of post-accords gender politics in Rwanda, when post-conflict policies are aimed simply at “women” as a category, intersecting divisions of power will determine which women in fact benefit from those policies. Caribbean women organizers openly critique this process, noting that such conceptions “treat us as the inessential, the other, the inconsequential, they… try to trap the lived experiences of the elusive collective that is women, which behind the labels of Afro-descendant, raizal, palenquera, mestiza, and zamba, contains great riches and ontological plurality,” as the Colectivo Feministas Emancipatorias’ Aura Elizabeth Quiñónez Toro wrote in 2017. “The analysis of the specific and regionalized effects that women at the root of the armed conflict and the post-accords experience requires a vision of the multiple and simultaneous oppressions to which they are subjected.”

Decolonizing Peace

Feminist networks in the Caribbean region see the corporate extractivist economy as part of the structure of domination that subordinates women and rural populationsFeminist networks in the Caribbean region see the corporate extractivist economy as part of the structure of domination that subordinates women and rural populations, responding to the effects of Colombia’s mining boom on women and gender roles in rural communities. In the past two years, criticism of the extractivist model has grown more vocal. A statement by Caribe Afirmativo in June of this year asserted: “We oppose the neoliberal extractivist model, fracking, repressing the rivers, staining the forests with oil. We insist on discussing and constructing policies to reform this model.” Gender-based resistance to mining in Latin America continues to be an under-examinedphenomenon.

Finally, while all of the above characteristics are markers of a decolonial approach to peacebuilding, Caribbean women’s organizations explicitly highlight their decolonial knowledge. The Red de Mujeres del Caribe roots its peacebuilding efforts in what it calls the “built knowledge” of Caribbean communities, not in policies written at a desk in Bogotá or Havana or Oslo. In summits and workshops, the network’s organizers emphasize the authority of local women, acknowledging them as uniquely capable of understanding the current political moment. Their writings theorize the importance of “senti-pensar” (“feeling-thinking,” a decolonial feminist term referring to the validity of lived experience and affect as a source of knowledge production) in peacebuilding and conflict transformation, in contrast to what a 2017 statement by several Caribbean women’s and LGBTI organizations calls the “modern/colonial” model of “knowledge production and social classification that exploits the bodies-lives of women and other subaltern groups.” The armed conflict was a tool of that exploitative civilizing order, but the liberal peace paradigm can be as well. Caribbean women’s peacebuilding—now looking towards possible negotiations with the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (National Liberation Army, ELN)—points at the need to imagine an alternative.

Kate Paarlberg-Kvam is a Visiting Research Fellow in Gender and Peacebuilding at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.