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What follows is the summary of a report written on March 4th of 2016 by Dr. Virginia M. Bouvier, Senior Advisor for peace processes at the United States Institute of Peace.

By considering the essentially gendered nature of both war and peace, this article analyses the differential impact of the Colombian internal armed conflict according to gender and other factors of oppression.

Gendered Dimensions of the Conflict

Women’s experiences in Colombia have historically been marked by patterns of social and political exclusion, which impact on gender roles and relations. In shifting contexts of war and peace within a specific culture, gender attributes, roles, responsibilities, and identities shape, and in turn, are influenced by the norms for engagement in war and peace.

Women have played multiple, sometimes overlapping, roles related to war and peace in Colombia. Women have been peacemakers and peacebuilders, victims, change agents, and care providers. They have also been combatants and supporters of war, a status that is less publicized but clear when one notes the percentages of women assumed to participate in illegal armed groups in Colombia.

War experiences differ not only by gender but also by variables such as age, class, ethnicity, race, regional provenance, and religion. This analysis provides a basis for anticipating the diverse needs, interests, and contributions of girls, boys, women, men, and LGBTI individuals in a post-peace accord period.

The impacts of the Colombian armed conflict have had different effects on different populations: women, men, LGBTI population, girls, boys, adolescents, youth, adults, indigenous, Afro-descents, native islander Raizales, Palenquero descendants of runaway slaves, and the gypsy population known as Roms, etc.

Focusing on gender, males have been more likely to be kidnapped, tortured, arbitrarily detained, and forcibly recruited by the different armed actors. Women and girls, on the other hand, have been more likely to be subjected to massive displacement, sexual violence, rape, forced labour, forced prostitution, forced abortions, and enslavement. Moreover, as survivors, women often assume new roles.

Psychological impacts may thus vary by gender. As mothers and survivors, women are particularly vulnerable to the recruitment of their children by armed actors. Among rough statistics, in the southwestern department of Putumayo, women’s groups note that one out of every 10 women is a widow, and 62 per cent of Putumayan women have lost an average of two children due to conflict-related violence.

Displacement also has a disproportionate effect on women. While forced displacement affects boys, girls, adolescents, adults, women, ethnic groups, and the disabled in differential ways, it places a particularly heavy burden on women and on ethnic communities. Women and children constitute 78 per cent of Colombia’s internally displaced population (IDP), and a disproportionate number of the IDP is Afro-Colombian or indigenous. Some 97 per cent of all IDP live under the poverty line without access to basic services including health, security, justice, and education. In their new locations, displaced women are exposed to further risk of sexual violence and are often targeted for exercising leadership in their communities.

Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

Sexual and gender-based violence forms part of a continuum of violence and power that predates the armed conflict, and it both reflects and perpetuates structural inequalities. One study by Oxfam-International found that nearly half a million women and girls in Colombia had experienced sexual and gender-based violence, a number far higher than the one within official statistics. High levels of impunity discourage women from coming forward to denounce violence. Moreover, social taboos concerning sexual violence are fierce – silence tends to be the norm. Consequently, while the problem appears to be widespread and serious, it is difficult to measure and address the magnitude. The issues of gender-based violence against males, and children born of conflict-related sexual violence, are even less often addressed.

Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in a Context of War

Conflict-related sexual violence refers to “rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization and other forms of sexual violence of comparable gravity perpetrated against women, men, girls or boys that is linked, directly or indirectly (temporally, geographically or causally) to a conflict.” Such sexual violence against women, according to Colombia’s Constitutional Court in 2008, has been “a habitual, extensive, systematic, and invisible practice.” It has also disproportionately affected minors.

All of Colombia’s armed groups have engaged in sexual violence against women, but the practice of conflict-related sexual violence nonetheless differs by armed group, by region, and by context. Post-demobilization groups and other local armed elements (often groups which were previously within the AUC (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia) and other paramilitary organisations) are the primary perpetrators. These groups used sexual violence to terrorize communities, to appropriate land and to punish anyone who speaks against them – evidence for which is abundant. Salvatore Mancuso’s (AUC commander) strategy to control the Norte de Satander department involved the use of sexual violence. Paramilitaries in Cesar and Magdalena used sexual terror as a means to appropriate land and punish women who challenge their authority – techniques that did not end with the demobilization process.

Their methods also included designating gender roles which, when not complied to, are preconditions for abuse. For example, girls and women who engaged in behaviours considered to depart from appropriate female roles, such as being ‘bad neighbors’, ‘bad partners’ or ‘bad girls’, were subject to public shaming, forced domestic labour, and enslavement. Men and boys engaging in what paramilitaries would consider ‘undesirable masculinities’ — such as carrying sexually-transmitted diseases, participating in theft, and taking drugs — could be punished with torture, homicide or forced disappearance.

The next greatest perpetrators of sexual violence are the guerrilla groups (FARC and ELN), and then by members of the Colombian armed forces, according to the Office of the Ombudsman. The FARC has certain regulations with regards to rape and overt sexual harassment, but there are nonetheless numerous reports of sexual violence used to forcibly recruit girls and women, and wide abuses of power. Moreover, forced abortion occurs frequently within the FARC. As for the state security forces, there are various reports of the taking advantage of women and the exploitation of structural inequalities to carry out forms of sexual violence. Sexual violence is institutionally excused by rates of impunity of up to 98.8 per cent.

Addressing gender-based violence through gender equality and political participation

Research suggests that the best predictor of a state’s peacefulness and stability is how well it treats its women. In this regard, Colombia is, in legal and theoretical terms, a pioneer - but the reality does not reflect what is on paper. Progressive legislation, judicial decisions, and executive decrees back women’s rights and promise to address sexual and gender-based violence. Nonetheless, centuries of structural discrimination, mistreatment, and gender-based violence, have been exacerbated by a history of colonialism, racism, homophobia, and poverty. Women’s political participation remains remarkably low.

As for the LGBTI community, the legal recognition of their rights is relatively recent. In the context of the internal armed conflict, intolerance of diverse gender identities has commonly been life threatening. They are often subject to ‘corrective violence’ or ‘social cleansing’. The ways in which different aspects of the LGBTI community are oppressed varies, however. While displacement is the most commonly reported effect, the paramilitaries are known to attack the failure to conform to traditional gender stereotypes ‘in particularly insidious ways.’

In addition to its differential impact on women, men, and LGBTI persons, Colombia’s armed conflict has had differing effects on girls, boys, and youths. In Colombia, young people fight on all sides of the war. Domestic and intra-familial violence is one of the leading push factors that cause both girls and boys to leave home to join armed groups and gangs – and once within the conflict, it is often difficult for minors to get out. The FARC appears to be the largest recruiter of minors within the conflict prior to the peace talks. Since peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC began in 2012, criminal bands have surpassed the FARC as the main recruiter of minors; half of Bandes Criminales (a drug trafficking gang which emerged from the demobilization of the AUC) members are underage. Moreover, Colombian children suffer directly when their parents or relatives are killed or threatened, or when their families and communities are displaced. There is an urgent need to do psychosocial work and undertake peace pedagogies with young people in order to break generational patterns of hatred and vengeance.

Women and the Colombian peace process

Between 1990 and the early 2000s, only a handful of women were engaged as negotiators at Colombia’s peace tables. In the 1998-2002 peace talks between the FARC and the government, María Emma Mejía was named one of the government’s principal negotiators; Ana Teresa Bernal was given an important role tangential to the table. Mejía and Bernal used their positions to open the process to more women, and urged the FARC to do so too. International developments further provided Colombian women with frameworks to effect peace, such as the UN Security Resolution 1325 (2000).

When the peace process looked to be dwindling after the breakdown of the 1998-2002 talks, women quietly continued to prepare the ground for future talks, increasingly articulating the particular impacts of the war on children, women, and more recently, LGBTI persons. Nonetheless, when the 2012 peace process began, men occupied all bar one of the seats at the negotiating table in Norway. This trend continued in La Havana. Although the scenario improved over time, for the most part, women continued to be unrecognized and undervalued partners for peace.

The fruits of women’s tremendous efforts were eventually borne at the National Summit of Women for Peace – a pivotal moment in securing an opening for women as plenipotentiaries on the government peace delegation. Through various sub-commissions, commissions, and delegations, women now exercise considerable power to have their voices heard.

By the end of the first year of peace talks, FARC women also secured greater participation and visibility on their peace delegation, and by February 2015, their delegation in La Havana was made up of more than 40% women, including several female commanders, closely reflecting the gender composition of the FARC as a whole.

The challenges ahead

Whether women’s perspectives and proposals (through delegation visits and the Gender Sub-commission) in La Havana will be transformed into policy options that promote sustainable peace through gender equality and empowerment of all girls and women remains to be seen.

It is clear, however, that peace can bring about a rapid reassessment of gender roles – and thus societal change. This reassessment is not always positive, however. Male combatants may return from war to feel their gender identity under threat, and stigmatization of ex-combatants is strong. Disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) programs that use gender-aware policies and strategies, however, can provide opportunities for creating new models of masculinity and femininity that are based on fairness, respect, and dialogue, rather than force and violence. Within the DDR process, a differential approach that recognizes the needs of girls, boys, men and women is therefore essential.

Moreover, Colombia now has the challenge, in the shadow of the International Criminal Court, of finding or creating mechanisms that will comply with Colombia’s international obligations to investigate, prosecute, and punish human rights violators; satisfy victims’ rights to truth, justice, reparations, and guarantees of non-repetition; and be acceptable to both sides in the context of the peace process currently underway. Truth commissions have long been considered a necessary component of transitional justice. Within this context, women have urged the parties to acknowledge the particular effects on women; to clarify the causes, origins and impacts of the conflict on women’s lives; and to recognize who is responsible. The women involved in this process consider it to be ‘a comprehensive political, social, economic, citizen-based, and cultural process’ – without which a sustainable peace may prove impossible.


A peace process offers the opportunity to address the underlying social inequities and injustices of society, which are at the roots of a conflict. The historical discrimination and the differentiated impacts of the conflict on women must first be understood in order to accurately address them within the peace process. Understanding the gender dimensions of a conflict as well as the various phases of the peace process helps to identify and evaluate the ways in which women can advance the process without their participation being stifled. As is clear, women’s participation and the survival of the process are mutually inclusive. Neglect of these gender dimensions, therefore, will easily perpetuate old patterns of exclusion, intolerance, discrimination, and abuse.

Women have, and continue to play an important role in sustaining the Colombian peace process. Working in every sector, women are creating a culture of peace and dialogue. Through this, the Colombian case shows finally that strong, independent, civil society organizations—especially women’s organizations—have the capacity to prepare the way for a peace process and to influence its shape –both from within and from the outside. Ultimately, women’s engagement and leadership can seal a peace deal and will help ensure its viability for the long haul.