March 1, 2019

Rethinking Feminism

Kathrin Gerlof

More than just a treaty between two fronts: on the role of women in the Columbian peace process

Colombia – Bogotá Street Art CC BY 2.0, McKay Savage

Peace, which is more than just a treaty between two warring fronts, needs to contain an ideal of social transformation that rids society of violence and guarantees women the same rights as men. For Columbia, despite the historical signing of a peace treaty in 2016 between the Santos government and the FARC guerrilla group (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) following more than four years of negotiations, this goal remains elusive.

“We are not aware of any examples of peace treaties in other countries that have incorporated the gender perspective to such a great extent, let alone the issue of women’s active participation,” says feminist and activist Rocio Claros. She sees this achievement as a result of the major role played by women’s organisations and movements as well as the way in which many women have organised themselves collectively over many years.

Whilst the peace treaty negotiations were ongoing, a sub-committee responsible for the issue of gender – called and fought for by women – scrutinized the terms of the treaty with regard to women’s rights. This was the outcome of years of struggles throughout which different women’s organisations and activists had repeatedly said that there would be no peace if women were excluded. During the peace talks, women campaigned for new laws and state programmes in the agricultural sector, for equal access to livestock and arable land, as well as other issues.

In October 2016 a referendum was held in which a majority, under the powerful influence of conservative, right-wing forces and evangelical churches, voted against the peace treaty. This ‘no vote’ was also a vote against women. But the treaty was signed anyway and then renegotiated to such an extent that it in many ways no longer resembled the original document. Nevertheless, the organised women of Columbia succeeded in making sure that the gender aspect was retained. A commission was set up to oversee the implementation of and adherence to the rights enshrined in the treaty. Of the 2,136 candidates in the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, 863 are women. New platforms and grassroots organisations have been established.

The Afro-Columbian environmental and human rights activist Francia Márquez says: “I believe it is women who are the drivers of political and social change. Even if they are not always on the front line, they shape the everyday world. (…) We are the continuation of a historical struggle. (…) I think we need to revisit the way we think about feminism and see that we can’t claim to be feminists without fighting against racism and the current economic system.”

Here Márquez also describes the impasse Columbia has been caught in since the peace treaty was signed, the initial euphoria over which has long since faded for many people. This is largely because the violence has not only endured; it has in fact increased. And because economic conditions are facilitating and accentuating new and more extreme forms of violence.

The population now lives with the terror of paramilitary groups. Between the end of 2016 and August 2018, 3,501 individuals involved in social movements were murdered, twice as many as in the preceding two years. During the peace talks the alliance between military doctrine and economic policy was never put on the negotiating table. Indeed, the government has pursued its aim of making territory previously under the control of FARC attractive for investors. Military violence is part and parcel of such a strategy.

The disarming of the FARC has failed to bring about peace because the increasingly watered-down peace treaty did not address the actual causes of the conflict: social, economic and political inequality. Instead, things are getting worse. The concentration of land ownership in Columbia is currently the highest in the world, with 81 per cent of areas controlled by 1 per cent of landowners. The peace treaty left this state of affairs untouched. Although small farmers were promised that 8 per cent of land areas would be handed over to them, this is yet to happen.

With his tax reform, Iván Duque, the current president from the ultra-right-wing Centro Democrático party, wants to reduce the burden on big business and to increase VAT. Columbia is already known to be one of the world’s most unequal countries. Female activists such as Rocio Claros do not tire of pointing out the fatal consequences of an increasingly extractivist economic policy, which pushes through megaprojects in the energy and mining sectors and is “based on an unbridled commercialisation and exploitation of nature”. Both of these have an impact – on women in particular and their living conditions – for such megaprojects destroy local communities, hampering in turn the organisation of resistance. At the same time, in Claros’ view, they also hinge on the control of women and their bodies; large projects bring with them widespread slavery, prostitution and sexual exploitation.

Women are equally at risk of falling victim to the extremely violent machismo that is connected with the drugs trade. This is evidenced, among other things, by the increase in surgical cosmetic interventions: “The drug dealer commissions a woman’s body,” as Claros puts it.

Even if women have enjoyed a series of legal breakthroughs over the past few years, such as the right to abortion, it remains the case that for Columbian society, peace – understood as more than just a treaty between two warring fronts – remains a distant reality.

Francia Márquez describes it as follows: “There is a feigned apprehension of peace so that the mining companies can operate in regions where it was previously not possible. I think this will lead to a resurgence of the conflict. Now there are armed individuals in areas that were previously under the control of the FARC. Paramilitary activity has returned and the killing of human rights activists continues to rise. Columbia is going back to where it started.”

In light of these developments, many women’s organisations are currently discussing how they can think and act intersectionally. And that entails coming together. It is important, Marquez says, to dismantle the patriarchal system together and to transform it as a community.

In this sense, the successes gained by Columbian women in and through the peace talks should not be understated, even if the terms that they fought for and negotiated over, and which were then written down, did not lead to peace in the true sense of the word. “We Columbian women have come a long way,” Claros says. “From speaking out and being recognised as victims, to our demands for the truth to be acknowledged and for justice. Over the course of these protests and lawsuits, we have organised ourselves and acquired political tools that have enabled us to change the reality of our own lives and those of our communities.”

The women of Columbia have established themselves as political subjects. This is something that cannot be ignored, and only undone with great force.

Translation and Proofreading: Dr. Carly McLaughlin and Nivene Rafaat for lingua•trans•fair