Patriarchy in Action: The Struggle to Center Women’s Experience in Colombia’s Armed Conflict

By: Yadira Sánchez-Esparza, Fall 2021 Mexico & Colombia Intern

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Photo by Ryan Brown via Flickr

Women accounted for a significant percentage of victims of the violence from Colombia’s armed conflict—an unequal distribution of pain and overall suffering. Even 40% of the FARC guerrillas ranks were women, yet they remained excluded from the initial negotiations that led to Colombia’s 2016 peace accord. This intentional silencing reflects a larger pattern of structural violence that existed prior to the armed conflict, which is taught in the home, reinforced in society, and ultimately legitimized by the state. Yet, despite this oppressive status quo, women in Colombia have been active participants in advocating for themselves, their communities, and the peace process by institutionalizing their respective emotions.

Women’s groups across Colombia are leading peacebuilding efforts to bring to light the disproportionate, gendered impact of the internal armed conflict’s violence. For instance, Colombian feminist organization Casa de la Mujerin collaboration with a series of other organizations, published their recent report entitled TruthIs: Politicizing Women’s Pain and Emotions. The report, filled with sobering testimonies and concerted recommendations by victims of gender-based violence, was submittedtothe Truth Commission—an entity that forms part of Colombia’s tripartite transitional justice system and is responsible for clarifying the truth of what occurred during Colombia’s decades-long internal armed conflict. Three of Colombia’s departments—Meta, Córdoba, and Cauca—have dedicated chapters in the report, as they are home to many Indigenous and Afro-descendants who were disproportionately affected by the conflict. With the report’s submission to the Truth Commission, these women’s groups are contributing to implementing the 2016 peace accord’s trailblazing gender provisions, urging they be used as mechanisms for justice.

Women and the Peace Process

Reports like TruthIs are possible because of the efforts placed forth to include a gender approach in the peace process. The inclusion of the peace accord’s innovative gender provisions was no easy feat. When peace negotiations began between the Colombian state and FARC guerrillas, women were not granted a seat at the table to participate and it took the intentional efforts of about 450 women’s organizations to push then-Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to allow for two seats. In September 2014, a gender subcommittee was launched that included five members in total from the FARC and the government. But nonetheless, the gender provisions that resulted from the subcommittees’ contributions received significant pushback, mainly due to an opposition movement that labeled the recognition of LGBTQ+ and women rights as a “gender ideology”. This push came mainly from evangelical factions who sought to hinder advances in protecting different gender identities and sexual orientations. Unfortunately, this opposition movement succeeded in helping deter support to the peace accord and help the plebiscite fail, resulting in the “no” vote succeeding by a margin of less than 1 percent.

Despite these setbacks, women’s eventual integration allowed them to play an essential role in the delegations of victims, where women represented 60% of the members. This integration has led the Colombian government and the FARC to release statements that reflected positively on women’s rights, inclusivity, and diversity. The largest impact can be seen in legislation around sexual violence in which many agreements have a gender focus and sexual violence is listed as a crime that can not be amnestied under the accord. Essentially, the peace process without women is not adept to face the dynamic problems that face civil society and the Colombian government.

Women’s lives before the armed-conflict

The report brings attention to the continuum of violence that existed prior to the known inception of the armed conflict. The pre-established systems of oppression against women were deeply ingrained from interpersonal relations and into the larger structure of financial, economic, and physical oppression in Colombian society. The harmful ideology of machismo upholds and perpetuates a traditional expression of masculinity and femininity, which is simultaneously tied to a rigid gender binary in which women are inferior to men.

“Habia una buena relación, las mujeres eran sumisas porque el que mandaba era el marido”145

“There was a good relationship, the women were submissive because the husband was in charge “145

Beyond this, machismo minimizes and normalizes violence against women often becoming internalized in men and women. Throughout the interview process, women shared that they found their relationships to their spouses, families, and communities to be generally positive in terms of their quality of life. However, In the same recounting of events they would include anecdotes of violence within families, partners, and insecurity for women in general:

“En alugnas familias había conflictos ecónomicos y pasionales cuando un hombre cela a una mujer, también en las familias había maltrato y violencia…no dejaban salir a la mujer por celos y golpes” (145, TruthIs)

“In some families, there were economic conflicts and conflicts of passion when a man was jealous of a woman, in families, there was mistreatment and violence…they did not let the woman go out because of jealousy and beatings” (145, TruthIs).

Additionally, there was an extreme division of labor and enforced subordination in which women had no rights to education or entrepreneurship. This, in turn, would not only confirm the biases against women but limit women to vulnerable socio-economic situations. The intentional retraction of resources was a manifestation of how little value women held in Colombian society thus making it easier for perpetrators to dehumanize and enact intimate and familial violence on them. The TruthIs report provides insight that before the conflict these girls and women had already been reduced to public commodities instead of dignified humans. Sexual violence was already systematically being practiced by perpetrators who exploited the physical and bodily autonomy of women:

[…] “antes de llegar los paramilitares, los ricos compraban a las niñas, la gente que tenía plata compraba a las niñas a sus padres: dos, tres vacas; tres, cuatro, diez mil pesos por una niña, y entonces se la llevaban a vivir uno, dos meses, y ahí la dejaban y salían y compraban otra.” (Narrativa de líder de Córdoba-68).

[…] “before the paramilitaries arrived, the rich people bought girls, those who had money bought the girls from their parents: two, three cows or three, four, ten thousand pesos for a girl. They took her to live with them for one or two months. They would leave her there and go out and buy another one.” (Narrative of a leader from Córdoba-68)

Ultimately, the qualitative research provided in the report demonstrated the extent of the normalization of violence in communities that would later be appropriated by various armed actors to use women as pawns for dominance.

Women’s experiences in the armed conflict

The TruthIs report highlights that the larger struggle during the armed conflict is impossible to understand without understanding how women experienced gender-based violence, a reality supported by the Constitutional Court’s report that sexual violence was a ‘systematic, habitual and generalized practice’ appropriated by all armed groups in the Colombian conflict. Estimates include that armed groups were responsible for the rape of 12,809 women, the forced prostitution of 1,575, the forced pregnancies of 4,415 women, and the forced abortions of 1,810 women. Both the falsehood of security and the unstable security vanished leaving only extreme direct violence, a reality that became unavoidable from the youngest child to elderly mothers. This new milieu instilled fear that did not allow them to live their lives as they had before, new biopolitics was being forcibly instilled in communities across Colombia.

“Mi mamá no me hizo fiesta de quince porque decía que eso era darles aviso a los hombres armados de que ya se lo podían comer a uno.”36

“My mother didn’t throw me a quinceañera because she said that would be a warning to the armed men that they could have me. “36

The TruthIs report highlighted how Afro-descendant and Indigenous women were disproportionately impacted not only because of the regions in which they live but the many dimensions of discrimination that they face. And so, Colombia’s history with slavery and oppression of bodies continued to burden those who have historically been disregarded. Sexual violence was used to control and dominate physically, culturally, economically, and territory for the larger perceived purpose of the conflict. For example, guerrillas have used sexual violence in the forced recruitment of girls as combatants, girls as sex slaves, and as payment to protect other family members.

“Ya el pensamiento era de oder que la mujer conquistara al que tiene el poder…cuando empezaron a llegar los grupos armados, más que todo los paramilitares y los soldados…ya no se buscaba marido por amor sino alguien que nos protegiera”. 38

“The idea was that the woman should conquer the one in power…when the armed groups began to arrive, especially the paramilitaries and the soldiers…they were no longer looked for a husband for love, but for someone who would protect us. “38

State Security Forces’ have been distinctively damaging as the civilian population has no mechanism for justice. These militias’ essential position is to protect and support civilians’ rights to a life free of violence. However, as described by many victims, these entities often took advantage of the chaos to extend harm on vulnerable populations exercising violence against women on a mass scale. Unlike FARC or ELN groups targeted by the government, the State Security Forces were never held accountable for their actions since they operated as the rule of law in these sometimes remote areas. The impunity surrounding State Security Forces has protected many individuals and battalions from being held accountable for the crimes committed against their civilians.

The significance of a report like TruthIS being presented to the Truth Commission

  • It’s innovative, it highlights not only the perseverance of women’s resistance but how women in these communities utilized their pain and emotions to contribute to the peace process. This report refutes the machismo mindset, that normalizes victim-blaming, and minimizes the suffering of women instead highlighting how women can strengthen peacebuilding efforts.
  • It’s intentional, the report is taking advantage of the gender provisions in order to create a historical record nationally and internationally affirming the violence committed against women in the context of the armed conflict. It demonstrates how important it is for women to be integrated into the peacebuilding process since their participation also promotes gendered provisions. The regional focus on the Pacific Coast is to emphasize that Afro-descendant and Indigenous women were impacted in specific and targeted ways.
  • It’s an example, using testimony as an integral component in communicating the differentiated impact the internal conflict had on women. These individuals’ experiences centered on sexual and physical violence but also brought to light how women experienced forced disappearances, forced displacement, forced recruitment, and psychological trauma. The report also includes the experiences of trans individuals and those with different sexualities which as previously discussed are realities that are often overshadowed.

The struggle to end sexual violence continues

While this report is an exceptional demonstration of how far women’s engagement has come in terms of their healing, liberation, and role in the peace process, it can’t begin to entirely eclipse the intricacies of trauma that remains in the wake of the armed conflict. The recent webinar hosted by Oxfam, WOLA, and the Latin America Working Group provided space for women to share in their own words how they experienced violence and the intergenerational trauma felt in their families and communities. The sheer courage displayed moving and the overall message that the fear and continued instability are incredibly prevalent. The women shared a general desire for their daughters and sons to live in reality free of violence, a dream that seems almost unattainable in the current reality.

Presently, the Pacific Coast home to the Cauca and Cordóba departments continue to be disproportionately impacted by violence against women as the demobilization of guerrillas and the increase of militarization in areas previously abandoned by the state has maintained the armed conflict’s violence continuum as young women are still forced into armed prostitution and sexual abuse. Nationally, UN Women reported that 37% of women in Colombia will experience physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence at least once in their lifetime, and over 50% of Colombian men surveyed for a 2010 UN study admitted to abusing their female partners. This violence has continued to be exacerbated following COVID-19 the FISCALIA reported 60.581 cases of domestic violence across the country.

Women’s Resistance

The silencing of women’s voices and experiences has been constant before, during, and after Colombia’s armed conflict. However, new forms of advocacy and resistance have forced attention onto wounds that many responsible and complacent actors would rather ignore. Of these actors, the Colombian state should grant a public apology to victims of sexual violence experienced by girls, women, and those with different sexual orientations and gender identities. In addition, the international community should hold the Colombian state accountable for implementing the gender provisions of the 2016 Peace Accord that focus on women’s rights, gender, and their social and political participation. Ultimately, the resistance of female victims and community non-profits such as Casa de la Mujer is integral in pushing forward narratives deserving of public attention and justice. Therefore, defending and amplifying the voices and experiences of women that have endured Colombia’s armed conflict is not only a peace mechanism but an active step towards protecting women’s dignity and autonomy.

“Bueno yo pienso que al principio pues no éramos visibles, éramos invisibles para todo el mundo porque la mujer no se tenía en cuenta para nada, pero a raíz de todo lo que nos pasó yo creo que reaccionamos y dijimos que Dios nos dejó por algo, y yo pienso que tenemos que dejar una huella de bien en la comunidad, en la sociedad, en nuestra familia, que nos empoderemos en muchos espacios y en muchas cosas. Ver tantas mujeres asesinadas, desaparecidas y uno que ha logrado superar esas cosas es una razón para que otras mujeres vivan a través de nuestra experiencia, que se den cuenta [de] que sí vale la pena luchar y cambiar este país. Los grupos, fundaciones y todo eso nos ayudan a superarnos emocional y económicamente, y si lo hacemos unidas, mejor.” (Narrativa de mujer del Meta-143).

“Well, I think that at the beginning, we were not visible. We were invisible to everyone women were not taken into account at all. But as a result of everything that happened to us, I think we reacted, and we said that God left us for something, and I think that we have to leave a mark of good in the community, in society, in our families, and our world. We empower ourselves in many spaces and in many things. Seeing so many women murdered, disappeared, and even one woman who has managed to overcome these despite it all is a reason for all of us to overcome. It is a reason for other women to live despite our experiences, to realize so that they realize [that] it is worth fighting and changing this country. The groups, foundations, and all that help us overcome ourselves emotionally and economically and help us better ourselves emotionally and financially, and if we do it united, all the better.” (Narrative of a woman from Meta-143)

Tags: Gender Perspective, Human Rights, Transitional Justice, Victims

December 17, 2021

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