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Colombia’s peace requires disarming manhood, not just men


Performance art during a 2010 protest in Bogotá, Colombia, against the 'false positives' scandal. GUACHE under a Creative Commons Licence

Realizing peace means tackling the structural dimensions of different sources of violence, argues Leonardo Goi.

Last-minute plot twists notwithstanding, the negotiations between the Colombian state and the guerrilla militia of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) should finally come to an end before March 23, 2016. The post-negotiations stage are poised to bring about a number of worrisome challenges. Chief amongst these will be the fate of the FARC militia which the signing of the peace accord will leave behind. Just what will happen to the thousands of guerrilla fighters, both men and women, once the negotiations end?

For the peace prospects to hold, the government will have to ensure that all ex-combatants submit to an effective Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) scheme. In other words, the challenge will be to allow former guerrilla fighters to shift to a civilian life, and tackle the conditions which spurred the progressive militarization of such a large fraction of Colombia’s society in the first place.

The FARC’s armed insurgency did not just claim the lives of several hundred thousand people – it also, and more problematically, shattered Colombia’s social fabric. It fuelled fear, distrust, and atomised people in a way that compromised relations between citizens and the state. But it also engendered a number of modes of being and identity that were integral to the maintenance and development of the conflict throughout the decades. A conflict does not simply claim lives, it also creates new ones that are necessary for it to continue.

In Colombia’s case, the production of certain types of masculinity has been necessary for the legitimization of the armed groups which fought one another for over 50 years. Both Colombia’s Armed Forces and illegal armed groups (guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries alike) have contributed to the forging of a manhood that is inextricably linked to the idea of physical prowess and the ability to hold weapons. As discussed at length in a seminal essay by Kimberly Theidon, this has allowed young men from Colombia’s war-stricken regions to internalize a poisonous narrative, wherein power, self-worth and violence are dangerously interconnected notions.

Yet the armed conflict did not, in any simplistic sense, invent these poisonous masculinities. A report led by Colombia’s National Centre for Historical Memory (CNMH) argues that the different armed groups were capable of exploiting violent power-structures that were already ingrained in Colombian society. The conflict, seen from this angle, exacerbated a reality that was central to the social fabric from which armed strife could emerge.

Not only would the model of man-qua-warrior eventually come to be championed by different armed groups, it also reduced alternative modes of being as aberrations. Homosexuals, inasmuch as they were seen as deviations from the set of permitted social norms, were either subject to ‘correction’ or social cleansing. As the CNMH report argues, the sexual abuses perpetrated by armed groups against lesbians would normally be geared for their conversion into ‘proper women’. By contrast, gay men and transsexual women would be punished on the grounds that they abandoned the privilege of being ‘proper men’.

The notions of a ‘proper woman’, a ‘proper man’ and the supposed privilege that would be integral to being a man are telling. They point to a system of beliefs and moral codes upon which the atrocities committed against the LGBTI community could be predicated, and which helped to normalise them. What is worrying, sexual abuses are a plague that is yet to be eradicated. In January 2014, a threatening leaflet supposedly issued by a spin-off group of former paramilitary militia called for extraordinary security measures in the city of Soacha, just outside Bogotá, and the social cleansing of homosexuals.

Seen from this angle, the forthcoming DDR process will have to tackle the structural dimensions of these different sources of violence. Most importantly, it must help to pave the way for the development of new, non-violent modes of being which former-combatants could willingly internalise. In many cases, those who embraced violent masculinities did so as a means to strengthen their own reputation and social status before their peers. The task, seen from this angle, is to expose these men to other, non-violent civilian symbols of prestige, which could allow them to strengthen their place inside the community without resorting to violence as a means to do so.

The onus is upon Colombia’s current Juan Manuel Santos’ government to put gender back at the centre of current negotiations with the FARC guerrillas. To be sure, the state has already taken some steps in this direction. Colombia’s Reintegration Agency states that a successful DDR process fundamentally depends on tackling militarized masculinities as much as the violence suffered by women. The worry is that, in practice, this balance is yet to be established.

In 2014, a gender sub-commission. was founded with the aim of strengthening the place of gender in the negotiations between the guerrillas and the state. Interestingly, however, the organizations the sub-commission has met with in Cuba have been, for the most part, women-led groups. The few public statements which the sub-commission has released do mention issues concerning the LGBTI community and others, stressing common threats faced by men and women. Nonetheless, the emphasis still lies largely on the plight women have suffered during the armed conflict.

Reducing the question of gender to a question of women alone is to miss out on the ways in which both sexes have been affected by the armed conflict. The abuses and violence perpetrated against women are not fundamentally distinct from the promotion of violent masculinities – rather, the former are a consequence of the latter. A durable peace needs more than a simple reduction of the number of troops deployed in the country’s interior. The most difficult challenge the government will have to address will be how to eradicate the structural conditions which have led to the proliferation of such troops in the first place.

To put it more strongly, peace does not only require a disarmament of the men (and women) which have been fighting inside Colombia for more than 50 years – it also, and most fundamentally, requires the disarmament of the modes of being which led them to take up arms. A gendered approach to the peace process will not only help to give more legitimacy to the negotiations – it will also help to prevent the reoccurrence of violence, after the FARC and Santos’ government will finally sign a historical agreement in a little less than four months.

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