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Peace for everyone: Colombia’s peace must focus on gender equality


A female guerrilla sits smoking a cigarette in a caletta. Women apparently see little machismo within the FARC and share tasks ‘as a team’, they say. They also make up over 40 per cent of all FARC insurgents. © Kimberley Brown

Should the latest polls turn out to be true, October 2 will be remembered as the day in which Colombians voted to live in a new country.

On that day, Colombia will hold a referendum on the peace treaty signed by President Juan Manuel Santos and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) supreme leader Rodrigo Londoño, aka Timochenko, on on September 26. It could mean the end of over 50 years of armed conflict between the State and the FARC guerrillas, but all depends on how the majority of Colombians will vote this Sunday.

The referendum has already split the country into two opposing factions.

On the one hand, the ‘yes’ camp, headed by President Santos, and on the other the ‘no’ front, headed by former president Alvaro Uribe, who has been warning that ratifying the peace treaty will essentially mean handing the country over to the FARC. In Uribe’s fearmongering vision, the agreement would not only allow the guerrillas to reap unfair economic and political benefits – it would also shatter the system of values which Colombia is founded upon.

Earlier this August, a new rumour helped to revamp this fear: The FARC and Santos’ government were not only negotiating the end of a war, but also the end of the traditional family unit. The rumour has it that under the agreement with the FARC lied a gender discourse that would supposedly destroy the integrity of Colombia’s society.

The conspiracy theory was picked up by a panoply of different No supporters, who pointed their fingers at the agreement’s language and the creation of an ad hoc Gender Sub-Commission as evidence of an alleged ideology which the treaty would impose on the country, and would threaten the religious and civil rights of all.

In fact, the peace treaty does have a clear focus on gender, but this is neither an ideology that will be implemented in a top-down fashion nor something which the agreement could have done without.

At FARC's last conference before the peace deal, a man bathes in the ravine using a sophisticated bathing system the guerrillas had set up. Photo by Kimberley Brown

A conflict does not simply claim lives: it also produces certain ways of being which are necessary for it to continue. In Colombia’s case, all different armed actors, be they illegal armed groups or FARC, have contributed to tying the notion of personal prestige to the ability to handle weapons and display physical prowess. This poisonous model of man (and woman) as warriors legitimised the armed groups, whilealso reducing alternative ways of being as aberrations. Members of the LGBTI community were seen as deviations from social norms, and had to undergo correction or social cleansing.

The peace treaty’s gender dimension shouldn’t be surprising. If Colombia’s peace is to last, then the agreement must target the structural conditions which have helped the conflict grow in the first place – that is, it must overcome the marginalization of women and members of the LGBTI community.

This is what the gender focus which runs through the 297 pages of the final peace treaty aims to achieve. Its goal is not to grant powers to a specific group to the detriment of others but to ensure that everyone, including those whom the conflict has targeted because of their sexual orientation and gender, will enjoy the same rights and opportunities which the post-conflict stage will open up.

Yet the criticism raised against this gender focus is revealing. The idea that the peace treaty’s gender dimension threatens the integrity of Colombia’s society points to a system of values in which the need to ensure the rights of everyone, including those of different sexual orientations and gender, would find no place.

If the rumour that a gender ideology would be imposed in a martial-law fashion as a result of the agreement has resonated so widely across the country, then what exactly does this say about the way in which Colombia will welcome those who have suffered from the conflict as a result of their gender and sexual orientation? Will these victims be suffering any less once they surrender their weapons and return to a country now supposedly at peace, and yet so prone to treat them as aberrations and direct threats to the permitted social norms?

Members of the government have reassured Colombia’s religious communities that the treaty’s gender dimension would not shatter the traditional family unit, nor will it the destroy the country’s fundamental Christian values.

But it is saddening to hear the head of the High Office for Peace, Sergio Jaramillo, address religious groups and describe this gender focus as a mere way to ’pay justice to the role women had in the conflict’, in a way that reduces the question of gender to the plight of women alone, wiping away the violence perpetrated against the LGBTI community. Avoiding to mention the rights of individuals of different sexual orientations might be a convenient move to make if one wants to avoid alienating a group as powerful as the Church is in Colombia, but it also highlights the difficulty of forging a new, all-encompassing discourse on the need to ensure equality for all.

At the heart of debate lies a fundamental question: just what exactly should be the scope of this agreement? Those who claim gender shouldn’t be mentioned normally intendthe negotiations with the FARC as a means to end a war, and not change society.

But the peace talks with the guerrillas were more than a means to reach a definite truce. They are an opportunity for Colombia to think itself anew, and forge new ways of being and co-existing with others that will reduce the likelihood of another conflict to emerge.

The achievement of peace and the question of gender can’t be dealt with separately – rather, the former is dependent on the latter.

Now that Colombia has reached the definite ceasefire it so desperately longed for, it’s time to tackle the structural conditions which led to the conflict to begin with in the first place. Talking about gender in post-conflict Colombia shouldn’t worry anyone: it is only the first step to ensure those who have suffered as a result of their gender and sexual orientation will have a right to a better, more humane life.

A right which everyone should be entitled to.

Look out for the November issue of New Internationalist magazine 'Peace in Colombia: Hopes and Fears', where we take an in-depth look at this South American country.

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