The 2016 Peace Agreement in Colombia was an enormous step towards drastic improvement in a country previously fraught with political upheaval. What may be less well known about the treaty is the group of women who fought tirelessly to include equal gender representation during the treaty discussions as a fundamental means of achieving long-lasting and fair peace. Meet the women who are the face of this exceptional example of power and change in Colombia.
As with many other stories of empowerment, it takes one woman committed to changing the world to prepare the seat for the next – and the case in Colombia was no different. The Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla army had fought for about 50 years, causing the death of over 200,000 people and displacing eight million others. When the negotiations for Colombia’s Peace Agreement first began in 2012, it didn’t fully address women’s suffering in the conflict, women’s reparations or how to include women in the solution going forward.
However, the talks commenced at a time when the women’s movements in the country were gathering strength. Partially fueled by the “Ni una menos” (“not one less woman”) feminist movement in Argentina in 2015 among others, women all across South America started standing together and crying out against gender violence, domestic abuse and the murdering of women across the continent.
Now more confident and better prepared to face monumental adversities, civil society groups and women’s organizations eagerly looked toward the potential peace talks as a way to further advance the country. When the time came, they were determined to participate and to call for a seat at the table at all costs.
One example of an organization that pushed to be involved in the negotiations is Sisma Mujer. The director, Claudia Mejía, together with the whole team at Sisma, became a vocal actor in the decision-making process of the peace negotiations. Mejía quickly became a leader and writer of a crucial publication called Five Keys for a Differential Treatment of Sexual Violence in the Peace Agreement, which demanded that, “The eradication of violence against them, including sexual violence, must be at the center of decisions of transitional justice, from a differentiated approach.” This call to consider violence against women when determining justice introduced the idea of a gender perspective when making a peace treaty. Co-written by women from two other organizations: Humanas Colombia (“Colombian Humans”) and Red Nacional de Mujeres (“National Network of Women”), of which Mejía is also a co-founder, the document became crucial for the final peace agreement.
With a new understanding that justice could not truly be achieved without women at the table, the government granted a leading role to two other women, María Paulina Riveros and Nigeria Rentería. This paved the way for more commitment towards equality in the Colombian government.
Victoria Sandino was one of the first women who got an official seat at the negotiating table on behalf of the FARC guerrillas. Sandino is a congresswoman who spent 24 years with the FARC, and has worked in past years to propel the guerrilla’s feminist movement to the next level within the framework of the Peace Agreements. Though many Colombians see her as a controversial figure due to her role in the war, she was a fervent supporter of an inclusive approach as a fundamental pillar for long-lasting peace.
Also representing women and women’s issues was Juanita Millán, the only woman representing the perspective of the Colombian government’s military during the process. At that time, Millán recognized the importance of adding different voices to the treaty conversation, such as foreign governments and 18 women and LGBTQ organizations from Colombia.
A fundamental factor that paved the way for women to actively participate in the Peace Agreements was the UN Resolution (S/RES/1325) on Women, Peace and Security, adopted on October 3, 2000. The resolution bolsters female participation in peace talks, aiming to reaffirm “the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, humanitarian response and in post-conflict reconstruction and stresses the importance of their equal participation.”
With Resolution 1325 as a perfect negotiating tool, women in Colombia, such as Mejía and Riveros, were not only guaranteed more participation, but were able to achieve something much bigger. In September 2014, the government and FARC selected five women to help oversee the recently established Subcommittee on Gender whose role was to ensure that a gender perspective would be included in the peace process and established literally in the final agreement.
Although the peace agreement is still in flux with the current administration, pressure from civil society and certain political groups has helped uphold the intentions and implementation set out when the agreement was signed by previous President and Nobel Peace Prize award winner, Juan Manuel Santos. And the effect the women had is long-lasting regardless. The final agreement mentioned women about 190 times, but it is clear that the achievements go way beyond numbers. The wider outcomes have a lot more to do with participation and decision-making power. This was the first time in the world that a subcommittee of this kind was implemented in a peace negotiation. The committee’s role in the Final Agreement of Peace has laid the foundations for a future in which a gender perspective is no longer an exception or isolated case amidst peace negotiations, but a necessity to improve the lives of women in Colombia and all over the world.
“Among other things, being part of the negotiation gave me a lot of confidence,” says Silvia Delgado, member of the government delegation in the peace process with FARC. Delgado believes the Ministry of Defense, where she works, is a place where voicing gender perspectives is still a struggle. But she believes the fight for a gender perspective in the peace process has given her the tools and strength to face whatever challenges she may encounter in her role there. “It made me realize that women can really take part in these decisions, in the highest levels,” she says. “It made me make the most of a quality I think we women have, which is truly seeing things in a new perspective.”