Colombia's Peace Deal: The Cultural Divide and its Impact on Women's Rights

By Katrin Geyer

International Women's Initiative News Writer

On 30 November 2016, Colombia’s congress approved a revised peace deal between the government and Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) – the nation’s largest rebel group. This marks the end of a 52-year war, which has killed more than 220,000 people and displaced an estimated five million.

Amidst the turmoil in our increasingly divided world, this peace agreement should have represented some hope. However, the preceding four-year-long negotiations gave rise to conservative right-wing and religious groups that monopolised discussions around the agreement’s content. In accusing the government of using “peace as an excuse to impose a gender ideology”, opposition to the peace agreement, championed by former conservative President Àlvaro Úribe, have accelerated cultural divisions which threaten to impede the protection and promotion of women’s rights in Colombia.

Colombia’s president Manuel Santos has received immense international support for his peace efforts, culminating in the Nobel Peace Prize. Nationally however, Santos experienced a major backlash in October last year year, as Colombia rejected in a plebiscite the peace deal between his Colombian government and FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño.

The revised peace deal, now being implemented without consulting Colombia’s people, is a step in the right direction. It is the beginning of the disarmament of 7,000 FARC members and the formation of a political party. However, accompanying peace negotiations have increased cultural divisions and the aftermath of the negotiations leave a bittersweet aftertaste for Colombia’s women in respect of their human rights. In order to understand the impact of the peace deal negotiations on women’s rights in Colombia, we have to rewind a few months back.

The final version of the first peace agreement was divided into six points: rural reform; political participation; illicit drugs; victims; the end of the conflict and implementation. The document was internationally recognised for its pioneering inclusion of a gender perspective. Such inclusion was based upon international conventions such as the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the UN Resolution on Women, Peace and Security, the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Inter-American Convention to Prevent, Punish and Eradicate Violence Against Women, as well as Article 13 of Colombia’s constitution and its legislation 1257 of 2008.

The key principles underlying these legal instruments, reflected in the original peace agreement, are equality and non-discrimination. The inclusion of a gender perspective emphasises and acknowledges that policies, decisions and certain measures affect women and men differently.

Alongside the special emphasis on women’s needs, the agreement also made particular reference to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.  Its objective was that “men, women, homosexuals, heterosexuals and individuals with diverse identities benefit from equal opportunities.”

Concretely, and with respect to women in particular, such a gender perspective refers predominantly to women living in rural areas of Colombia, as they have been disproportionately affected by the conflict. The original agreement entails, for instance, special access for rural farmer women to land, subsidies and credits. Similarly, it demands special attention for rural women’s access to health care services, including sexual health and reproductive care. It also mandates a working group to determine the exact impact of the conflict on women; and establishes a team within the “Special Jurisdiction for Peace”, to investigate cases of sexual violence.

Opposition to the peace agreement, headed by former president Úribe, argued that the agreement is too lenient on FARC’s members, allowing many to avoid prison and to receive reduced sentences for war crimes. To ensure that enough people would vote “No” in the plebiscite, Úribe rallied religious voters against the agreement, with little regard to the facts. Julieth Tamayo, director of the Colombian women’s rights NGO Casa Cultural Tejiendo Sororidades, based in Cali, commented:  “a resurgent conservative alliance of the conservative right and religious groups have used fear and manipulation through media and social networks to motivate people to vote against the peace agreement.”  Opponents used arguments against gay marriage and abortion, arguing that the agreement would threaten family values.

Not surprisingly, after the plebiscite, “No” campaigner Juan Carlos Velez admitted that its tactic had been to draw attention away from the actual provisions in order to make voters angry and thereby encourage them to vote.

The opposition’s campaigning resulted in a victory by a thin majority of 50.2 per cent. However, it also fuelled a “conservative roll back,” which runs the risk of adversely affecting the human rights of Colombian women.

As a result of the opposition’s pressure, the revised agreement, approved by Congress, mentions the term “gender perspective” only 55 times in contrast to the 144 times it appeared in the original agreement. The new accord also substitutes references to “gender diversity” with provisions promoting the rights of all citizens, and guarantees a more active role for religious organisations in the implementation of the agreement. It does not, however, change the most crucial points brought forward by opponents: preventing rebels involved in war crimes from political participation; and allowing for tougher prison sentences.

Whilst the approved peace agreement is a vital step to end Colombia’s five-decade-long civil war, its preceding negotiations exposed and reinforced worrying attitudes towards women and the LGBT community. Colombia is still one of the most conservative countries in Latin America. Despite advances in the legislation on women’s rights, they are not effectively enforced. Persistent issues of stigmatising abortions or shockingly high numbers of femicides, referring to the murder of a woman by a man because of her gender,  are cases in point. To the present day, only 0.08 per cent of the 400,000 women aborting each year in Colombia do so legally.

Violence against women is omnipresent and often socially accepted. On average, one woman is killed every two days, and on every sixth day, she is killed by her partner or former partner.

Colombia has the 10th highest femicide rate in the world. During the past ten years, 34,571 cases have been brought forward in relation to femicide, however, only 3,658 men were convicted. This amounts to impunity of almost  90 per cent.

When I asked Julieth Tamayo about her view on the new peace agreement, she said: “We have already forgotten about the peace agreement. We just had eight horrible femicides this weekend. And now we are marching against those crimes.”  

Heightened cultural divisions and a weakened peace agreement, among others from a gender perspective, have surely not invented misogyny in Colombia. Yet, they have contributed to a climate in which some men feel more encouraged to act upon their patriarchal beliefs, sustaining the notoriously sad statistics on violence against women in Colombia.