World · June 23, 2022

Elections in Colombia: the peace agreement and, with it, the safety of women are at stake

The fate of the country’s historic peace process and how it will affect Colombians living in a fragile truce is at stake. Both candidates have said that they will support the implementation of the peace process, but the details of that support are not always clear. This has understandably worried those who have been most affected by the conflict, who have worked hard to broker peace.

The competition has a number of firsts. If former guerrilla Gustavo Petro, 62, wins on June 19, he will be Colombia’s first leftist leader. Petro won the first round with just over 40% of the vote. In this second round he races against 77-year-old centrist construction magnate Rodolfo Hernández, a populist.
Also for the first time, the running mates for both finalists are Afro-Colombian women. France Marquez, winner of the 2018 Goldman Environmental Prize with a long history of rural social activism, is competing with Petro. With Hernández is Marelen Castillo Torres, who has spent her professional life in academia. She is currently Academic Vice Chancellor at the Universidad Minuto de Dios.
The two women took on different roles in the countryside. Márquez – who has been a public figure in Colombia since the 2010s after leading women in her community to protest the illegal extraction and eviction of the community – has mobilized against the country’s political and economic status quo during the campaign. electoral. Márquez has long supported women’s rights, economic emancipation programs and access to land for the poor.
Little is known about Castillo, who has no history in politics. He is a recent addition to Hernández’s campaign and hasn’t made many public appearances, although he has talked about promoting access to education in media interviews.

Beyond a woman to the president’s right, what can Colombians – and especially Colombian women who have borne the brunt of the longest armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere – expect from their future leaders?

A story of conflict-related violence

Women in Colombia have suffered disproportionately in the more than 50 years of conflict between government forces, guerrillas and paramilitary groups. However, women also played important roles as peacemakers in ending that conflict and rebuilding their communities later.

Sexual violence has been widely used to gain social and territorial control. The most up-to-date data from the Colombia Victim Registry document more than 31,000 reported cases of sexual violence. Millions of women have also been affected by forced displacement, many of whom have assumed financial responsibility for their families after their husbands have been killed, and have had to flee their homes and communities.
Studies have shown that displaced women are at high risk for gender-based violence, including sexual violence. As a direct result of the conflict’s gendered fallout, gender equality has played a prominent role in peace agreements, as has the recognition of the need for racial and ethnic justice.
Women played important roles during the negotiations, also constituting a “Gender Subcommittee”, a single space made up of representatives of the FARC, government and civil society and aimed at ensuring that all conflict experiences were recognized and addressed in the deal the final.

When finalized, the Colombian final agreement included commitments in key areas including rural reform, safety and security guarantees, and victims’ rights.

“The recognition of racial, ethnic and gender discrimination as underlying forces of the conflict and the inclusion of provisions to address them directly … has been an achievement fought by civil society, especially women, LGBTIQ, Afro-Colombian and Organizations indigenous people, ”Lisa Davis, an associate professor of law at the City University of New York, wrote in the Columbia Human Rights Law Review.

Davis added: “Afro-Colombian organizations, with strong leadership from Afro-Colombian women, developed a vision for the peace process that recognized and remedied historical injustices and discrimination committed against them, including gender discrimination, in order to ensure an inclusive and lasting peace. “

Yet Ivan Duque’s conservative government, which came to power in 2018, has not yet implemented 42 of the 133 gender commitments agreed, according to the Kroc Institute, charged with monitoring the implementation of the Agreement.
Speaking more broadly of the agreement, Washington-based research and defense organization WOLA wrote on the fifth anniversary of the agreements that “the implementation of the agreement has gone worse than expected and the opportunities to break the cycle of violence are evaporating “.
Although the peace agreement is legally binding, the rigor with which it is applied is subordinated to the interest of the government in power.
Petro and Marquez have a clear description of how they intend to implement the peace process if elected. Although Hernández and Castillo say they will implement it, their promises are more vague. Hernández has already been scrutinized by the international media for what critics say is the gap between the campaign and the man behind the campaign. CNN, for example, reports that while “Hernández’s clearest step was his promise to” get rid of corruption “” … [he] has had its own problems with bribery charges, and some are pending. “Hernández denied the charge that he is expected to go to court next month, saying,” With current laws, any candidate can be sued by anyone. “.

For their part, the social leaders I have spoken to in recent weeks are not confident that the implementation of the process would be a central goal of the Hernández government, which means that security conditions in rural areas could remain the same or even become more dangerous.

“If, how and when the next president of Colombia will implement the peace agreement it could mean the difference between life and death for women leaders.”

Researcher Julia Margaret Zulver

Seeking peace and denouncing drug trafficking, the recruitment of children into armed groups and environmental degradation has come at a great cost to Colombia’s women leaders.

For the past seven years, I have studied how women pursue justice in high-risk settings. During that time I have heard dozens of accounts of activists being threatened, targeted and attacked.
Many of the women I interviewed, often closely followed by their government-issued bodyguards, said that not only did the 2016 peace process never actually materialize, but the threats they face are more intense than ever.

Their names, for example, have been included in public death threats spread by armed groups with one simple message: stop their social activism or die. As a result, many no longer live in their communities of origin, isolating themselves from their families to protect their children.

Last week, a colleague and I spent time with Afro-Colombian women leaders in the north of the province of Cauca, a conflict-affected region in the southwest of the country, where Márquez herself was born and started her activism. . In recent weeks, many of these women have told me that they have received death threats via phone calls or texts. Some say they narrowly survived the assassination attempts.
Community leader Doña Tuta has suffered a worse fate. She was killed in the nearby city of Cali just last week. She is the latest in a long line of female human rights defenders who have lost their lives in Colombia since the signing of the Peace Accords.

For Colombia’s grassroots women leaders across the country, what is at stake in this election is their ability to live safely in their communities. Whether, how and when the next president actually implements the peace accord could mean the difference between life and death for them.

Supporters of Colombian left-wing presidential candidate Gustavo Petro stick up banners before a demonstration in Bogota's Fontibon neighborhood on June 12, 2022.

The peace process is more important than ever

Although Colombia is now a post-war state on paper, the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) continues to rise as other armed groups continue to clash violently.
Colombia now has the third largest number of internally displaced people in the world, behind only Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Latin American state has been described by Reuters as “the most dangerous country in the world for environmentalists”.
When the FARC demobilized in 2016, other armed groups took their place. Vying for control of valuable resources like coca and illegal mining and transportation routes, these groups escalated their attack on social leaders who were promoting the implementation of peace accords in their communities.
The Petro and Márquez platform acknowledges that women suffered during the conflict in particular ways. It promises to fully implement the peace agreement with the FARC and will focus on rural land reform, protection guarantees and environmental protection, which are essential for women to have the opportunity to earn an income and support their families.
Hernández also said he will implement the peace agreement and seek an agreement with the National Liberation Army, the country’s largest left-wing guerrilla group, known by the Spanish acronym ELN. Compared to Donald Trump in part for his controversial comments, including about women’s roles such as “ideally …[devoting] themselves to raise children, “Hernández did not, however, specify how the unique needs of women would be included in this implementation of the peace process.
The polls remain tight until Sunday’s vote. Colombians are frustrated by the country’s ongoing economic crisis, rising levels of violence and diminishing opportunities. As such, beyond gender issues, Petro is campaigning for profound social and economic change, while Hernández focuses on post-pandemic growth and the fight against corruption.
The vast and urgent needs of Colombian women – and especially Afro-Colombian and indigenous women – may not necessarily be at the forefront of the upcoming elections, however it is clear that all Colombians are hoping for change. For the at-risk women leaders I work with, change can’t come soon enough.