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Colombia's missed opportunity to include women in peace talks

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 1 Oct 2012 17:40 GMT
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By Anastasia Moloney

BOGOTA (AlertNet) - A decade after the last attempt to end Latin America's longest-running insurgency failed, the Colombian government and the country’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are to sit down at the negotiating table in the Norwegian capital Oslo later this month.

They will begin to thrash out thorny issues such as victims’ rights, land ownership and cocaine production, in the hope of ending Colombia’s nearly 50-year-old war.

But there is a notable omission. There are no women on the government’s chief negotiating team.

And, although the leftist FARC rebels did have one woman taking part in exploratory peace talks, the group’s chief negotiators meeting in Oslo and then later in Havana, are also set to be an all-male affair.   

It’s a missed opportunity and mistake, say analysts.  

“It’s quite surprising and shocking,” Silke Pfeiffer, the Colombia/Andes project director for International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think-tank, told AlertNet in a telephone interview. 

There’s little doubt that women and children, particularly from Afro-Colombian and indigenous groups, have borne the brunt of Colombia’s long conflict.

Over the decades, sexual violence has been used as a weapon of war in Colombia’s conflict. Thousands of women and girls have suffered sexual abuse, including rape, at the hands of armed groups and, in some cases, state security forces.  

In a landmark ruling in 2008, Colombia’s constitutional court said, “sexual violence against women is a habitual, extensive, systematic and invisible practice in the Colombian armed conflict”. 

It’s these experiences that need to be heard and addressed, says Pfeiffer. 

Women and children make up the majority of Colombia’s displaced by the violence.  It’s most often women and their children you see begging at traffic lights in affluent neighourhoods in north Bogota, holding placards saying: “Please give. We have been displaced by the violence.” 

“Not only are women the main victims of the Colombian conflict but they make up about 50 percent of the Colombian population. Women bring different perspectives and qualities that should be at the negotiating table,” Pfeiffer said.  

“It’s not only a question of common sense but Colombia has obligations with international treaties,” Pfeiffer added.  

Including women at the main negotiating table would bring Colombia in line with its obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), as well as United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1325 (2000) and 1820 (2008), said Pfeiffer.  

Both U.N. resolutions underscore the need, and importance, for women to play a pivotal role in all stages of peace talks and post conflict processes.  

In a recent public letter to the Colombian president, five leading Colombian women’s groups urged the government to ensure women are included in all stages of peace talks. They hope the government will include more women as part of its 30 member delegation, who will accompany chief negotiators on the sidelines in Oslo later this month. 

It’s a message echoed by anti-landmines campaigner and Nobel peace laureate, Jody Williams.  

“Women are indispensable in peace talks. The (Colombian) president should have at least two women at the negotiating table,” Williams was quoted as saying in a recent interview with Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper. 

WOMEN STRENGTHEN PEACE

Over the last decade, there’s been growing recognition among international bodies and policy makers that including women in all stages of a peace process strengthens the prospects for sustainable peace, helps rebuild broken communities and reintegrate demobilised fighters back into civilian life. 

Women have played decisive roles in peace processes. An often cited example is that of Liberia, where a women’s peace movement led by activist Leymah Gbowee helped end Liberia’s civil war in 2003. 

Still, women continue to be poorly represented in peace processes.  

According to the United Nations women’s agency, UNIFEM, in recent peace negotiations across the world, women have represented less than 8 percent of participants and less than 3 percent of signatories. And no woman has ever been appointed chief or lead mediator in U.N.-sponsored peace talks. 

Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, has picked an experienced six-men negotiating team for the Oslo and Havana peace talks. It’s led by former vice president Humberto de la Calle, and comprises a former police chief, a former army general, a business leader, the president's chief security adviser and a former peace commissioner.  

But Colombia should use this latest round of peace talks as an opportunity to ensure women’s voices are heard not on the sidelines but at the main negotiating table.

(Editing by Alex Whiting)

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