José A. Gutiérrez
Despite the various roles that women have played in a multitude of conflicts all over the world, they have been traditionally regarded as powerless, innocent, child-like victims in the context of war. Academic debate, however, has been moving decisively from those stereotypes, as research questions the unidimensional view of women as victims, as Carpenter argues, often conflated in a single category with children and ‘other vulnerable groups.’ Likewise, the roles of women as active participants in conflicts, whether as members of official armed forces or of irregular groups, have been the object of much more rigorous analysis over the last decade. It is no longer possible to say that women engage in conflicts merely through coercion or deception: it is clear that many women choose to participate in conflict for a wide range of reasons. Women’s participation, particularly in insurgencies that hold progressive agendas can be affirmative, as it often challenges rigid gendered norms, thus creating a space for women to access the public sphere of politics often denied to them in mainstream society. It also gives women a sense of their potential, gives them new skills, and provides them a sense of equality. Research on women combatants in Colombia, for instance, has highlighted this issue, particularly within the ranks of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, People’s Army (FARC-EP), an insurgency where women constituted around 33% of active combatants at the time of their demobilisation in 2016.
The pervasive stereotype of women as passive victims deprived of any agency is, nonetheless, alive and kicking in salacious media stories and in policy documents shaping the institutional environment that women in the process of demobilisation will encounter. These stereotypes are damaging to the political space of women in post-conflict societies, particularly as they are used to sideline the role of former women combatants in peacebuilding. Just as women’s roles in conflict are dismissed in these dominant accounts, their roles in peacebuilding are often caricatured as deriving from a supposedly inherently maternal and peaceful nature. These ‘crude stereotypes which equate men with war and violence and women with peace’ (p.427), turn women-combatants into anomalies or degenerates who, therefore, have little or nothing to add to the prospect of peacebuilding -other than their demobilisation, and hopefully, the post-conflict condemnation of their previous cause. Therefore, while it is generally acknowledged that women’s participation in conflict resolution is necessary, there is one particular category of women who are consistently denied ‘parity of esteem’: women combatants.
We argue that former women combatants, precisely because of their wartime experiences, can have a potentially transformative role in peacebuilding and contribute to more egalitarian post-conflict relations, thus contributing to the transformation of those social realities that are often at the heart of gendered physical, structural, cultural and systemic violence. Unlike the liberal peacebuilding paradigm that idealises pre-conflict realities and seeks a mere demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration into mainstream society, we argue that often pre-conflict society is hardly a rosy picture for most women: there are structures of violence that need to be addressed in order to build sustainable peace. In Colombia, the government and all the forces of the status quo staunchly opposed discussing any of those structures of violence. Indeed, early in the peace process, the government named three ‘red lines’ that would not be negotiated under any circumstances: the political system, the economic regime, and the military. This seriously limited the transformative potential of the negotiations, even by the standards of the most conservative versions of transitional justice! As a result, the peace process, despite grandiloquent rhetoric, ended up as an exercise of reintegration into the very same society—with largely unreformed institutions—in which the conflict originated in the first place. No wonder then, that even after the peace agreement, organised violence is rife, leading to a new and murkier cycle of political violence.
Derived from and strictly linked to these three ‘red lines’, there is another unspoken red line: that of gendered relations. In this case, the reintegration of FARC-EP women combatants became tantamount to an exercise of assimilation into an extremely patriarchal society. This, we call a process of reordering of women into traditional roles, within what Mackenzie calls a ‘conjugal order’, where sexual and gendered regulations are linked to traditional ideas of order and stability: proper order and women “in their right place”. Based on extensive and in-depth conversations with former women combatants conducted between 2016 and 2020, we identified five distinctive processes through which reordering took place in the context of the Colombian peace negotiations and their aftermath.
First, women combatants had to negotiate their priorities within their own organisation and vis-à-vis the Colombian government. Despite the restricted spaces for the FARC-EP and civil society interaction (negotiations were carried out in Cuba, not in Colombia, and the government kept the insurgents as isolated as possible from interactions other than with the negotiators on the table), women combatants, together with feminist and women civil society organisations, and with pressure from the Norwegian and Cuban governments (who had a key role in the peace process), managed to create a Gender Sub-Committee. This was a massive triumph for women, who saw their role expanding through this combined pressure as the process advanced.
Secondly, after the Gender Sub-Committee had made sure there were gender provisions throughout the whole document of the peace agreement, there was substantial backlash as conservative parties and movements denounced the ‘gender ideology’ of the agreement as fundamentally opposed to heteronormative values and to the traditional family. This opposition was critical to the defeat of the agreement in the October 2016 referendum, where amajority of the population opposed it. A modified version of it, which became the definitive version, significantly watered down the gender provisions and recognised the (patriarchal) family as the fundamental nucleus of society.
Thirdly, families exercised significant pressure on both men and women to conform to traditional gendered roles, and unlearn the different relations they had learned in the guerrilla movement. This pressure is more pervasive as most former combatants depend heavily on their families as they struggle to make ends meet. Fourthly, mass-media messages reinforced these gendered stereotypes of women combatants, often sexualising their role in the guerrillas and then reducing their post-war stories to motherhood narratives: a tale of domestication of these ‘unruly’ women into ‘proper’ women. Finally, many former women combatants expressed their exasperation with transitional justice and reintegration mechanisms, which they feel have a ready-made story of victimisation and don’t allow them to tell their story the way they see it. In the words of one former combatant: ‘I don’t seem to get on with these women (…). We went to Medellín’s townhall, to unbearable meetings (…) They organised these bullshit workshops, for us to forgive us for what we did in the past… and I don’t regret anything!’ (Interview with F-1F, 21/04/20).
Women’s participation in a peace negotiation on its own does not guarantee a result which is emancipatory or empowering for women. Despite hard-earned and unprecedented women’s participation in the Colombian peace process, women were re-ordered in a parallel process that combined the difficult negotiation of priorities, pressure from conservative groups in power, family and cultural pressure to turn them into stereotypical housewives, mass-media messages, and finally, what they see as a hegemonic transitional justice discourse that dismisses their affirmative experience. All of this, in the context of widespread economic hardship and the persistence of the social and economic structures of (gendered) violence which originated the conflict in the first place. Thus, with the marginalisation of demobilised women (who presented a challenge to the patriarchal order), any transformative potential of the peace process that could have touched upon those explicit and unspoken red lines feeding the structures of violence, was severely compromised too.
Dr José Antonio Gutiérrez is a Research Fellow affiliated with the Université Libre de Bruxelles and the Institute for International Conflict Resolution and Reconstruction. He has research experience in three continents, and extensive experience working on conflict, illicit economies, and contentious politics in Colombia.