The fate of the country’s historic peace process – and its impact on Colombians living in a fragile truce – may well hang in the balance. Both candidates have said they will support the implementation of the peace process, but the detail of this support is not always clear. This naturally worried those most affected by the conflict, who worked hard to negotiate peace.
The competition has a number of firsts. If Gustavo Petro, a 62-year-old former guerrilla fighter, wins on June 19, he will be Colombia’s first left-wing leader. Petro won the first round with just over 40% of the vote. In this second round, he faces 77-year-old centrist construction magnate Rodolfo Hernández, a populist.
Also for the first time, the running mates of the two candidates in the final round are Afro-Colombian women. Francia Márquez, a 2018 Goldman Environmental Prize winner with a long history of rural social activism, is on the ticket with Petro. Along with Hernández is Marelen Castillo Torres, who has spent her working life in academia. She is currently Academic Vice-Chancellor at Universidad Minuto de Dios.
The two women played different roles in the campaigns. Márquez – who, after leading women in his community to protest illegal mining and community evictions, has been a public figure in Colombia since the 2010s – has mobilized against the country’s political and economic status quo during The electoral campaign. Márquez has long championed women’s rights, economic empowerment programs and access to land for the poor.
Little is known about Castillo, who has no political history. She is a recent addition to Hernández’s campaign and hasn’t made many public appearances, although in media interviews she has spoken about promoting access to education.
Beyond a woman to the right of the president, what can Colombians – and especially Colombian women who have endured the longest armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere – expect from their future leaders?
A history of conflict-related violence
Women in Colombia have suffered disproportionately during more than 50 years of conflict between government forces, guerrillas and paramilitary groups. Yet women also played an important role as peacemakers in ending this conflict and rebuilding their communities in its wake.
Sexual violence was widely used to gain social and territorial control. The most recent data from the Colombian Victim Registry documents more than 31,000 reported cases of sexual violence. Millions of women have also been affected by forced displacement, many bearing economic responsibility for their families after the death of their husbands, and forced to flee their homes and communities.
Studies have shown that displaced women are at high risk of gender-based violence, including sexual violence. As a direct result of the gendered fallout from the conflict, gender equality figured prominently in peace agreements, as did recognition of the need for racial and ethnic justice.
Women played an important role during the negotiations, even forming a “gender sub-commission”, a unique space made up of representatives of the FARC, the government and civil society and intended to ensure that all experiences of conflict are recognized and addressed in the final agreement.
When finalized, the Colombian Final Accord included commitments in key areas, including rural reform, security and protection guarantees, and victims’ rights.
“The recognition of racial, ethnic and sexual discrimination as underlying forces in the conflict, and the inclusion of provisions to address them directly…has been a hard-won achievement by civil society, especially women, LGBTIQ, Afro-Colombians and Indigenous organizations,” wrote Lisa Davis, associate professor of law at the City University of New York, in the Columbia Human Rights Law Review.
Davis added, “Afro-Colombian organizations, with strong leadership from Afro-Colombian women, have developed a vision for the peace process that recognizes and addresses historic injustices and discrimination against them, including gender discrimination. gender-based, in order to ensure an inclusive and lasting peace. .”
Yet the conservative government of Iván Duque, which came to power in 2018, has yet to implement 42 of the 133 gender commitments that were agreed upon, according to the Kroc Institute, which monitors implementation. of the Agreement.
Speaking more broadly about the accord, the Washington-based research and advocacy organization WOLA wrote on the fifth anniversary of the accords that “deal implementation has gone worse than expected and that the opportunities to break the cycle of violence evaporate”.
Although the peace accord is legally binding, the rigor with which it is enforced is subject to the interests of the government in power.
Petro and Márquez have a clear outline of how they plan to implement the peace process if elected. While Hernández and Castillo also say they will implement it, their promises are more vague. Hernández has already come under international media scrutiny for what critics say is the disconnect between the campaign and the man behind the campaign. CNN, for example, reports that while “Hernández’s clearest argument was his promise to ‘get rid of corruption'”… [he] has had its own issues with corruption allegations – and some are ongoing.” Hernández denied the charge, which is expected to go to court next month, saying, “Under the current laws, every candidate can be sued by n ‘anyone.”
For their part, the social leaders with whom I have spoken in recent weeks are not convinced that the implementation of the process would be a central objective of the Hernández government, which means that the security conditions in rural areas could remain the same or even become more dangerous.
The search for peace and the denunciation of drug trafficking, the recruitment of children into armed groups and environmental degradation have come at great cost to Colombian women leaders.
For the past seven years I have researched how women seek justice in high-risk contexts. During this period, I have heard dozens of accounts of activists being threatened, targeted and attacked.
Many women I interviewed, often followed closely by their government-issued bodyguards, said not only did the 2016 peace process never materialize, but the threats they face are more intense than ever.
Their names have, for example, been included in public death threats issued by armed groups with a simple message: stop their social activism or die. As a result, many no longer live in their home communities, isolating themselves from their families to protect their children.
Last week, a colleague and I spent time with Afro-Colombian women leaders in northern Cauca province, a conflict-ridden region in the southwest of the country, where Márquez herself was born and began her career. militancy. Over the past few weeks, many of these women have told me that they have received death threats by phone or text message. Some say they narrowly survived assassination attempts.
Community leader Doña Tuta suffered a worse fate. She was murdered in nearby Cali last week. She is the latest in a long line of women human rights defenders who have lost their lives in Colombia since the signing of the peace accords.
For grassroots Colombian women leaders across the country, what is at stake in these elections is their ability to live safely in their communities. Whether, how and when the next president will actually implement the peace accord could be the difference between life and death for them.
The peace process is more important than ever
Although Colombia is now a post-conflict state on paper, the number of internally displaced people (IDPs) continues to rise as other armed groups continue to clash violently .
Colombia now has the third highest number of displaced people in the world, just behind Syria and the Democratic Republic of 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. Competing for control of valuable resources such as coca, illegal mining and transportation routes, these groups intensified their targeting of social leaders who promoted the implementation of peace accords in their communities.
Petro and Márquez’s platform acknowledges that women suffered in particular ways during the conflict. He 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 provide for their families.
Hernández also said he would implement the peace deal and seek an agreement with the National Liberation Army, the country’s largest left-wing guerrilla group, known by its Spanish acronym, ELN. Compared to Donald Trump in part for his controversial comments, including on the role of women as “ideally…[devoting] to raise children,” Hernández did not specify, however, how the unique needs of women would be included in this implementation of the peace process.
Polls remain tight ahead of Sunday’s vote. Colombians are frustrated with the country’s current economic crisis, rising levels of violence and diminishing opportunities. As such, beyond gender issues, Petro campaigns 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, but it is clear that all Colombians are hoping for change. For the at-risk leaders I work with, change can’t happen soon enough.