Are reparations transforming Colombian women’s lives? The gendered dynamics of the Victims’ Law
In recent decades, widespread media attention, legal reforms, and political developments have placed gender squarely on the international peacebuilding and justice agenda. It is now accepted that efforts to deal with the past – including transitional justice measures such as truth commissions, trials, and reparations – should deal with the gendered effects of conflict. But this often amounts to adopting a “women’s lens” rather than making any real attempt to address the gendered impacts of conflict.
My own research reveals that this represents an obstacle both to the transformation of survivors’ lives and to the achievement of the gender-equal peace and reconciliation to which these measures ostensibly aspire. But there are also ways to overcome these obstacles and challenge the gendered inequalities that made women vulnerable to gendered forms of violence in the first place.
Transitional justice in Colombia: The Victims’ Law of 2011
Colombia has not only experienced one of the world’s longest-running internal armed conflicts, it is also a pioneer in designing innovative approaches to transitional justice.The Victims’ Law of 2011, for instance, aims to provide land restitution and individual and collective reparations to millions of conflict survivors, moves which hold the promise of transforming survivors’ lives. Aside from this transformative scope, the Victims’ Law also allows for a “differential focus”, including in terms of gender.
The impact of this differential focus on gender relations can be analysed through the eyes of the men and women of two remote farming communities in Chibolo, in the Colombian department of Magdalena. Both communities were displaced by paramilitary groups for over ten years and are now involved as pilot cases in the application of the Victims’ Law.
Gender in Chibolo, in and beyond conflict
As in many rural contexts throughout Latin America, gender roles in these communities tend to be traditional. Men are seen as the head of the household, bearing responsibility for income generation and participation in public activities, representing the family in both voice and vote. Women are in charge of caring and household tasks, though these are viewed as lesser since they generate no income. The absence of public services like water, gas, or electricity makes these tasks tiring and time-consuming, however, which in turn lowers levels of women’s participation in public and community activities and weakens their sense of agency and citizenship.
These rigid gender roles did change as a result of displacement. Many families moved to the cities, where men’s agricultural skills were of little use, and women had to start working outside of the household in order to make up for shortfalls in family income. Gender roles did not change structurally, however, as women’s new working roles were additional, and their responsibility for care- and household-related tasks did not diminish. This double domestic and professional burden caused shame for some women and stress and anxiety for others, yet there was also pride in helping to safeguard family survival. As such, returning to the land has restored pre-displacement gender roles, enabling a less stressful life for women and a revitalised sense of masculinity for men.
Unfortunately, the Victims’ Law does not engage with these temporary shifts in gender roles, even though this could be a first step towards recognition of women’s roles and greater reflection on the need for more equitable gender relations. Instead, the Victims’ Law addresses women through narrow, traditional gender roles. Crucially, land restitution does allocate land titles jointly to men and women, thereby recognising women’s relationship to the land. But in practice little attention is paid to this measure, and men’s connection to the land tends to be prioritised. The projects provided as part of land restitution, for example, focus on men’s work in cattle farming while neglecting women’s agricultural activities. The Land Restitution Unit did eventually recognise this limitation and decided to initiate specific projects for women, on the grounds that “we don’t want to cause fights between husband and wife”. This reflects how it is often considered easier to do something on behalf of women instead of designing measures that actually aim to enhance shared participation and decision-making.
The same goes for the reparations process, whose flagship gendered strategy addresses sexual violence against women but neglects other forms of violence that women experienced during conflict and the machismo that they experience day to day. In Chibolo, women’s participation in the collective reparation process was not actively promoted despite the overwhelmingly male make-up of these and other community meetings. Women were instead asked to cook for meetings, at once reinforcing their traditional role and presenting an obstacle to meaningful participation in decision-making. Neither was reactivation of pre-displacement women’s committees considered a priority, which limited the form of reparation that women received to a simple compensation payment.
Moreover, the Victims’ Unit and many women’s organisations in Colombia often depict women as peacemakers, framing them as mothers who can rebuild their communities. But this discourse is not accompanied by measures to transform the patriarchal context in which they find themselves. Overall, the victim-peacemaker binary neither reflects the complexity of women’s experiences nor enhances their role as social and economic actors.
From mothers and victims to citizens
Chibolo’s women themselves seek measures that could assist them in “gaining more independence from their husbands” and helping their families “move forward”. They identified the need for education, enabling them to increase their self-esteem while also providing a better future for their children and grandchildren. They were interested in training and projects linked to livelihoods, aiming to increase their economic autonomy and diversify family income in an increasingly challenging rural context. They also sought organisational support that would enable them to take advantage of existing rights and obtain support that could improve their families’ wellbeing. Overall, there was a preference for measures that reinforce women’s agency.
Since gains in women’s rights can trigger resistance from men, it is also vital that efforts to address gender inequality include men in processes of reflection on gender relations and the need for different, less oppressive masculinities. Any such gender strategy remains absent from the Victims’ Law.
Training in the skills required for active practice of citizenship could offer a way to bring men and women together to reflect on their shared responsibility for family and community wellbeing. In this way, reparations could become a step in a process of longer-term gendered citizenship building rather than reinforcing the idea of women as dependent and unequal victims. This could leave men and women more aware and better equipped to transform their own lives, improving at last the prospects of sustainable changes in structural gender inequality.
This post draws on the author’s article “From Victims and Mothers to Citizens: Gender-Just Transformative Reparations and the Need for Public and Private Transitions” (International Journal of Transitional Justice, 2017)
This blog post was originally published on http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/latamcaribbean and can be accessed through the URL provided.