The fate of the country’s historic peace process — and how it impacts Colombians living amid a fragile truce — may well be at stake. Both candidates have said they are going to support the implementation of the peace process but the detail of that support isn’t always clear. This has understandably made those most impacted by the conflict, who worked hard to broker peace, apprehensive.
The contest has a number of firsts. If 62-year-old former guerrilla Gustavo Petro 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 is running against 77-year old centrist construction magnate Rodolfo Hernández, a populist.
Also for the first time, the running mates for both final-round candidates 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. With Hernández is Marelen Castillo Torres, who has spent her professional life in academia. She is currently Academic Vice Chancellor at Universidad Minuto de Dios.
The two women have taken different roles in the campaigns. Márquez — who after leading women in her community to protest illegal mining and community eviction has been a public figure in Colombia since the 2010s — has rallied against the country’s political and economic status quo while on the campaign trail. 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 history in politics. She is a recent addition to Hernández’s campaign, and has not made many public appearances, although in media interviews she has spoken about promoting access to education.
Beyond a woman at the right hand of the president, what can Colombians — and specifically Colombian women who bore the brunt of the Western Hemisphere’s longest running armed conflict — expect from their future leaders?
A history of conflict-related violence
Women in Colombia disproportionately suffered in the 50-plus years of conflict between government forces, guerilla and paramilitary groups. Yet, women also played important roles as peace builders in ending that conflict, and in rebuilding their communities in its aftermath.
Sexual violence was widely used to gain social and territorial control. The most up-to-date data from Colombia’s victims’ registry documents more than 31,000 cases of sexual violence reported. Millions of women have also been affected by forced displacement, with many taking on economic responsibility for their families after their husbands were killed, and they had to flee their homes and communities.
Studies have shown that displaced women face high risk of gender-based violence, including sexual violence. As a direct result of the gendered fallout of the conflict, gender equality featured prominently in the peace accords — as did the recognition of the need for racial and ethnic justice.
Women played important roles during the negotiations, even forming a ‘Gender Sub-commission’, a unique space made up of representatives from the FARC, the government, and civil society and intended to ensure that all experiences of conflict were recognized and addressed in the final deal.
When it was 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 gender discrimination as underlying forces in the conflict, and the inclusion of provisions to directly address them … was a hard-fought accomplishment of civil society, notably women’s, LGBTIQ, Afro-Colombian, and Indigenous organizations,” wrote associate professor of law at the City University of New York Lisa Davis 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 historic injustices and discrimination committed against them, including gender discrimination, in order to ensure an inclusive and lasting peace.”
Yet the conservative government of Iván Duque, that came into power in 2018, has not yet implemented 42 of the 133 gender commitments that had been agreed upon, according to the Kroc Institute, in charge of monitoring the implementation of the Accord.
Speaking more broadly about the agreement, Washington-based research and advocacy organization WOLA wrote on the fifth anniversary of the accords that “implementing the accord has gone more poorly than anticipated, and opportunities to break the cycle of violence are evaporating.”
Although the peace deal is legally binding, the rigor with which it is applied is subject to the interest 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 gap between the campaign and the man behind the campaign. CNN, for example, reports that while Hernández’s “clearest pitch has been his promise to ‘get rid of corruption'”… [he] has had his own troubles with allegations of corruption — and some are ongoing.” Hernández has denied the charge that is expected to go to court next month, saying: “With current laws, every candidate can be sued by anyone.”
For their part, the social leaders I have been speaking with in recent weeks are not confident that the implementation of the process would be a central focus of Hernández’s government, meaning that security conditions in rural areas could stay the same or even become more dangerous.
Seeking peace and speaking out against drug trafficking, child recruitment into armed groups, and environmental degradation, has come at great cost to Colombia’s women leaders.
For the past seven years, I have been researching how women pursue justice in high-risk contexts. In that time, I have heard dozens of accounts of activists threatened, targeted, and attacked.
Many of the women I interviewed, often with their government-issued bodyguards following closely, said that not only has the 2016 peace process never actually materialized, the threats they face are more intense than ever.
Their names have, for example, been included in public death threats circulated 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 from their families in order to protect their children.
Last week, a colleague and I spent time with Afro-Colombian women leaders in the north of Cauca province, a conflict-stricken region in the southwest of the country, where Márquez was herself born and began her activism. In recent weeks, many of these women told me they have received death threats via phone calls or messages. Some say they have narrowly survived assassination attempts.
Community leader Doña Tuta suffered a worse fate. She was murdered in the nearby the city of Cali just 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 Colombia’s grassroots women leaders all around 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
Though 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 violently clash.
Colombia now has the third largest number of IDPs in the world, coming only behind Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Latin American state has been described by Reuters as “the world’s most dangerous country for environmentalists”.
As the FARC demobilized in 2016, other armed groups took their place. Vying for control of valuable resources like coca and illegal mining, and transport routes, these groups intensified their targeting of social leaders who were promoting the implementation of the peace accords in their communities.
Petro and Márquez’s platform recognizes that women have suffered during the conflict in particular ways. It promises to fully implement the peace deal with the FARC, and will focus on the rural land reform, protection guarantees, and environmental protections, that are essential for women to have the ability to earn an income and support their families.
Hernández has also said that he would implement the peace accord and would seek a deal with the National Liberation Army, the largest leftist guerrilla group in the country, known by its Spanish acronym, ELN. Compared to Donald Trump in part for his controversial comments, including about women’s roles as “ideally…[devoting] themselves to raising children”, Hernández has however not detailed how women’s unique needs would be included in this implementation of the peace process.
The polls remain tight leading up to Sunday’s vote. Colombians are frustrated by the country’s ongoing economic crisis, increasing levels of violence, and decreasing opportunities. As such, beyond gender issues Petro is campaigning for profound social and economic change, while Hernández focuses on post-pandemic growth and anti-corruption.
The broad and urgent needs of Colombian women — and in particular Afro-Colombian and Indigenous women — might not be necessarily at the fore of the upcoming elections, however, it is clear that all Colombians are hoping for change. For the at-risk women leaders that I work with, change cannot come soon enough.