Harry Sterling: Gender issues complicated Colombia accord


It was early morning in Bogota, Colombia’s capital. The downtown streets were coming alive with busy pedestrians, many heading to work in one of Latin America’s largest cities.

Bogota was a thriving urban metropolis, its centre modern and seemingly prosperous in a country whose capital seemed more like a European city than many in Latin America.

But that impression quickly changed as I approached what appeared to be a pile of soiled and discarded clothes piled up on the sidewalk along the base of a tall modern office building.

Suddenly, there was movement within the pile of clothes. The head of a small child began to move, other heads following until several shabbily dressed young children unexpectedly came alive, scrambled to their feet and quickly scattered past the well-dressed pedestrians.

The memory of that scene of long ago inexplicably came back to mind following the announcement that this year’s Nobel Peace Prize had been awarded to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos for his commitment to promote a peace accord with that country’s Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the nation’s major guerrilla movement that has been fighting for 52 years.

By grim coincidence, the Nobel award decision was formally announced days after voters in Colombia had narrowly rejected, by a vote of 50.4 to 49.7 per cent, the peace deal negotiated between Santos and FARC leaders.

Santos has announced he will donate $1 million to victims of the 52-year-long conflict.

While many in Colombia understandably might welcome the president’s decision, some might have questions regarding how one determines who the recipients should be.

Many in Colombia and beyond might have quite different views on which groups in that country’s society deserve to be included in any system eventually created to aid those who have been negatively affected during the various stages of the fighting.

There are those who maintain that the main losers in that violence and suffering were the country’s campesino population, particularly those trying to survive in hotly contested rural and isolated regions, in areas where much of the fighting was connected to the drug trade.

Others insist those who were targeted by armed groups linked in various ways to the federal government, or to FARC itself, deserve some assistance, including the female population, especially in non-urban areas whose very lives and futures suffered immeasurably.

Interestingly, some maintain that one reason Santos lost this month’s plebiscite on the FARC deal was based on opposition from influential groups, including the previous president, Alvaro Uribe, now a senator, along with powerful members of the Catholic clergy.

They allegedly opposed the peace accord at least partially because of measures introduced by Santos’s minister of education, Gina Parody, who is openly lesbian, the measures seeking to ensure the agreement had an “adequate gender focus.”

A new school manual for teachers reportedly was intended to prevent discrimination and bullying against lesbians and gay students.

According to the Washington Post: “The United Nations, as well as Colombian and international media, applauded this approach.

“However, some segments of Colombia oppose the gender provisions of the peace accords — especially statements referring to LGBTI groups.”

Citing research carried out in Colombia by Kimberly Theidon, the Washington Post said: “Programs that have been designed to help ease former combatants’ transitions back to civilian life have been failing — in no small part because real people don’t fit neatly into the narrow categories of ‘traditional’ family structures.”

For example, female former guerrilla members express concern about expectations to be “more domestic, more feminine” in civilian life than in FARC, particularly when guerrilla life purports to offer some of them gender equality.

And yet, the “traditional family” forces are wielding family concepts to challenge the approach to gender identity and relationships that the peace accords lay out.

The recent setback for a workable peace accord suggests one of the key questions still to be resolved is the fundamental and equal rights of women in a modern changing society.

It’s a reality that Canadian society is actively engaging.

Harry Sterling, a former diplomat, is an Ottawa-based commentator.


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