CEDAW and Colombia: A Balance Between Lights and Shadows

Analysis

Stereotyped gender roles continue to be reinforced from a very early age in Colombia. Traditional concepts of masculinity and femininity are very deeply rooted in the collective mentality of the macho culture.

40 Years of the CEDAW in Colombia - Picture: Four colourfully dressed women selling fruit on the street.
Teaser Image Caption
Four colourfully dressed women selling fruit on the street.

Almost four decades ago (Ley 51 de 1981 de la República de Colombia), Colombia signed and ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Said Convention seeks to guarantee the equality of men and women in all spheres of public and private life in the States Parties, placing special emphasis on access, without distinction, to education, to decent work and to politics.

As part of this international agreement, all of the States Parties must present periodic reports to a commission of specialists, rendering account of their efforts to contribute to the goals agreed upon in the convention. Colombia presented its latest report in February of 2019 and although the commission recognized the progress made on various fronts (e.g., the Final Agreement for the Termination of the Conflict and the Construction of a Stable and Lasting Peace, which is the title of the peace agreement signed in 2016) and the formulation of diverse regulations aimed at eliminating gender discrimination (e.g., the Pact for Women’s Gender Equality, it is clear that there is still a very long way to go.

The peace agreement has resulted in an increase in violence and murders

The sluggish implementation of the peace agreement is one of the commission’s major concerns since it apparently has not yet been integrated into the National Development Plan called the “Pact for Colombia, pact for equity” (2018-2022) led by President Iván Duque’s government.

There has been an alarming increase in the number of threats, acts of violence and murders of women who are social leaders, human rights advocates, members of the most vulnerable groups (i.e., indigenous, Afro-Colombian and LGBTI communities), and women with disabilities who are neither protected by the government nor taken into account in the creation of policies and laws and even less so in the allocation of budgets. CITATION CED19 \l 1034  (CEDAW, 2019)

Different analyses highlight the increased number of murders of social leaders and human rights advocates since the peace agreement was signed, and the fact that the killing of former combatants is also on the rise. According to the report titled Todos los nombres, todos los rostros  CITATION Ind18 \l 1034 (Indepaz, 2018), 702 social leaders (604 male, 98 female) and 135 former combatants have been murdered since the peace treaty was signed. The majority of these leaders were members of rural minorities and communities actively defending the territory and its natural resources. There is no reliable data on how many leaders and former combatants have been murdered, but all reports coincide on the fact that the number is growing and that the climate of death threats and harassment is felt throughout the country.

The commission has underscored the limited operational capacity of the judicial branch, especially in rural zones, and the high degree of impunity that exists in cases of feminicide and sexual violence.

Femicide too often goes unpunished

Data from Forensic Medicine authorities indicate that 1,080 women were murdered between January of 2018 and February of this year. It has been reported elsewhere that seventy percent of the victimizers in these cases were people close to the victims -partners or former partners- and the perpetrators go unpunished in more than 80% of all cases of violence against women CITATION Las19 \l 1034  (El Espectador , 2019). The commission has also criticized the precarious allocation of financial, technical and human resources from the government for implementation of the peace agreement, which is also threatened by the large number of attacks on and murders of human rights defenders and social leaders who work to implement it in their communities.

Male and female leaders are the targets of permanent harassment, violence and stigmatization because of their community work, and the commission notes that they often suffer abuse at the hands of law enforcement officials.

With respect to the National Development Plan, even though the commission welcomes the budget increase for the Office of the Presidential Adviser on Equality for Women, the entity’s role and organizational structure have not permitted it to play a relevant role in the construction and implementation of cross-cutting public policies aimed at women because it still does not have the necessary resources. The commission regrets that said office has not been elevated to the ministerial level, as had been recommended, and that there has not been sufficient participation on the part of women belonging to vulnerable groups CITATION CED19 \l 1034  (CEDAW, 2019).

CEDAW Dossier

women rights are human rights

This text is part of our dossier 40 Years CEDAW - The International Bill of Rights for Women.

In December 1979, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was adopted in by the United Nations General Assembly. Our authors sum up the contributions CEDAW has made to the position, rights and everyday life of women is several countries.

 


Political representation of women is lowest in Colombia

It is worth noting that one of the recommendations has always been the importance of creating an institution with a wide scope of action to contribute to the formulation of programs that make it possible to advance in the area of gender equality, and indicators that facilitate effective follow up on them. This last point is especially important because the government has been unable to collect and organize the data obtained on the subject of gender-based violence.

As regards political life, the participation of women remains relegated to a second plane.

In general, women’s political representation is barely 19.7%, and they show an electoral abstention rate of 40%. In the latest congressional elections, held in March of 2018, the percentage of women in the Congress of the Republic decreased (only 55 women candidates were elected out of a total of 1000 women who aspired to a seat in congress), only five women were elected to be governor of one of the nation’s 32 departments, and only 134 were elected to be the mayor of one of 1100 municipalities throughout the country. According to recent figures published by the General Registry Office of the Nation, 45,483 of the 121,194 candidates who registered for election this year (2019) are women. Even though this does surpass the Interior Ministry’s prediction of some 35,000 female candidates, it still represents only one third of the total number CITATION Lau19 \l 1034  (Ospina, 2019).

UN Women’s analyses indicate that women’s political participation has grown from 7% to 20% over the past 24 years. Nonetheless, this percentage does not even amount to the minimum established in the Quota Law, which is further aggravated by the fact that we continue to be one of the countries of with the lowest rate of political representation in Latin America, scoring 10 points below the highest, which is 29.7%. At this pace it will take us a long time to achieve full representation.

Women politicians live in constant danger

On top of the pending challenges of the Quota Law (Law 581 of 2000), the lack of openness and the very fragile state of democracy, there is the aggravating factor of political violence against women who not only suffer from violence and stigmatization just because they are women, but even more so when they dare to challenge the political scene and decide to run for political office.

Recently, between July 27 and September 2 of this year, the Electoral Observation Mission registered 24 acts of physical violence against candidates running for office in the popular elections to be held on October 27 CITATION Las19 \l 1034  (El Espectador , 2019).

Three of them were aimed at women, including the brutal murder of Karina García Sierra (mayoral candidate for the town of Suárez, Cauca), her mother and her protection scheme. The murder of Karina García and the widespread harassment of women candidates running for public office is not only an assault on the political rights of women in general, but one that leaves a deep mark on those who dedicate their lives to political activity despite the innumerable obstacles involved.

Deaths due to political violence increased by 29% in August of this year according to a study done by the Conflict Analysis Resource Centre (CERAC, 2019), which also warns that the security risk for candidates in the October elections persists mainly in the rural zones of municipalities that are in dispute among different armed groups. They report that threats continue to be the predominant form of victimization, with 268 events of this type registered from 2018 to date.

Afro-Colombian women lack access to openly address their discrimination

In particular, the National Conference of Afro-Colombian Organizations (CNOA) denounced the fact that practically no policies to defend and guarantee the rights of Afro-Descendant girls and women have materialized. They also point out the lack of effective institutional coordination and the constant omission of any cross-sectional analysis evaluating ethnicity, gender and generation as key factors of discrimination.

In addition to the above, they lament Afro-Colombian women’s lack of access to positions of power where they can openly express their social demands and make visible the violence of which they are victims.

At the time this article was being written, only two of the 52 women in the national congress were of African descent, and there were hardly any Afro-Descendant women in departmental assemblies or mayoral offices throughout the country.

According to the CNOA, this is because of their limited access to preparation, to campaigning with almost no economic support, and to a latent racism among the population. These disadvantages, as well as the widespread idea that political scenarios are supposed to be a man’s world, make it almost impossible for them to be elected to political office.

For their part, rural women have manifested that their rights continue to be violated systematically in Colombia and denounced the fact that they have little or no access to land, credit, machinery, technical assistance, or participation in the decisions that affect them.

In a shadow report that gathered together more than 70 social organizations, they noted that the restoration of the rights and restitution of lands of rural women who are victims of the armed conflict has not been effective CITATION Gru19 \l 1034 (Grupo de Monitoreo para la Implementación de la CEDAW en Colombia , 2019).

Stereotypical gender roles promote discrimination in the labour market

But if the situation of women is precarious in the social, political and economic sphere, it seems that gender inequality is even more entrenched within the private domain.

On the social level, stereotyped gender roles continue to be reinforced from a very early age and traditional concepts of masculinity and femininity are very deeply rooted in the collective mentality of the macho culture.

This has diverse repercussions in both the domestic and the labor life of the country. In the first place, it implies that women do almost all housework, which is frequently demeaned and is certainly not perceived as a space for personal realization. It is a type of work that is only just beginning to be quantified, but it is not remunerated, nor does it receive any social recognition.

On the other hand, it also fosters discrimination in the labor market.

The wage gap, a phenomenon that exists in many countries, reaches the average figure of 19% in Colombia, and according to the DANE (National Statistics Department), there is a difference of more than five percentage points between the unemployment rates of men and women.

Furthermore, there is little representation of women in what are considered “men’s” professions, especially the sciences, and a great many of them are concentrated in the informal sector. On top of that, more than 1400 cases of workplace harassment were reported in just the first semester of last year, the great majority of them in Bogota. Nevertheless, this does not necessarily imply that the phenomenon occurs more frequently in the capital of the country, but probably that the women there are more willing to denounce the matter CITATION DAN19 \l 1034  (DANE, 2019).

Masculinity proves itself in the exercise of violence

In addition, social prejudices are perpetuated and used to justify gender-based violence and violence aimed at sexual minorities that do not fit into the traditional roles. A report published by the Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica (CNMH) points out the close relation between social perception regarding gender and acts of sexual violence within the framework of the armed conflict.

In the dynamics of war, social violence, far from being a coincidental crime, is actually part of a general logic of domination and subjection. The female body, understood as an extension of the territory, is used to demonstrate control over both the territory and the population that inhabits it.

This violence is further instrumentalized to suppress actions of opposition, as in the use of torture to obtain information, to humiliate the enemy, and to maintain discipline and establish hierarchy within the armed groups.

This situation has been socially legitimized by a masculinity that is only considered validated through violence and domination, and a femininity that is socially perceived as fragile, docile and complacent. These relations of gender not only perpetuate sexual violence; it also allows victims to suffer stigmatization and blame, which re-victimizes women who have already been violated both in body and identity. It is therefore necessary to demand that the State reconsider the patriarchal dynamics of society and the transformation of gender roles, so that this type of violence must no longer be validated and perpetrated CITATION Cen16 \l 1034  (Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica, 2016).

The law is helpless in its attempt to protect the rights of minorities

The report indicates a sad reality that has been present in Colombian society for quite some time: Even though there is a legislation that seeks to protect women and guarantee gender equality, it frequently does not transcend the paper it is written on, and there is a huge gap between the law and reality writ large.                                         

The report shows that the formal and statutory advances go one way, but reality and women’s lives go another. This phenomenon is especially harsh in rural areas far from major population centers, where there is almost no presence of the State and where men and women face extreme conditions of poverty and vulnerability. Figures published by the DANE indicate that while the national poverty rate is estimated at 19.6%, in Guainía, for example, the local poverty rate reaches 65%. 

A review of the changes implemented by CEDAW

Olga Amparo Sánchez, one of the women who knows the most about and works to promote the human rights of women in this country, has done a review of the results of the CEDAW, which she herself denominates a ¨balance between lights and shadows¨:

Forty years of the CEDAW has been a balance of lights and shadows. The “lights” are in reference to the fact that the convention has been a useful tool for women and for their organizations to demand the guarantee, protection, and enjoyment of their rights. It has been the pillar of laws that benefit women with respect to issues like political participation, violence against women, education and health, etc., as well as policies that benefit women. Furthermore, it has been a tool to demand compliance and institutionality on the part of the Colombian government and to obtain technical and economic resources to attend and to transform ancestral situations of subordination and oppression that large groups of women endure in this country, a reality that is especially critical for women in Afro-descendant and indigenous communities, lesbians, female children and adolescents, rural and urban women alike.

The “shadows” refer to the fact that little progress has been made in 40 years in terms of transforming the situations of oppression and subordination that women live under in this country, in making equality possible for all women without distinction of sexual identity, class, ethnicity, regional origin, political position or religious affiliation. That is to say, the impact of the legislation and the policies with which the Colombian government now seeks and has long sought to ensure compliance with the CEDAW continues to be somewhat marginal and the effects are less visible in women who live under different systems of oppression and exclusion.

According to Sánchez, the achievements that can be highlighted in these four decades are the abundant legislation that exists in this country regarding the human rights of women, as well as the public policies aimed at transforming the preventable unjust conditions they face day by day. She also notes that it is very significant that women have an international instrument that obliges the State to comply with what was agreed upon in said convention as well as the commitment to follow up on the situation of women’s rights in Colombia so as to render accounts through the CEDAW.

In the opinion of Sánchez, the CEDAW’s great contribution to the country and to Colombian society as a whole has to do with the expansion and radicalization of democracy, and it has been a way to seek and do justice and to make the promise of equality effective for all Colombian women. She also says that the convention has helped women in Colombia to break down legal barriers and have spaces for participation and representation today and can use it as a tool that enables them to influence public affairs aimed at transforming their situations of injustice and exclusion.

As added value –Sánchez notes- the CEDAW provides women in general with an international instrument that obliges the State to protect, expand and guarantee effective enjoyment of their rights. With respect to the peace agreement, it was the convention, among other international and national legal instruments, that provided legal support for the measures taken in favor of women, but which are on hold today.

The Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women is a very valuable international instrument that obliges Colombia with respect to its women and should be promoted more forcefully by the government itself, and by civil society as well.

Women leaders, feminists, women’s and civic groups and organizations have a public policy tool in their hands to demand that women’s rights exist not just on paper, but also constitute a real alternative for millions of women who live lives of marginalization and exclusion.

It's time to get down to business - A call to action

Nevertheless, it is not enough to demand those rights and the fulfillment of the commitments made. Women who have had greater privileges in terms of education, training, empowerment, decision-making and power, have an obligation that is both ethical and political, to contribute to seeing that their congeners can overcome unjust and preventable conditions and work together to achieve a better quality of life with dignity for everyone.

We women are not a minority: we constitute one half of humankind. Many of us are increasingly well-educated, even more so than men, and despite our under-representation in popular election scenarios, we constitute a potent electoral force estimated at more than 18 million, i.e., 51.6% of all voters according to the electoral census of 2018.

So, if we propose to do it, we can elect women to be the president, governors and mayors throughout the country, making use of the formal legal instruments currently available to us. To do so, on the one hand we need to define and promote strategies that oblige the parties to include women at the top of the lists for public corporations, “zipper lists” that alternate male and female candidates, training and political skill-building, and effective financing for our candidates’ campaigns. We must also realize that if the parties are not interested and willing to democratize and to recognize the role of women and our ability to work together with men on a 50/50 basis, we can organize and create new parties ourselves.

On the other hand, and in the longer term, it is necessary to work to eradicate the macho culture and to promote recognition and valuation of the care economy so that such work will not only be quantified, valued and remunerated, but will also be distributed in such a way that family, society and government alike assume joint responsibility for the burden that falls solely on the shoulders of women today.

Advanced international instruments and very modern laws exist that no one is going to place at our service. It is therefore both necessary and urgent for us to take our fate into our own hands and then, hand in hand with young people, exert our power to eradicate the patriarchal and authoritarian culture that feeds on war, the dilapidation of public resources that belong to all of us, the lack of inclusion and opportunities for the majority, and the destruction of our environmental resources and our home – planet.

Together, we women are a fountain of hope for all of humankind.


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