From disarmament to inclusive reintegration: lessons from Colombia and El Salvador
Addressing the challenges related to the reintegration of female ex-combatants and adopting a comprehensive approach is crucial to ensure the non-recurrence of conflict.
The aftermath of a conflict or an authoritative regime can be a tenuous time. One of the key questions to address during this period is how to avoid the recurrence of violence. This inquiry is as important as it is challenging since it depends heavily on the type of violence and the particularities of each context. One of the pillars of transitional justice (TJ), known as guarantees of non-recurrence (GNR) are “not a category that designates a measure or a set of measures, but a function that can be played by a variety of initiatives” and it is primarily devoted to prevention.
GNR mechanisms may vary among countries, but in cases dealing with transitions after armed conflicts, measures for disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) play a crucial role. DDR mechanisms aim to prevent the recurrence of conflict by promoting reconciliation among warring groups, requesting ex-combatants to lay down their weapons and demobilize, and providing resources for ex-combatants to lead fulfilling lives. DDR mechanisms serve the purpose of GNR by counteracting factors that would otherwise facilitate the re-arming of former fighters, such as socio-economic circumstances, cultural stigma, and the inability to reconcile with their communities.
While DDR measures are important in post-conflict scenarios, the effectiveness of their implementation is challenging considering issues such as budgetary constraints or reduced political opportunity. In addition, DDR mechanisms address diverse former combatants who come from socially marginalized groups. Specifically, including and fulfilling female former combatants’ needs is crucial to the success of the DDR process in order to overcome gender-based exclusion and, in the long run, achieve transition. By drawing on examples from Colombia and El Salvador, this blog post explores the impact of DDR practices as GNR measures on the experiences of female ex-combatants. Concretely, we emphasize the need for a reintegration process that includes stronger gender mainstreaming.
The Salvadorian and Colombian armed conflicts
A conflict that lasted for twelve years between El Salvador’s armed forces (FAES) and the opposition group, Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), was resolved through a negotiated settlement in 1992. The agreement entailed the cessation of armed hostilities, downsizing the army, establishing a Truth Commission, and implementing institutional reforms on justice and electoral organization. To the guerrillas, peace signified their demobilization, reintegration efforts for their members, and the legalization of the FMLN as a political party. In El Salvador, unlike in other conflict situations, individuals known as tenedores—non-combatant FMLN supporters and internally displaced people in conflict-affected areas—were included as beneficiaries of reintegration packages.
In Colombia, the armed conflict dates back to the 1960s and involves various actors: the State, leftist guerrillas (such as FARC, ELN, EPL, CRS, MAQL, among others), and paramilitary groups (primarily AUC). The conflict’s root causes are often attributed to the unequal distribution of land and resources, as well as political exclusion. However, in the late 1980s and 1990s, illegal economies, including drug trafficking, became significant factors, adding to the disputes between the actors and leading to conflicts over the control of these economies. Over the span of more than 50 years, the conflict has resulted in millions of human rights abuses, despite achieving some agreements between the State and armed actors. However, Colombia faces a persisting conflict with ELN and the emergence of other armed groups with interests in illegal economies that contribute to the ongoing violation of human rights.
A quick overview of DDR as GNR
Demobilization and disarmament are key components of DDR processes, aiming to address the immediate causes of human rights violations. According to the UN Secretary-General, by disarming and demobilizing combatants, GNR measures can contribute to peacebuilding objectives. These stages are followed by reintegration, where ex-combatants and participants in hostilities are given support and resources to return to civilian life.
A common approach in the reintegration process across post-conflict countries involves a framework of socio-economic reintegration, considering that when returning to civilian life former combatants will need to provide for themselves and their families. This could involve economic support, education, vocational training, the creation of jobs, and access to essential services, such as healthcare and counseling support, which ensures that ex-combatants can find meaningful participation in their community and avoid being re-recruited by other armed groups.
In the reintegration phase the differential needs of the former combatant population emerged since returning to civilian life brings with it issues like gender norms and roles, previous marginalization and new stigmas associated with their participation in war, and issues related to identity such as ethnic belonging or gender.
Reintegration to address gendered power imbalances
During the reintegration process, former combatants must readjust to civilian society, which involves navigating social norms and expectations while also confronting their past trajectories and experiences. Female ex-combatants face an additional challenge as they grapple with gender norms and roles, both from their wartime experiences and in the society they seek to re-enter. Therefore, in addition to dealing with socioeconomic vulnerability, reintegration processes can also address gendered power imbalances by amplifying women’s voices and ensuring their active involvement. Reintegration, as traditionally understood, implies a return to the pre-war conditions, which may inadvertently reinforce oppressive gender roles and inequalities for female ex-combatants. Adopting a gender-sensitive approach ensures that reintegration processes can benefit women by challenging the traditional gender roles that limit women’s agency and perpetuate inequalities.
For instance, El Salvador faced significant difficulties implementing the PTT (Program for Land Transfers) which revealed the need for the incorporation of a gender perspective in reintegration mechanisms. Despite being a third of PTT beneficiaries, women encountered pervasive discrimination, primarily due to machismo and a lack of support from male leaders. Challenges arose in land allocation during the reintegration process, as local authorities misunderstood guidelines and assigned land based on family groups rather than individual entitlements. Some local leaders even allocated land under the husband’s name. This misinterpretation, alongside existing patriarchal attitudes, had a detrimental effect on the participation of women by further marginalizing them.
Salvadorean female combatants faced pressure to conform to traditional gender roles, hindering their effective participation in reintegration programs. The practical support necessary for successful participation, such as childcare, was often inadequate, therefore, many women were unable to fully engage in these opportunities. These experiences emphasize the importance of women’s active participation in reintegration negotiations and the inclusion of women-specific needs and experiences. In that regard, measures such as female-only programs, childcare support, and land allocation policies have proven relevant in promoting women’s participation in DDR processes.
In turn, Colombia’s 2016 Peace Agreement incorporates more than 100 provisions addressing gender issues. As a result, it has been acknowledged for its significant achievements, including the successful disarmament process, which was hailed as one of the most successful in history. While it is a step in the right direction, there is a long road ahead before achieving the full reintegration of female ex-combatants.
Recently in Colombia, the UN Verification Mission identified a gender gap that hinders female ex-combatants’ access to reintegration benefits and decision-making opportunities. Women face a disproportionate burden of unpaid care services, which obstructs their successful reintegration. Female representatives have emphasized the need to address this gap and include gender issues in the final peace dialogue with armed groups to achieve a comprehensive peace in Colombia. Additionally, limited awareness among local authorities about gender-related provisions has hindered the practical implementation of gender provisions outlined in the Peace Agreement.
Factors such as societal stigma and stereotypes make the reintegration of former female combatants into a socially marginalized group more challenging. Colombia recognizes that there remains a need to enhance efforts that protect the rights of women and female ex-combatants during the reintegration process, and ensure the implementation of the Peace Agreement’s gender-related provisions. By actively acknowledging the experience of female ex-combatants, reintegration programs that challenge conventional gender roles can potentially contribute to efforts that foster sustainable peace and create equitable post-conflict societies.
Addressing the challenges related to the reintegration of female ex-combatants and adopting a comprehensive approach is crucial to ensure the non-recurrence of a conflict. DDR as a GNR measure, in particular for female ex-combatants, could help transform gender-based exclusion and, at the same time, overcome the specific circumstances that facilitate recruitment in the first place. Programs focused on DDR contribute to the non-recurrence of a conflict by attempting to address the challenges ex-combatants face as they transition back into society.
This global blog was written by Maria Gelpi (1), Imahue Muñoz (1), Kiara Palacios (1), Ericka Regalado (1) and Paola Molano (2).
- LLM students- Human Rights Clinic at Essex University
- Coordinator of the Transitional Justice Line at Dejusticia