“We Want to Be Heard”: Obstacles to Women Taking Part in Participatory Mechanisms for Dealing with Victims of the Internal Armed Conflict

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At various points in this long conflict, several governments and institutions have tried to implement measures aimed at promoting peace, accountability for human rights violations and assistance to victims. The most recent effort was Congress’ passing of Law 1448 of 2011, also known as the Victims and Land Restitution Law (Victims Law). This legislation established reparations and land restitution programs for victims of the armed conflict. At the same time, it contains norms that guarantee the effective participation of victims in the different stages of reparations. To this end, it mandates the setting up of the Roundtables for the Participation of Victims at a municipal, district, departmental and national level as well as the designing of a protocol for effective participation.

It is important to bear in mind that women account for almost 50% of all victims and that the patterns of violence they experience may be different from those experienced by men. The realities they face in the context of the armed conflict in the regions under study show a continuum in the violence exercised against them, their subordinate role, their oppression, the threats and harassment by the armed actors and the lack of economic resources to live a dignified life. Thus, women’s participation in the framework proposed under Law 1448 of 2011 is imperative in order for their experiences and suggestions to be made known and in order to enable them to influence the implementation of public policies that affect them. Likewise, it is essential to identify the social, economic, political, institutional and cultural obstacles that they and their organizations face in participating in these ways.

This research looked at the obstacles faced by women and their organizations in the participatory processes for the implementation of Law 1448 of 2011 in the departments of Cesar and Meta and the Capital District of Bogotá. The information was gathered through interviews with the authorities and public servants at a municipal and departmental level, as well as workshops with organized and unorganized victims.

The obstacles faced by women can be grouped into three categories: those derived from their status as women; sociopolitical and economic; and institutional and organizational. Some of these have also become serious impediments to the participation of women victims becoming a mechanism to transform this situation.

The first group of obstacles is the result of the social construction of what it means to be a woman and the implications of this on institutional responses to restoring and guaranteeing the effective enjoyment of their rights. Firstly, this means that women have difficulty in acknowledging that they have a right to participate in the public sphere. Linked to this is an ignorance of their rights and the laws and public policies that protect them, including the Victims Law, and the opportunities they have to report crimes and demand justice. Added to this, among other factors, are the difficulties caused by the dynamics of the armed conflict, such as the ripping apart of the social fabric, the destruction of means of economic sustenance, the traumas felt in the wake of atrocities and being uprooted from one’s community.

In the second category, socio-political and economic obstacles faced include the fact that participation is limited to a purely formal aspect for the sake of political correctness, and reduced to a series of established mechanisms limited by legal provisions. Consequently, the spaces are only, or mainly, useful for justifying decisions in which the women have not taken part, or to meet political or legal requirements.

The precarious socio-economic situation in which many women live is another factor that curtails their participation in the spaces of the Victims Law. Lastly within this second grouping, the persistence of the armed conflict and the increasing threats against and harassment of leaders were identified by the women as significant obstacles that curb their participation.

The third and final category of obstacles identified is related to organizational and institutional barriers and, in turn, comprises three aspects. Firstly, the difficulties encountered with public institutions and the experience and abilities of those charged with dealing with victims. Secondly, the difficulties in organizing victims and the failings of these organizations in processes of participation and restoration of rights. Lastly, there is the distrust of public institutions, which can be seen in the complaints about the ineffectual, feeble and inefficient (insufficient?) assistance given by the state as well as in, the identification of the state as one of those responsible for women’s plight.

Overcoming these obstacles and guaranteeing women’s access to the participatory spaces created under Law 1448 of 2011 requires decisive action by the state institutions entrusted with its implementation. In order to strengthen these participatory mechanisms, the involvement of women victims and the promotion of their proposals must be incentivized and improved.

Improving the response of public institutions requires access to accurate and disaggregated data on the socio- economic conditions of the victims, the design of strategies to minimize those conditions that curtail their participation, and training of public servants to incorporate a rights-based and differential approach to dealing with women victims. Finally, there is a need to improve the protective measures to guarantee the security and physical integrity of these victims, their leaders and organizations.

It is not enough to include a strict gender parity in spaces for participation, but, rather, there is a fundamental need for measures that change prejudices, judgments, and social imagery, at an individual level (between men and women), at the institutional level, and in the wider society.


These conclusions are based on the research conducted in reference to the participation of women in mechanisms contemplated in the Victims’ Law. It is worth noting that the realities women face in the context of the armed conflict, as narrated by interviewees at workshops in three cities (Valledupar, Villavicencio, and Bogotá), reflect a continuum of violence against them. This continuum encompasses their subordination and oppression, threats and harassment by armed actors, and the lack of economic resources to live a dignified life.

It is important to clarify that while the research did not look at how institutional obstacles to participation affected male and female victims differently, the findings indicate such obstacles impact women to a greater degree. This is partly due to the fact that women are not recognized as active agents of political agreements. Their oppression and subordination is not acknowledged, and, therefore, democracy is not reconfigured in order to effectively facilitate the full enjoyment of women’s rights. It is not enough to include a strict gender parity in spaces for participation, but, rather, there is a fundamental need for measures that change prejudices, judgments, and social imagery, at an individual level (between men and women), at the institutional level, and in the wider society.

The most significant conclusions are:

Women’s participation was reduced to a formality.

  • Women do not have quality information on the participatory mechanisms contemplated in the current regulations that protect their rights.

  • Participation is seen by the majority of women and public servants as: 1) a necessary requirement, but one that does not produce any benefits as participating changes nothing; 2) a legal formality that must be done in order to gain access to certain services and that does not transcend the procedures and forms themselves; and 3) a restricted short-term process that has no chance of transforming the victims’ situation. These perceptions arise because many participatory processes had failed to substantially change the lives of the women involved.

  • Women victims have difficulties organizing and overcoming the fragmentation that the distinctions made between victims produces, the differences in aims and objectives of their organizations, and the prevailing individualistic view of participation.

Socio-economic conditions of women victims present obstacles.

  • Although it is not necessarily a decisive fact in all cases that a lack of material resources inevitably inhibits women’s participation, there is certainly a correlation between having certain material resources and having both the means and capacity to participate in collective processes.

  • The situation of the women victims who participated in the workshops and were interviewed is highly unsatisfactory, in terms of: housing, public services, health, education, nutrition, social services for the care of their underage children, and opportunities in the labor market.

Armed conflict and violence against women is the most significant obstacle.

  • The persistence of the armed conflict and presence of armed actors in the regions and their consequences for the family, social environment, and community is one of the most significant obstacles to women’s participation.

  • Threats, intimidation, harassment, persecution, forced displacement, murder, and sexual violence continue against female leaders and the inhabitants of the municipalities selected for this research.

  • Plans and protective mechanisms awarded by the state to such women are insufficient; they do not guarantee their security or that of their families.

Women victims tend to distrust public institutions.

  • There is a lack of political will and a weak and sometimes ineffective response by the state in attending women victims and creating streamlined mechanisms that consider their status as victims produces a distrust of public institutions.

  • Women victims view the state as partly responsible for their disadvantageous and unjust situation and see some public figures as accomplices of the armed actors with a presence in the municipalities selected for this research.

  • According to the women victims, some public servants show a lack of interest in carrying out prompt, thorough investigations of those who violate the rights of women.

Assistance and reparations programs lack differentiated institutional services.

  • There is a lack of knowledge of the sociopolitical environment of women victims, the rights that protect them, the already-existing participatory mechanisms, and the duties of public servants to implement the Victims’ Law. This affects the cultural and social views of those in charge of dealing with women and results in a restricted view of victims’ rights or the normalization of acts that violate their rights.

  • The participation of women is affected by the failure to proactively deal with their pain and grief resulting from violent acts committed against them.

  • Institutions charged with creating participatory spaces and mechanisms contemplated in the Victims’ Law do not take into account practical and structural obstacles to women’s participation.

  • Women need to able to count on the availability of social services that allow them to combine their roles as heads-of-household and leaders. This would lead to actions that show greater commitment and reflect women’s needs and would help in complying with public policy on dealing with victims.

  • Records and monitoring systems on participation continue to be inadequate. This research shows the apathy of public servants towards records, monitoring, and follow through on mechanisms and highlights the almost complete lack of processes to define indicators. This aspect is of even greater concern given the considerable resources allocated through the Victims’ Law to try to improve the availability of information.

Women victims lack knowledge of their rights.

  • The construction of the idea of what is feminine and the subjectivity of women, in which women are basically limited to a domestic role, curtails their political status and the recognition of their rights. This becomes a self-imposed barrier to participation.

  • The weak processes for citizen training accessible to women and the lack of mass outreach strategies about their rights are, for some women, important barriers to their participation.

  • There is a further lack of knowledge on the part of women victims of the laws and regulations and policies that protect them.

The rights of women victims by public servants are not recognized.

  • The assistance and advice provided by some public servants to women victims is half-hearted, due to the prejudices and judgement that deny women their status as full citizens with rights.


The following recommendations suggest how obstacles that impede women’s participation in mechanisms established under the Victims’ Law could be overcome.

Mechanisms of Participation

  • To the Victims Unit: Facilitate preparatory meetings prior to the plenary of the roundtable and the thematic groups of the national, departmental, and municipal roundtables for the participation of women victims’ representatives.

  • To the Sub-directorate for Participation and the Victims’ Unit Gender Group: Through discussion and dialogue with women victims’ organizations and the women’s groups that accompany them, design and implement a program to incentivize women’s participation. The program must take into account regional and ethnic differences, the specific dynamics of the regions in relation to exercising the right to participation, and the relationship and interactions between victims and public institutions.

  • To the Technical Secretary of the Roundtables: Record and take special note of proposals presented at the roundtables and plenary sessions. The methodologies and the tools designed by the Victims Unit for this purpose should include the means to highlight proposals presented by women victims so that their proposals are not overlooked or ignored.

Response to the Public Institutions

  • To the Victims Unit: Construct a baseline of the socioeconomic conditions of women victims so that progress and impact of reparations can be measured. To that end, improve, adjust, and update the registry and information systems in terms of: data according to age and ethnic group and socioeconomic and cultural indicators on the situation of women.

  • Design strategies to minimize the obstacles to women’s active participation in the measures established by the Victims’ Law that arise from the unfavorable socioeconomic conditions of women victims.

  • Design and implement a training program for state agents on the rights of women with a differentiated focus for the purpose of incorporating these concepts into the advice and assistance given to women victims. There should be an emphasis on promoting participatory mechanisms stipulated in the law, so public servants can play a leading role in incentivizing the informed participation of women victims. Such a program should include raising awareness around the special circumstances of women victims, particularly with regard to sexual violence and the specific needs that they may have, with the aim of improving the care they receive. This program could be included as a module in ongoing training programs aimed at reparations coordinators, the public servants attached to the Victims Unit, the Public Defender’s Office, and the municipal ombudspersons, among others.

  • To the Victims’ Unit Gender Group: Develop participatory regional assessments on the dynamics, organizational culture, and participation of women, with the aim of designing differentiated strategies that respond to the realities of women in each region.

Security Situation for the Participation of Women Victims

  • To the Victims’ Unit (as the coordinating body of the National System for Comprehensive Assistance and Reparations of Victims), the Ministry of the Interior (in charge of the National Protection Program) and the Regional Transitional Justice Committees (in charge at a municipal and departmental level):

    • Design and implement effective measures for the individual and collective protection of women victims who have been threatened. This should include advice, shelter, psychosocial support, and rehabilitation, as necessary. Establish special protective measures for women victims of state crimes that guarantee their security as victims and their rights, as women, to truth, justice, and reparations.
    • Conduct ongoing monitoring of protection policies for women victims, particularly those women who, due to their role as leaders of organizational processes, have a higher public profile and consequently are at greater risk of receiving threats against their lives, their sexual integrity, and their autonomy.
    • Strengthen the state response to cases of threats or other risks for women victims.
    • Ensure that the protective measures for women victims take into account their context, customs, and beliefs, and the level of risk. It is essential these measures do not contribute to their re-victimization.
  • To the Municipal and Departmental Transitional Justice Committees: Ensure that prevention and protection plans contain a special chapter on protective and preventative measures for female leaders, human rights defenders, and women victims who are members of the Roundtables for the Participation of Victims.

  • To the Public Defender’s Office and the Victims Unit: Design and implement a widespread campaign aimed at women victims about their rights and the content of the Victims’ Law. Special emphasis should be placed on those parts of the law that specifically refer to a differentiated focus and participatory mechanisms. In order to reach organized women victims, it is advisable to form alliances with women victims’ organizations and mixed organizations. In order to reach victims not affiliated with existing organizations, it is recommended that the municipal ombudspersons’ offices are strengthened in order for them to spread the information on the rights of victims and the content of the Victims’ Law.