What are the drivers of change behind women’s empowerment at national level? The case of Colombia

September 10, 2015

     By Duncan Green     

Just read a new case study of women’s empowerment in Colombia, part of ODI’s Development Progress series Colombia ODI cover(summary here, full paper here). What’s useful is the level of analysis – a focus on the national rather than global or a project case study enables them to consider the various drivers of change at work. Some excerpts:

Signs of Progress:

  • Colombia is home to the longest armed conflict in Latin America. In this context, women have mobilised effectively to influence emerging law on transitional justice mechanisms and to ensure that understanding the gendered experiences of conflict informs policy and law.
  • Colombia has more women in relevant decision-making positions than ever before. In 2011, 32% of the cabinet were women, compared with 12% in 1998; in 2014, 19.9% of parliamentarians in the Lower House and 22% in the Senate were women, compared with 11.7% and 6.9% respectively in 1997.
  • Girls’ enrolment in secondary and tertiary education outperforms boys’, while women’s participation in the labour market has also seen sustained progress. Women constituted 29.9% of the labour force in 1990; by 2012 this had risen to 42.7%.

Colombia ODI 2Four factors driving change:

  1. Constitutional reform and political opportunity structures

The 1991 Constitution is especially significant. Key elements of the new constitution included a more competitive and open political system and a new Constitutional Court with extensive judicial review powers, which over the years has acquired legitimacy. It also created an expanded Bill of Rights – grounded on principles of equality and non-discrimination, and with explicit reference to social and economic rights – which has been an important legal platform for gender equality.

  1. Collective action: women’s social movements

Whereas women’s movements were not visible in the political process of negotiation leading up to the 1991 Constitution, there has since been a marked change in their ability to navigate the political and institutional environment to good effect, resulting in concrete advances in law and policy across a range of gender issues.

  1. International factors

International support for women’s organisations has been fundamental in ensuring their survival and capacity to Colombia ODI 4mobilise; support to various entities that have given voice to the needs and rights of victims – including women – such as the Centre of Historical Memory, the Victims Unit, the Public Prosecution Office and the judicial branch. Donor agencies have played an important role in ‘accompanying’, facilitating or brokering relations between different actors where the risks associated with women’s activism are high and considerable distrust exists between different stakeholders. This has especially contributed to giving protection to women’s organisations in the context of conflict, and especially at the sub-national level. The third relevant factor is the role of international human rights bodies and Colombia’s commitments to international human rights conventions.

  1. Gains in gender equality: longstanding social and economic indicators of progress

Overall, there have been sustained improvements in gender equality related to education, economic and health indicators.

It’s not all hunky dory, of course, and the report highlights some important challenges to women’s empowerment: the peace process is fragile, many of the root causes of conflict such as land, inequality and exclusion are unresolved; political, generational and class divisions weaken the women’s movement and entrenched gender bias persists in politics and elsewhere, the rule of law remains weak, especially in rural areas.

The report concludes:

Progress has also been uneven. For the most part, it is well-educated and urban women who have been able to benefit most from the gains made, while women in rural areas, who are often poor and illiterate, continue to lag behind and are also much more exposed to the risks of gender-based violence, discrimination and displacement.

What I like about the report is the way it acknowledges the multiple drivers of change and how they interact – national politics, global processes and the multilateral system, grassroots organization, long term economic structures, and that it’s grown up enough to say ‘thinks have got better, but there’s still a lot of bad stuff going on’ in a field that too often demands that you decide whether your cup is half full or half empty. My only criticism is that, in the summary at least (what you expect me to read the whole thing?!) there is little attention to the dynamics of change – the critical junctures, other than the new constitution, and I didn’t see much reference to the role (positive or negative) of unusual suspects, (eg faith groups, private sector, academics, media) whether as allies of the women’s movement or separately.

I haven’t had time to review all the Development Progress studies, so if there are any particularly good ones, please let me know.

Colombia ODI 3