“This is the time for Colombia”

Remarks by Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and UN Women Executive Director, at the Peace Talks Table with the Government of Colombia and FARC-EP in Havana, Cuba


This is truly a historic moment. I would like to salute the member of the delegation for the Government of Colombia, Mr. Humberto de la Calle. I would also like to salute the head of the delegation of FARC, Mr. Iván Márquez. I also want to salute the other members of both delegations who are here. I want to salute my sisters who are here who have led us and brought us to this point. I salute the sisters sitting in front here and say it is wonderful to see you in this powerful position. 

I also want to salute both the Ambassador and the Minister for Foreign Affairs for their leadership and their stewardship of the process, and the representatives of the countries and governments of Cuba and Norway for their generosity of spirit and for being there every step of the way. 

I want to salute the women of Colombia for being the inspiration behind everything that has brought us together today. Thank you, thank you thank you—women in civil society, women in the feminist movement, women of all sexual orientations and women “in the trenches” of Colombia. 

I also want to salute my colleagues in the United Nations who have worked day and night to bring us to this point. My colleagues in Colombia, in the region, in New York, and of course my sister and partner—not in crime—Zainab Bangura, who also has been with us all the way.

Buenos días. It is great to be in Cuba today.

At a time when violence and hatred are so pervasive, and peace is so elusive, your work and what we have just witnessed now in Havana brings hope to the tens of millions of people, in all corners of the planet, currently affected by war and waiting for a better future. 

It renews confidence in diplomacy. For us in the United Nations, it gives us the strength to carry on as we deal with conflicts all over the world. Sometimes these conflicts feel like they will never end, but on a day like this we feel the strength and importance of the work of democracy. 
Long conflicts, no matter how complex and protracted, can follow Colombia’s example and sign up for peace. 

The efforts made by the Government of Colombia and the FARC-EP, the women at the table, and the guarantors to facilitate women’s participation in the peace process, are seen as exemplary and historic. They will be the subject of studies and analyses by many national and international experts and policymakers in years to come. I refer to the example of Colombia all the time. The Ambassador can tell you, in New York when we make speeches we always refer to Colombia as a symbol of hope. So please, do this not just for yourself; do it for the world.

These successes now have to be reflected in the final agreement. This cannot be ignored during implementation in the post-conflict phase, but it should and must be reinforced.

If you believe, like we do, that gender equality makes peace possible and durable, then the work of the gender sub-commission deserves special recognition, attention, and praise. We have made reviews of the implementation of peace agreements in the last 15 years, which we presented last year to the Security Council. What came out of that review was that in those peace agreements where women played a significant role, the chances that peace will last longer and be entrenched were much higher. When women were excluded within the community, the reconciliation and the coming together of communities across the divide was compromised and the conflict re-erupted. What we are doing here is to take precautions so that conflict does not erupt again.

Zainab and I will do everything possible to raise the visibility of your work and accomplishments, because the visibility in itself is a guarantee that others will support you so that you sustain the peace.

If you believe, like I know you do, that women and girls create the strength of the fabric of the future of any nation, everything that do you do today is worth every inch of the investment that you are making. We need to make sure now that when we go back to Colombia we make this known; to every woman, to every man, in every corner of the country.

It is important that this accord is confirmed, and is embraced, and is understood by people at the very highest levels of society and the very grassroots of society. It needs to be translated into measures that will be part of the post-conflict phase. And of course, women peacemakers make a difference all over the world, so they need to be empowered by both information and the resources they need to take the work forward.

I have seen this in my own country, South Africa. I come from a post-conflict region. We had war in Angola, we had war in Mozambique, we had fights within and at the borders of South Africa. In the signing of the peace agreement, the issues that affected women were central to the negotiations and that has helped us to stay the course. We do not have a perfect society there, but we do not have war. And that is important; that you do not relapse to war.

I have also seen in Sierra Leone, in the Philippines, in Liberia, and in Timor Leste, how much the voices of women have been the voices of reason that have helped to create the buffer that is important to sustain peace. So we must not in any way see what we are doing here as a side show. It is the centerpiece of the sustainability of the peace agenda.

Women’s participation and influence at peace tables increases the probability that an agreement will be signed and that it will be durable. We will hear more from Zainab about how women have been important for highlighting gender-based violence, sexual violence and crime, highlighting impunity and the importance for access to justice and for these crimes to be solved. It has also been imperative in the context of Colombia that women and men from both sides of the divide have been able to unite and say that they will not accept impunity. These crimes must be addressed and we salute you for that.  

We have also seen evidence that large-scale investigations show that the security of women is one of the most reliable indicators of the peacefulness of the state. It is one way in which you can say the state has been able to make progress. By seeing the status of women protected and respected you can actually confirm that there is a depth in the level of peace and the respect of rights of all the people.

Women’s participation in high numbers in the front line of service delivery leads to better quality services for both men and women. Research also shows that the surest way of reducing women’s experiences of violence is to strengthen the women’s movement in that country. So building the women’s movement, supporting civil society and entrenching the capacity of civil society to be active is another way to guarantee peace and service delivery that is inclusive of the needs of men and women on both sides of the divide. 

When ex-combatants are asked what factors were the most helpful in their reintegration into society, in many contexts they have said “the women in the community”. Many men and women have said, “my integration as an ex-combatant was helped by women in my family, women in my community, women in public institutions. When I needed support in order to find housing, to find work, to be a parent, to be able to be a functioning citizen, women in all the institutions of society rallied around me and made sure it was possible for me to move on, and women in civil society were always there to encourage me to move on.” I think this is something that we must not forget.

Experience also shows that economic recovery and poverty reduction is reinforced and made faster when we invest in women’s economic empowerment. Looking at the macroeconomic contexts that work for women becomes very important, and this will be a moment where it is important to do that for Colombia, so that you will be able to forge ahead with an economy that works for women. There are too many countries with economies that just do not work for women. Seventy-five per cent of the women who work outside the home – in many countries, even the countries that are at peace – work in the informal sector. This does not sustain peace. So we need to look at these far-reaching changes in society.

It is also important that after the peace women do not revert back to traditional stereotypes that put women at the back. This is an opportunity to break away from the stereotypes and to put women at the front line of society. Because in these times of big changes there is always a unique opportunity to make changes that are sometimes difficult to make in times of peace, and these opportunities need to be seized.

We need to make sure that structural transformation of rural society and agrarian policies is achieved and we are glad that this is reflected in the agreement.

We must also be sure that women are recognized as autonomous citizens with their rights, regardless of their marital status, family or community relationship, access on equal terms to land ownership and productive projects, financing options, infrastructure, public and technical services and training. These advancements constitute tangible milestones in the promotion of gender equality in post-conflict scenarios.

We will be following with support as you take forward all of this work. The Gender Sub-Commission has opened new ground for women´s participation in peace building which must not be lost. We support the voices of civil society and many other actors who want this subcommittee to be entrenched, because without an empowered committee of this nature we can slip back and lose some of the gains that we have made. Even when women have been a strong influence in negotiations, they can be typically excluded from important decision-making processes post-conflict. We saw that in Guatemala, we saw that in Algeria, we saw that in South Sudan. So we are talking about experiences that we have had, and we must not repeat the mistakes of other countries in this country.

We also support the women’s coalition that must continue to exist. Because in countries where women’s coalitions were not supported, the peace processes dissolved. We hope that this cannot happen in Colombia.

Women´s presence at the front line marked a turning point for the Colombian peace negotiations and provided a unique opportunity for a historic inclusion of women´s participation and agenda as integral to the process, as it needs to be. It is therefore critical that the achievements of the Gender Sub-Commission presented today go well beyond signatures and focus on gender-responsive implementation, particularly in the most remote places of the country; in the sustainable reduction of discrimination and violence against women, both in the frame of the conflict, and in their day-to-day lives; and in the increase of women’s participation in the monitoring of the implementation of these historical accords. The equal participation of women in all of the committees is also critical for the sustenance of this agreement.

Women represent close to 52 per cent of the Colombian population, and an estimated 30-40 per cent of FARC members. Their voices have to be heard in the peacebuilding initiatives. The Sub-Commission´s real success has to be measured through concrete results, such as the meaningful inclusion of gender specific provisions in the final agreement, and its effectiveness to integrate women´s views and participation into any follow up architecture.

This is more likely to happen if this is explicitly stipulated in the final agreement. And again, in South Sudan the lack of explicitness has backfired. Women are struggling to find the entry point back to the table so they can intervene in the conflict that the country is experiencing.

At the United Nations we are glad that a Special Political Mission will be deployed and that it has been approved unanimously by the Security Council. We are working with  Special Representative of the Secretary-General Jean Arnault and his team, to reiterate the importance of women’s participation and leadership in the implementation of the agreements, and to ensure that verification protocols adequately include provisions related to prevention and response to violence against women. 

We have been urging Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) countries to pledge that unarmed international observers drawn from their military and police forces for deployment to the UN mission in Colombia will comprise a minimum of 20 per cent women. But this demand needs to be reiterated by the parties so that it cannot be ignored in what is usually a male-dominated military establishment that is used to sending only men to peace missions. The UN has also had a role in sending exclusive male-dominated missions, and that has given us more problems. It has caused violations in the communities that are supposed to be protected. 

We know that in this regime we have outstanding women who can be part of these missions. The percentage of combatant women is much higher than in most other contexts, which provides an additional need for greater presence of women in the mission for verification. The unarmed observers will be drawn from countries that have a higher representation of women in the police and military than the traditional troop-contributing countries to peacekeeping operations.

In my country, in a time like this, Mr. Mandela was under siege because in the liberation movement there were those who were skeptical about making peace with the enemy. On the side of the government and the regime that we were up against, there were those who were skeptical about the regime coming into agreement with what they regarded as terrorists. It took the courage and the conviction to stand up and say “peace is the only way forward”. 

I believe this is the moment for Colombia. In each of you sitting around the table, I see a piece of Mandela, and together I see something that is bigger than the Mandela that we know. In every generation you will always have a mission, as Frantz Fanon said, each generation can either fulfill its mission or betray it.

I think this is the time for Colombia to fulfill the mission and I’m glad here we have men and women who are equal to the task and we thank you very much.