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Interview with Donny Meertens on Women’s Land Rights & Youth Views on Transitional Justice in Colombia

My latest interview is with Dr. Donny Meertens, a Colombian anthropologist, who is currently a fellow with the Wilson Center. I’m working on getting better at limiting the number of topics I cover, but as always, my curiosity gets the better of me and Dr. Meertens extensive experience doesn’t make it easy! We talked about everything from women’s access to land in postwar Colombia, how the rule of law and security sector should incorporate women’s land rights into their programs, the different views on transitional justice between women and female youth, and what expertise anthropologists can bring to the rule of law sector. Check it out below!

Credit: Wilson Center

Credit: Wilson Center

Donny Meertens is an Associate Professor at Javeriana University in Colombia. She was previously the Rapporteur on “Violent Land Seizures and Peasant Resistance” for the Historical Memory Group of the National Commission on Reparations and Reconciliation and has served as a Gender Adviser to UNHCR and a Programme Officer on Peace and Security for UNIFEM (now UNWomen). She has also coordinated an IDRC-supported research project on Access to Justice for Indigenous and Peasant Women in Colombia and Guatemala. Dr. Meertens is co-founder to the School for Gender Studies at National University of Colombia. 

You’ve done extensive work on land rights and particularly women’s access to land in Colombia. Why is this such a critical issue in a postwar context?

Women’s land rights are a critical issue for several reasons. First, because land rights have historically been a place of gender discrimination, transforming unequal gender relations is an essential part of democratization processes. Therefore it’s not a secondary issue; it’s a primary issue of a post-conflict society.  I found this in the case of Colombia, especially on the micro level processes and their importance for the transformation of gender equality in the process of land restitution.

And secondly, equal land distribution has been considered one of the root causes of the protracted conflict in Colombia. It regains significance now as a question and key political issue in terms of democratic development and social justice and as such it has been discussed at the current peace talk roundtables held in Cuba between the Colombian Government and the FARC guerrilla.

Third, the land question is very important in relation to the humanitarian situation in Colombia. 5 million people were displaced during the last two decades, mostly peasants, who abandoned their lands and fled to the cities. Many of these lands were violently seized or grabbed and the peasants were dispossessed by paramilitary leaders and local elites. Displaced peasants were also forced to sell at very low prices. In the postwar context, land restitution becomes an essential part of redress and restoring rights for the displaced and it connects to the discussions on the more democratic and inclusive development model for rural society.

Fourth, women’s land rights constituted a particularly important topic in the context of implementing massive redress and restoring rights. First, women have not only lost their lands, but they’ve also suffered particular forms of gender based violence, mostly sexual violence used by armed actors. And this not only made the communities flee from their homes and land, but it also kept them silent because sexual violence is still such a taboo. So they kept silent about what happened while their land was grabbed and they were dispossessed. Historical memory work unveiled these experiences and land restitution mechanisms are addressing some of those cases now.

Challenges for Improving Women’s Rights to Land in Postwar Contexts

Women’s rights are also important because historically land tenure has been very informal and male biased. Women are underrepresented in formal land ownership.  Both formal land deeds, as well as, informal possessions and entitlements to land are supposed to be held by men, as the heads of household. For women it is more difficult to prove their land possession when they don’t have a male partner. So it’s particularly difficult for widows of war to prove their possession of land returning from forced displacement, because they have usually held informal marital relationships and now their husbands have been assassinated, or they have abandoned their family after displacement. Then these women don’t have any legal elements for proving their land possession.

Also in some of those cases of family rupture during displacement, we’ve seen how male victims may recover their patrimony after family rupture but their former wives become invisible, because in practice, they themselves aren’t considered the rights bearers for the broken family. There are cases that men constitute new families and they then apply for land restitution and if there’s not a check on who were the original victims, then the newly constituted family may get the land. It can be very discriminatory.

How might rule of law and security sector organizations better incorporate this focus into their programming?

For rule of law and security organizations, the issue of gender sensitive protection measures is very important. One of these measures should be the strengthening of their own organizations. Another mechanism should be the introduction of sexual violence as one of the topics that should be registered in early warning systems and conflict monitoring.

Land restitution programs should use extrajudicial mechanisms like testimony to allow women to prove land ownership. They, for instance, can say “we worked the land for many years and this gave me possession”. Using these extrajudicial mechanisms will enhance their legal security of the land.

Another effort that is already being done is where the title is given to both partners, the man and the woman, but this is not sufficient. There are many discriminatory social practices and land titles should be socially, not just legally, recognized. The ideal situation should include independent rights for women. Independent means that their land is not necessarily tied to the male head of household, so they can share possessions but at the same time, they can have independent rights. Finally, capacity building for women and participation and consulting mechanisms for women’s organizations in rural institutions is also important.

In “Forced Displacement and Gender Justice”, you talked about how female IDP’s who are head of households have been given priority access to land and productive credit, but that hasn’t been the case for women who were on their own or married. How did this distinction result and is this a similar issue that other countries are likely to face or are already facing with regard to programs improving women’s access to land?

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

I can speak for Colombia, although it may hold for other Latin American countries and for other continents as well. Particularly in rural development policy, the household concept is very strongly present. Policy is directed towards “normal” households, which is still seen as male-headed. We’ve seen this in many countries all over the world. When governments design gender-sensitive policies, these are usually translated into priorities for female-headed households because they’re supposed to be more vulnerable because there’s no man in the household. Then a man comes in and automatically the attention, and the policies, and even the formal rights, are given to the man.

So in the cases I described, there was a policy for displaced women heads of households and this was a very interesting initiative because they got land together, as an association. But still the policies, and the training, and the plans were not really realistic and there was no good training because there was a sense that they are “just women” and thus will not be capable of daily organizing and administering an agricultural business. The other thing is when a household has both a man and a woman, the woman is not heard in decisions, not taken seriously, and this happens even in the cases where there is joint titling.

In land reform schemes, single women are excluded except when they have grown up male children who can do the work, because women are not considered to be capable of running an agricultural enterprise. This again is tied to the old household concept where men are heads of household, as has been shown in a classic comparative study about women and access to land in Latin America. It has nearly always been the case that single women are not eligible for land possession.

How Brazil Linked Legislation on GBV with Land Rights  for Women

But on the other hand, I have found a positive case for women´s rights to land and housing. In certain circumstances, in Brazil, they have legislation about gender based violence but it is linked to the issue of land and housing and poverty rights. If a woman is a victim of gender based violence, she can stay living in the house or on the land possessions of the former household independently of who is the official owner of the land or the house. It’s an interesting case because this special legislation on gender based violence overrules what normally is the family law. We can use this idea of independent rights for women when they have been victims of violence.

You’ve also written about how women began forming their own organizations when they didn’t have the space to make their voices heard on land rights in predominantly male-run organizations. What strategies did these women use to mobilize other women around land rights?

As part of the historical memory work I did on land and on peasant resistance, we found that rural women that had been part of peasant organizations had no space for their voices, yet they had been very creative. Particularly in times when there was a lot of violence and peasant mobilization was repressed, many peasant leaders were persecuted. The women were very creative in surviving this violence and maintaining a low political profile. They mobilized other women and created local community based organizations with names such as rural women housekeepers’ organization or environmental protection organization, or women producer’s organization and they were able, at the local level, to resist the armed conflict. This way they kept organizational positions alive and now it is striking that many organizations that struggle for land restitution are headed by women. This makes them more visible and more empowered but also more vulnerable to acts of violence by those who oppose land restitution at the local level.

During the course of your research, you found that women and female youth in rural areas had different conceptions of justice in Colombia. Can you talk a little about the work that led to this discovery and also explain how their perceptions differ?

We worked in rural areas that had been struck by violence with both peasant and indigenous women. I have to explain that in Colombia not all peasants are indigenous. We always make sure to distinguish this because the indigenous groups, as ethnic minorities, have collective land rights and a certain degree of autonomy in their own jurisdictions, while peasant women who are not indigenous, are subject to the formal national justice system.

We wanted to broaden the research and not only look at access to justice in the sense of administration of justice, but we also wanted to know what kinds of justice in a more general, more philosophical way they were looking for. What did justice mean for most adult women and most young women we were working with?

Women’s Views on Transitional Justice

We found that the adult women in those communities that had suffered so much from violence were looking for two things. Above all they wanted punishment for perpetrators because there’s such a high level of impunity. Secondly, they were also asking for reparations, both material and symbolic reparations. For instance, with respect to symbolic reparations, they were asking to restore the dignity of the community and to clear the names of their assassinated husbands, who had been accused of being guerrilla collaborators because this was the argument used by the paramilitary to commit massacres and assassinations. So for them, it was very important to have official recognition that they were victims and that these acts of violence were not justified.

Youth Views on Transitional Justice

Credit: Anna Gouznova

Credit: Anna Gouznova

The young women were stressing the importance of justice, but they weren’t looking so much at the past. They wanted to go on and look at the future and they said justice for us is having our rights: political, civil, social and economic rights. They wanted to defend their rights, their territory, to struggle for their livelihoods to be more dignified and they wanted to look to the future. In some ways, they said “well our parents they are right and they have suffered all this violence and they should look for reparations, but we want to look to the future and not to the past.”

Were these younger women directly affected by the violence or were they too young to remember what happened?

Most of the young women were very young when the violence happened and very little attention has been paid to the affects of violence on children. I don’t know how this is in other countries, but I think it’s an important thing to take into account. But these were people that were aware of the importance to ask for redress and they supported their parents in this, but at same time they said we want to focus more on our current situation and improve the future.

Given that young women have a different view of justice, in what ways do you think international programs working on justice sector issues could better tailor their programs to young people?

I will give you a very particular example of what we did in our access to justice research. We worked with younger people and were aware that youth in the rural areas were generally reluctant to stay in the countryside because of lack of opportunities and because they want to look at the future and not live in the past. So we looked for very concrete mechanisms to connect them to the experience of violence of their parents and to do something with this for the future. So we trained them and asked them to train and help the elder generation with basic communication technology. They helped make cell phone programs to enhance security, and made documentaries to show organizations and governments about their local initiatives. This has been very successful as these young people became engaged in a positive way to make rural development issues attractive for them too.

This is an interesting practice for international organizations who think about how to engage young people in combining the search for justice for the past but also looking for attractive development programs for the future by incorporating modern technology, which is still very scarce in the rural areas.

More and more, scholars are calling for anthropologists to get involved with rule of law work. How do you feel your background as a social anthropologist has helped you promote gender justice and land rights for women in Colombia?

I think there are two very important ways that social anthropologists may help or get involved with rule of law work. The first is because of our focus on social and cultural processes, we can contribute to the understanding of how power relations work with the communities and families and how formal normative systems of rule of law might be under-enforced in practice because of discriminatory practices or discriminatory cultural entitlements. The case of women and land rights is a very good example. Because of the way we look at it, we can help shape policy, analyze how formal normative systems work on the ground, and determine what the problems are.

Second, because of our methods, I think ethnography is a very important tool for the historical memory work. Ethnography makes you reflect on who you are and who is the other. The other, whose testimony we’re collecting and whose voices are seldom heard. Listening to, analyzing, and discussing women’s narratives of their lives have not only deepened my insight and those of the human rights defenders and policymakers we’re working with, but also encouraged the women themselves to formulate new initiatives for the future. I think both are extremely important to compliment the work on rule of law.

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One comment on “Interview with Donny Meertens on Women’s Land Rights & Youth Views on Transitional Justice in Colombia

  1. Pingback: Happy International Women’s Day! | TerraNullius

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This entry was posted on March 5, 2014 by in Interviews and tagged , , , , .

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