Gender and Development

Transforming Militarized Masculinities, A Gender Sensitive Intervention for Colombia

Colombia’s peace accord and subsequent reintegration processes have been hailed as a landmark process in the international arena, particularly in regards to gender. Kentaro Yamashita discusses the gender sensitive approaches that can still be included as part of the reintegration mechanisms to counter militarized masculinities.

BY: KENTARO YAMASHITA

Colombia witnessed a historical peace accord between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s largest insurgent group in 2016. This peace accord halted the long-running civil conflict that left 220,000 dead, 25,000 missing, and more than 6.8 million displaced over the last half century. While the peace accord was initially rejected in a referendum, the government and the rebel group announced a new peace agreement in December 2016, which paved the way for the future of new Colombia.

Following the peace agreement, more than 7,000 FARC combatants went through a disarmament and demobilization process under UN supervision, and are now in a reintegration program to prepare to return to a normal civil life. Colombia’s reintegration program is considered innovative because it incorporated a gender strategy focused on transforming harmful gender norms, especially “militarized masculinities”. However, this innovative reintegration program still overlooks an important approach before it can be a comprehensive gender-aware reintegration program. To achieve this goal, a new intervention is needed, one which will complement the on-going reintegration program in Colombia.

Colombia’s 52-year-long internal conflict was mainly characterized by a combination of political power struggle, significant disparities, and inequalities suffered by landless peasants in the country’s peripheral regions. From the late 19th century to the 20th century, the elite Liberal and Conservative parties dominated politics in Colombia. In 1948, however, the two political parties engaged in a civil war following the assassination of Liberal presidential candidate Jorge Gaitan, which resulted in 200,000 deaths. While this bloody civil war, known as La Violencia, came to an end with a political agreement, the deep-rooted structural problems of the country persisted, which caused many different guerrilla movements to emerge and thrive.

By the late 1970s, dozens of guerrilla groups existed, but there are two main guerilla groups active today. One is the Moscow-inspired Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which was formally founded in 1966, and the other one is the Cuban-inspired National Liberation Army of Colombia (ELN), which was formed in 1964. Against the backdrop of the violent activities enacted by guerrillas, right-wing paramilitary organizations, primarily the United Self-Forces of Colombia (AUC), also emerged as a means of protecting landowners, drug lords, and local businessmen from attacks and kidnappings by guerrilla forces.

Among many actors fueling the internal conflict in Colombia, the Colombian government, led by President Juan Manuel Santos, and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) agreed to begin peace talks, which led to a ceasefire on June 23, 2016, resulting in the signing of a historic peace accord. The accord was initially rejected in an October 2016 public referendum, but a revised final peace agreement was signed between the Colombian government and the FARC in November 2016 after several renegotiations and a ratification by the Colombian Congress.

Following the signing of the final peace agreement,  the combatants were gathered in 26 designated zones, and they went through the disarmament and demobilization process, which was monitored by a U.N. mission approved by the U.N. Security Council to verify the implementation of the accords. In June 2017, the U.N. monitors confirmed the completion of disarmament and demobilization after more than 7,000 FARC combatants had given up their weapons; six months later, those disarmed ex-combatants went through a reintegration program that was based on the current legal framework implemented by the Colombian Agency for Reintegration (ACR).

Colombia’s reintegration program is considered prominent and innovative compared to other reintegration programs undertaken by other countries in that it incorporated a gender strategy focused on transforming harmful gender norms, especially “militarized masculinities,” which appears to be one of the main underlying causes of post-conflict violence against women and girls (VAWG), such as sexual exploitation and domestic violence.

However, the program cannot transform gender norms by only focusing on former combatants; it also requires a focus on the transformation of social norms in communities. The Colombian reintegration program, on the other hand, focuses primarily on individual ex-combatants. Thus, the proposed intervention must work with, and complement the on-going Colombian reintegration program by transforming social norms prevailing in each of the designated zones for reintegration.

The prime objective of the proposed intervention is to reconstruct harmful social norms permeating one of the 26 reintegration sites in Colombia. The intervention will draw upon the framework developed by Department for International Development (DFID), which was used in many previous successful interventions aimed at transforming negative social norms, such as: Program H in Brazil; The Gender Equity Movement in Schools (GENS) in India; the SASA! in Uganda; Soul City in South Africa; and Bell Bajao in India.

Proposed Intervention Framework

The framework consists of three stages. The first stage is “change social expectations”; the second stage is “publicize the change”; the last stage is “catalyze & reinforce new norms and behaviors.”

  1. Change Social Expectations

At this stage, the proposed intervention will aim to achieve three goals. The first goal is to shift individual attitudes away from harmful behavior. Before social expectations can change, individual attitudes need transformation. The current Colombian reintegration program already addresses attitudinal change in individual former combatants by teaching conflict resolution skills, capacity to generate constructive relationships, and the importance of tolerance and empathy.

The second goal is to promote public debate and deliberation around the norm. Changing social expectations requires individual awareness that other people in the community also change their attitudes toward the existing norms. In order to achieve the goal, the proposed intervention will provide opportunities for debate and deliberation by organizing interpersonal activities, such as community workshops or group discussions. Additionally, the proposed intervention will utilize edutainment or mass media to promote more debates among former ex-combatants so that they have a chance to notice others’ attitudinal changes toward the harmful norms.

The last goal is to promote a positive alternative. Harmful social norms that are not replaced with more positive norms are likely to return. The proposed intervention, therefore, will offer alternatives to the existing norms which ex-combatants will be willing to accept.

  1. Publicize the Change

After the first stage, the proposed intervention will focus on publicizing role models and the benefits of new behavior. To accelerate the new social norms in a community, using role models can be particularly useful in persuading people to adopt new norms or alternatively condemn existing ones. For former FARC members, the influential figures are the leaders or high-ranking officers of the armed group. The proposed intervention will use them as role models to persuade former combatants to accept the new social norms.

  1. Catalyze and Reinforce New Positive Behavior and Norms

At the last stage of the social norms transformation project, the proposed intervention will aim to strengthen new social norms and behaviors in the reintegration sites. One of the ways to reinforce the new social norms is to create a sufficient sanctions and rewards system. Rewards will take the form of esteem and a sense of belonging to a group of early adopters endorsed by aspirational role models and ambassadors. By contrast, sanctions will take the form of the introduction of new laws punishing ex-combatants who do not conform to the new social norms. In order to establish the system, the intervention will work closely with the Colombian government as well as the Colombian Agency for Reintegration (ACR).

Potential For Success Of The Intervention

The proposed intervention is based on the framework used by many successful programs aimed at transforming harmful social norms into a positive alternative.  One of the precedents is the intervention in Uganda undertaken by the SASA!. In Uganda, there was prevailing social acceptance of physical violence against women, which caused high levels of sexual violence against women in the country. The SASA!’s project aimed to reduce the levels of violence in Uganda by transforming the existing harmful norms into positive alternatives by using the same framework as the proposed intervention. The results from the SASA’s intervention showed that the social acceptability of physical violence decreased, which indicates that the SASA!’s efforts had successfully transformed harmful social norms into the good alternatives.

Bell Bajao in India in 2008 conducted a successful intervention using the same format. In India, there were culturally embedded social norms that women should tolerate violence in silence. Against the backdrops, Bell Bajao launched a campaign based upon the framework, aiming at advancing the roles of men and boys in reducing domestic violence against women. As a result, Bell Bajao’s intervention successfully changed these norms, resulting in a noticeable decline in proportion of individuals who feel that abused women should remain silence in violence.

An edutainment program, called Soul City, in South Africa is also a good example of successful intervention. The main purpose of the program was to address gender-related social problems, especially gender-based violence against women, by transforming underlying gender norms through a weekly TV drama, titled “Series 4”. The TV drama featured characters who endured and confronted gender-based violence in the hopes of raising awareness of violence against women and girls (VAWG) and changing broader social and community environment. A survey conducted after the intervention showed that the TV drama brought about a positive change in individual attitudes as well as social norms that accepted VAGW in the community.

Lederach, a leading thinker and experienced practitioner in the field of peacebuilding validates the success for the proposed intervention in The Moral Imagination (2005), made an analogy between a spider web and peacebuilding, claiming that strategically and imaginatively weaving relationships across social space is crucial to constructing social change (Web approach). The proposed intervention involves a wide variety of actors across different sectors, such as the national government, local and international organizations, and private sectors like mass media. The participation of diverse actors in the proposed intervention clearly embraces Lederach’s idea

Taking a conflict-sensitive approach also helps to ensures the success of the proposed intervention. A conflict-sensitive approach argues that the success of intervention in a field requires great understandings of the context of the field as well as the interaction between activities and the context. The proposed intervention will build on comprehensive prior research of the field, allowing for context-specific, tailored approaches. In transforming militarized masculinities, particularly in Colombia, a conflict-sensitive approach can increase the chances of such an intervention succeeding.


Kentaro Yamashita is a graduate student at New York University with a concentration in Peacebuilding and Development. He has worked for Hiroshima Peacebuilders Center (HPC) in Japan, the Permanent Mission of Japan to the United Nations, and the United Nations Development Programme in Jordan as a consultant.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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