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, Paris, November 2007

The Role of Women in the Establishment of Peace in Central America

Le rôle des femmes dans la construction de la paix en Amérique centrale.

Not only does war represent a violent division and disagreement between two opposing parties, it also separates and fractures societal cohesion amongst each group and directly impacts each individual on a personal level. Undoubtedly, both men and women suffer greatly from the consequences of war; yet it is important to acknowledge that each group is affected differently. Recognizing these differences is not intended to diminish or exalt the pains and needs of one particular group over another, but rather is necessary to consider when creating a peace-building plan that can most effectively address the specific relevant issues of each group in order to repair the injustices incurred from war. The subject of war and its associated themes are frequently analyzed within a male-dominated perspective. Much is lost and even less can be obtained by this gender biased approach, since it underrates and disregards women’s participation and contributions during and after a war as less important than men’s; consequently, equivocally prescribing women the role of victim (1). When undergoing a process of political reconstruction after cease-fire is achieved, it is important to move away from this view and treatment of women as victims, but rather value their capabilities, experiences, and unique perspective, incorporating them into the elaboration and implementation of actions towards peace.

Reaching a state of lasting peace is complex and goes beyond simply terminating active combat; likewise, the true form of democracy entails much more than high electoral voting attendance. Peace must be intended to affect all people and permeate every level and aspect of life. Under this premise, valuable efforts towards peace and democratization can not be attained if half of the population is deprived of conditions of equality, since the existence of discrepancies due to gender runs contradictory to the main principals ascribed to democracy. Therefore, recognition, inclusion, and equal opportunities for all are necessary to achieve sustainable peace; women’s concerns and contributions can no longer be excluded from processes of pacification and post-war reconstruction.

Central America is a unique example of a region capable of successfully resolving and maintaining peace after the prolonged civil wars endured during the 1980’s. Despite differences and situational particularities specific to each individual country, the common causes of these conflicts were rooted in the region’s shared historic conditions of poverty, political repression, social exclusion, and inequality; all which were further exacerbated by the international tensions caused by the Cold War. These conditions led to the formation of revolutionary groups inspired by an agenda towards the pursuit of social justice against the established right-wing dictatorial governments. In a region where culturally women are restricted and expected to conduct themselves according to traditional standards of behavior, the emergence of these revolutionary movements found an appealing audience within the female population since “many movements regarded women’s liberation as an integral dimension of their overall struggle for social justice” (2). Therefore, by joining these movements, which women did amply and in varying capacities, ranging from being soldiers, community and household leaders, human rights advocates, among many other occupations, provided a beginning towards a departure from the constraints in their assigned gendered-biased roles.

The wars of the 1980’s presented Central American women with the challenge of taking on tasks and duties that had been customarily assigned to men, thus greatly altering the previously established family structure. Inspired by a sense of duty, many men joined the arm forces and suddenly the responsibility of being the sole provider in charge of their families and communities rested upon women. Statistics from El Salvador illustrate this change as the percentage of households led by women increased from 26 % in 1978 to 51% in 1989, nearly doubling the amount in fewer than fifteen years (3). These transformations served to awaken within women a sense of political consciousness and social responsibility, as made evident by the fact that many Central American women, either by choice or obligation, joined the armed forces in the combat zone. It is estimated that in El Salvador 5000 out of a total of 15,000 combatants were female (4), while at the time of demobilization in Guatemala in 1996, records show women comprised 15 percent of all soldiers (5). In comparison, Nicaragua held slightly lower, yet still significant, figures of female combat participation in which an estimated 7–15 percent of Contra combatants and a 6-7 percent of Sandinista soldiers were female (6).

It is unfortunate that this opportunity for women’s liberalization arose within the dire context of war and indeed we can not ignore the negative impacts inflicted on women, since these too have powerfully influenced women’s position regarding the wars, both during and after their occurrence. In conjunction with their role as soldiers, women were not immune to the atrocities of war, and in particular experienced sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, torture, abduction, and untimely death. Also, along with their children and elders, many rural women were forcefully displaced from their homes and consequently lost their lands and material possessions, causing a large migratory wave towards Mexico and the United States. According to census data collected in El Salvador in 1991, of the 500,000 displaced persons attended by the National Commission for the Attention of Displaced People, 52.1 percent were women (7).

Evidently, by the late 1980’s, the need to achieve long lasting peace in Central America became a priority that could no longer be postponed. Consequently, in 1987, the five Central American presidents met in the city of Esquipulas, Guatemala, with the purpose of negotiating a political peace settlement for the region, free from the influence of superpowers, under the title: the Procedure for the Establishment of a Firm and Lasting Peace in Central America also referred to as “Esquipulas II”. The Accords, signed on August 7, 1987, defined a series of national and regional tasks to be accomplished in order for the region to build peace, such as: cease fire, national reconciliation, democratization, free elections, and an end to the support of rebel groups. These goals went beyond the negotiation of a cease-fire as they sought to address the root causes of the crises and demonstrated an understanding of peace as a continuously ongoing process and not simply as an end that can be directly achieved.

The signing of the Esquipulas II Peace Accords has proven to be a remarkable historical event in large part because the desire for peace was originated and actively pursued by top political officials from within the region and was not imposed by outside forces foreign to the conflict. This unique approach of achieving peace by forming a united regional front, conscientious of the commitment required both at the national and regional levels, not only accomplished a cease-fire but allowed the path to be paved for the process of democratization to begin. However, despite this undeniable success, women’s participation in the negotiation process preceding the Peace Accords was exceedingly limited. With the exception of Guatemala, where women had more of an active participation, as seen by the inclusion in the 1996 Peace Accords of a clause entitled “The role of women in strengthening civilian power” requiring participating states to respect women’s organizations and to support and promote women’s right and inclusion in processes of reconstruction and the political involvement (8), women’s specific demands were infrequently addressed and the importance of women’s issues and proposals were minimized. As a result, the Peace Accords failed to include provisions that took gender into consideration. In many instances this proved to propel discriminatory actions, for example, male ex-combatants were acknowledged and received their entitled war reparations such as land and building materials, while the new legislation lacked provisions regarding compensation for former female soldiers. Men returned as war heroes while women were ostracized and reprimanded for having “chosen” to abandon their families. In the few instances where women were directly included in their countries respective peace accords, they were done so in a stereotypical manner, grouped together as one same homogeneous group, labeled using general terms such as indigenous or farmers and thus were not considered as a diverse group with varying needs (9). According to testimonies and personal accounts of surviving women gathered by the Arias Foundation, upon reflection, there is a general consensus among them that this occurred in large part due to the prevailing patriarchal structures and mentality permeated in Central American culture, so that even though the Peace Accords were written in a neutral tense and are assumed to be applicable to all, in practice it has operated on more male-dominated terms. The few provisions regarding women outlined in the Accords are related more with the protection rather than the empowerment of women as active citizens, and none make way for the necessary cultural transformation to eliminate women’s subordinate position (10). This is of utmost importance, not only in regards to women’s rights, but also in terms of democratization. It is not permissible for the region’s democratic transition to continually develop within a limiting patriarchal framework. Consequently, this affects all levels of governance – political, judicial, social, and economical – and therefore the risk lies in having a democratic system void of a gender perspective.

Since its creation in 1988, the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress, a non-governmental organization established with the monetary proceeds from Costa Rican president Oscar Arias’ Nobel Peace Prize, was created in order to foster a culture of firm and lasting peace in Central America. By means of various projects and program initiatives, the Arias Foundation has provided support and technical assistance to governments and civil society organizations throughout the process of democratization in the region, with particular focus on ensuring the continuation of the implementation of the Peace Accords. An important component of this work is related to the promotion of women’s rights and the participatory role of women during and after this period of political and military turmoil. One of the Arias Foundations’ most recent projects “Building Peace with Participation and Equity” was designed to provide a space for women and representatives from women’s organizations to gather and share their experiences from the war, the impact the peace processes have had on their lives, and their visions on the region’s post-conflict future; all with the additional intention of systematizing this information in order to facilitate a dialogue and exchange of experiences as a means of support for Colombian women who are currently in the process of building peace in their own country.

During the war, women’s organizations were few and ineffective; one of many facts which proved detrimental for the development and inclusion of gender policies in the Peace Accords. Yet, it is precisely this absence of participation that motivated women’s organizations to unite and begin to exert an important influence on their respective governments. From this point on, Central American women’s organizations have increased in number and strength as a direct consequence of the war. The greatest achievements and contributions made by women’s organizations after the establishment of peace have been through political advocacy and the formation of alliances with other like-minded groups. This has provided a united front aimed at pressuring governments to favor women’s economic, social, and political rights. Central American women organizations are characterized by taking on the approach of focusing on one specific issue, such as access to land or human rights. This targeted approach has allowed for these organizations to become centers of expertise that in conjunction with their existing alliances and networks have consolidated their bases, thus influencing policy. Organizations of this sort play a crucial role in bridging the gap between sectors of society and State and bring awareness to important issues of women’s concern. There are many concrete examples of women connecting and uniting as a reaction to their exclusion from the peace accords and subsequent governmental priorities. For example, in Guatemala The Mutual Support Group was founded for women seeking information and advice about filing reports regarding the whereabouts of family members that had been killed or disappeared during the war; along similar lines The National Coordinating Committee of Guatemalan Widows is an organization that provides economic support to war widows and orphans; while The National Women’s Forum seeks to ensure women’s participation in policy matters regarding gender equity and guarantee that the Peace Accord clauses regarding gender are implemented (11). Similar groups arose in Nicaragua, such as the Association of Nicaraguan Women “Luisa Amanda Espinoza”, composed by former female militants and initially associated with the Sandinista party; their objectives consisted in achieving more female representation within the party as well as general advocacy for women’s rights (12). In El Salvador, groups such as COMADRES help women gain information regarding their disappeared, imprisoned, or dead relatives, as well as work towards the liberation of political prisoners who had been incarcerated during the war. For the 1994 elections, a coalition of women from different political parties and associations called Mujeres ‘94 formed to discuss gender-related issues relevant to the elections as well as work to increase female voting participation and inclusion of gender concerns in each party’s political agenda. In addition, Women for Dignity and Life (Las Dignas) currently operates independently from any political party and its main focus is women’s development and political participation projects alongside its lobbying efforts in promoting gender equity policies (13).

A particular issue that several women organizations tackled after the wars was regarding access and reallocation of land, mainly in regards to returning refugees. During the war, many Guatemalans, particularly of Mayan descent, were violently forced into exile and fled towards refugee camps in southern Mexico, Honduras, and Belize. Along with providing vital assistance, various NGO’s and representatives from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) implemented within these camps programs and projects that taught women essential economic, development, and leadership skills. One example of an organization rising at this time is Mama Maquin, who offered their support to the ‘Permanent Commissions of Guatemalan Refugees’ in their work towards fair land access laws and whose renowned advocacy efforts would later ensure the inclusion of clauses specific to women regarding land reallocation in concrete agreements such as the Resentamiento de la Poblacion Desplazada. Another example is the cooperative appropriately named “Nueva Libertad” (New Freedom) through which Central American rural women fought for equal access to land and obtained not only proper access to land but vast knowledge and experience regarding the formation of a cohesive and effective organizational group (14).

When the fighting subsided and it was possible to return to their home country, with the skills obtained during their refugee experience, women were better equipped to challenge the Guatemalan government’s laws regarding the reallocation of land; in which they demanded equal access and the right to be co-owners of the land distributed under this program. Therefore, the Guatemalan refugee groups set a precedent by conducting direct negotiations with the government. However, despite these negotiations and various legal documents, such as the 8 October Accords and the 1996 Peace Accords that contained specific clauses protecting women’s land rights and provided legal backing to their cause, nevertheless, promises of co-ownership status went unfulfilled (15). Misinterpretations of the laws which then lead to erroneous methods of implementation caused by these wrongful understandings were the reasons for the impediment of women’s co-ownership. Despite confirming the legal validity of the new legislation, men were being consistently assigned as the legal heads of household.

Although women were allowed in 1997 to legally co-own purchased land, the prevalence of discriminatory actions continued to exist. Women were highly discouraged from becoming associates in their community’s co-operatives and the prevalence of biased laws such as the 1951 National Land Distribution Decree that “specifies that only one person will be the nominal title-holder for lands held in family patrimony” is yet another example of the urgent necessity for change (16).

In order for a successful transition towards democratic governance in post-conflict Central America to exist, women need to be fully incorporated within their country’s political structure. However, satisfactory political representation has yet to be achieved.

According to data complied by the Inter-Parliamentary Union in 2005 Costa Rica ranked number 8, Nicaragua 46, Panama 63, El Salvador 90, Guatemala 107 and Honduras 120 in global percentages of women occupying parliamentary seats. Costa Rica’s high ranking is due to the 1996 40 % female participation quota in political parties and electoral seats (17). However, experience shows that it is not enough to have quota system if the women still do not occupy powerful legislative positions.

Honduras and Guatemala have the lowest percentage of women in parliament. Even though Honduras has a minimum quota of 30 %, political parties do not always comply with this law. Guatemala has no minimum quota system, despite the regulations defined in the 1996 Peace Agreements. Women’s organizations have advocated for a gender quota system to no avail. In El Salvador and Nicaragua there are no quota guarantees for women’s representation in electoral seats. Nevertheless, political parties like Frente Farabundo Martí in El Salvador and Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional in Nicaragua, incorporated quotas of 35 % (18) and 30 % (19) respectively.

The continuing consolidation of democratic values in post-conflict Central America requires the equal inclusion of both men and women in the political, economic, and social spheres. The hardships of wartime served to unite women under a single goal demanding gender-equity policies. The sacrifices and contributions made by women during the wars should not go unheard. However, democracy entails approaching gender without a biased focus to one sex or the other, but rather to acknowledge differences with the purpose of achieving equality for all people.


  • (1) : Birgitte Sǿrensen. Women and Post-Conflict Reconstruction: Issues and Sources. - WSP Occasional Paper No. 3, June 1998. United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.

  • (2) : Birgitte Sǿrensen. Women and Post-Conflict Reconstruction: Issues and Sources. WSP Occasional Paper No. 3, June 1998. United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.

  • (3) : Fundación Arias para la Paz y el Progreso Humano. El conflicto armado y su impacto en la vida de las mujeres. Cuatro estudios de caso: Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua y Colombia. San José, 2006.

  • (4) : Gender Profile of the Conflict in El Salvador.

  • (5) : Gender Profile of the Conflict in Guatemala.

  • (6) : Gender Profile of the Conflict in Nicaragua.

  • (7) : Fundación Arias para la Paz y el Progreso Humano. El conflicto armado y su impacto en la vida de las mujeres. Cuatro estudios de caso: Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua y Colombia. San José, 2006.

  • (8) : Gender Profile of the Conflict in Guatemala.

  • (9) : Fundación Arias para la Paz y el Progreso Humano. El conflicto armado y su impacto en la vida de las mujeres. Cuatro estudios de caso: Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua y Colombia. San José, 2006.

  • (10) : Fundación Arias para la Paz y el Progreso Humano. El conflicto armado y su impacto en la vida de las mujeres. Cuatro estudios de caso: Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua y Colombia. San José, 2006.

  • (11) : Gender Profile of the Conflict in Guatemala.

  • (12) : Ilja A. Luciak. Gender Equality and Electoral Politics on the Left: A Comparison of El Salvador and Nicaragua. Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, Vol. 40, No. 1. 1998.

  • (13) : Gender Profile of the Conflict in El Salvador.

  • (14) : Fundación Arias para la Paz y el Progreso Humano. El conflicto armado y su impacto en la vida de las mujeres. Cuatro estudios de caso: Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua y Colombia. San José, 2006.

  • (15) : Paula Worby. Organizing for a Change: Guatemalan Refugee Women Re-Affirm their Right to Land. Women’s Land and Property Rights in Situations of Conflict and Reconstruction.

  • (16) : Paula Worby. Organizing for a Change: Guatemalan Refugee Women Re-Affirm their Right to Land. Women’s Land and Property Rights in Situations of Conflict and Reconstruction.

  • (17) : Estado de la Nación en Desarrollo Humano Sostenible: Octavo Informe. San José, Costa Rica , 2001.

  • (18) :

  • (19) :