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Josefina Echavarría Alvarez – Including Sexuality and Gender in Conflict Analysis

An interview with Josefina Echavarría Alvarez, a Peace Researcher  and Research and Publications Coordinator at the UNESCO Chair in Peace Studies at the University of Innsbruck. The Interview was conducted by Mayme Lefurgey.

MPM: Can you tell us a bit about what types of gender-focused research is being presently conducted by faculty, affiliates or students at the Innsbruck School of Peace Studies?  In what ways does feminism/gender intersect with the pedagogy of the Innsbruck School of Peace Studies?

JOSEFINA EACHVARRÍA ALVAREZ: I think the first thing that is very important is actually the idea that the first layer of all conflicting parties and facilitators alike is the sexual-family layer. What we find if you look at many other different conflict analysis methods and conflict mapping tools in Peace Studies is that they disregard the fact that everything is related to sexuality and family or they exteriorize it and say this is important but for other people to examine. It is never part of the formal analysis of a conflict, independent of the topic, because sexuality and gender are not only important when we are officially looking at sexuality and gender as points of analysis or officially labelling a conflict as a ‘gender conflict.’ In that sense, the transrational philosophy and the elicitive methods of conflict transformation actually go a step beyond the idea of using gender as a category of analysis, which is one of the main premises of feminist peace studies since the 1980’s, and it actually incorporates it into any kind of analysis so it doesn‘t really matter how you name or label the conflict, or who the conflicting parties are – you always include sexuality and gender, independently of the conflict at stake. From my point of view, this is already a wonderful expression of the centrality of sexuality and gender in any type of conflict dynamic, so this is one way in which we include it.

Another way in which we include it is in terms of the didactics of the program itself. For example, we try to keep a balance of gender in terms of the student body and also in terms of the faculty and administration. We try to really find a way in which we can have not just gender being considered in our analysis, but also in our very bodies. We have both male, female as well as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual and other identities being present in our faculty, administration and within the student body. It is not solely talking about ‘others,’ but actually embracing the plurality of peace and the plurality of being that we all are. This starts from embracing diversity in the whole sense of the expression.

It is not solely talking about ‘others,’ but actually embracing the plurality of peace and the plurality of being that we all are. This starts from embracing diversity in the whole sense of the expression.

Another way, is by actually making gender a subject of study. We regularly have Gender Studies as a part of our 4th Modular Period, that corresponds to thematic seminars. For example, Dr. Annette Weber is a professor who regularly comes to teach with us. It has become an extremely important part of our curriculum. We always try to have topics that have to do with gender and sexuality as subjects. In the 4th Modular Period in our last semester, we specifically had a seminar on sexuality.

For us, if you really assume that peace is a holistic experience, there is no way of teaching, doing, understanding or cherishing peace without sexuality and gender. For us, it a big part of our analysis and tools of study, part of who we are as bodies of students, faculty and administration and also in the subjects or topics in our seminars and workshops.

MPM: In what ways does a feminist framework or gender lens relate to your own research goals and methodology?

JOSEFINA: I think that for me there is no way to see peace as not as sexed or gendered experience. That of course includes conflict and violence. The different research subjects that I focus on for example, migration and integration issues, especially through the body – this is our current emphasis in terms of research. For example, how to integrate movement and arts based methods of elicitive conflict transformation in conflicts that are socially relevant, especially in terms of migration and integration? And then, of course through the question, for example, the analysis of the peace process in Colombia, gender plays a big part here and in all conflicts, and we don‘t really find this level of analysis in their conflict mapping tools. In any type of conflict analysis that you carry out, you always find the questions of sexuality and gender.

You also see this in the last batch of MA theses that make use of ECM [Elicitive Conflict Mapping] and I think that is one of reasons why it has become such a wonderful tool for doing feminist research, because it starts from there and there is no way around it. ECM offers you the possibility of always integrating gender from the very beginning, rather than just adding gender as a category of analysis, or adding in women as an afterthought, in an intersectional way.

This is basically what we have been doing in the past years and what we will continue doing with the new projects we will be developing. Also, for many years, I have been a member of the Feminist Theory and Gender Studies Section of the International Studies Association. This is a global network of feminist research, independent of what type of research you are conducting, there is a commitment to always integrate sexuality and gender in the analysis. I have been a member of this since 2006, so for 10 years, and we are very active in the conferences every year in the USA.

MPM: Would you be able to offer your insights on the referendum and peace process in Colombia from a transrational perspective?

JOSEFINA: Yes, this is something I have been working on. We are having a workshop in the second week of November (2016) together with the University of Cambridge, which will also be published in the form of a ‘normal’ newspaper article – meaning not in an academic discourse type of way. What happened on the 2nd of October, 2016 is that you have 62% of people not going to vote at all, 49% of them voting for accepting the peace agreement and 50% voting to reject it. If we take this as a simple conflict episode, what it tells me is: we have mostly a very indifferent society and of course highly polarized one. Colombia has always been extremely polarized in terms of peace and war, at least for the past 20 years. I think that the former peace process from 1999-2001, really polarized society as for or against the peace agreement and I don‘t think the polarization has given birth to something new but has just been deepened over the years. Basically, if you look at the different maps of the vote, looking at who actually voted for or against and from where they are located, you see that the eighty-one most affected towns, which have faced the most violence during the war – 67 of them voted yes. This means, in general terms, what you can see is that most of the official victims of the war, the ones who are officially recognized as such, are the ones who actually said yes, we want the peace agreement.

ECM offers you the possibility of always integrating gender from the very beginning, rather than just adding gender as a category of analysis, or adding in women as an afterthought, in an intersectional way.

This leads us to ask, who are the ones who are against the peace agreement then? It is quite clear that those who voted no, are, in majority, those who have not been directly affected by the conflict in the country, meaning the ones who are the ‘spectators’ of the war. Of course, they too are affected by it, but they are not directly victims of violence following the legal definition of the law of 2010 which gives you more or less 7 million people in the country, but there is always confusion and debates over how many victims there actually are but those are the officially recognized victims; those who have asked for an official recognition of victimhood and therefore they receive certain benefits following the legal framework. So I think that these are actually the people that, if you look at it from a conflict analysis perspective, that have never been taken seriously as a group of analysis before. Because so far, the peace agreement was signed between the guerillas, the government and has given a lot of protagonism to the victims. They also didn’t consider the fourth group in the conflicting parties— which is the rest of the population, who are not considered victims and have not suffered directly but yet are extremely polarized, and are mostly against the peace agreement as a group.

So if you look behind these layers of the episode, what else do you find? So in terms of themes it was very clear that the peace agreement was leaning toward an understanding of justice that would privilege the idea of ‘many truths.’ So yes, the guerillas can demobilize and engage in a truth telling process, and in exchange, yes of course there were prison sentences, but there were also some mechanisms of transitional justice. What was negotiated between the government and the victims’ organizations is that they preferred to know the truth rather than focus on punishment and imprisonment. They did not think that this would take them anywhere and believed that listening to the truth would lead much more to reconciliation. So, what most of the people who rejected the peace agreement, for example among the campaigners and the mainstream media discourse, we see that people saying „this can’t be, we don‘t want to know the truth.“ It is a very post-modern notion of the truth really, as it is not about ‘the truth’ about what happened but collecting different voices and allowing them to be heard so we can bring together different impressions of what has happened to us  and what we have done to each other in the past 60 years. This much more conservative group of people who make up this fourth group of the conflicting party, said “we are not interested in the truth, we are actually interested in measures of justice that does not lead towards truth telling, but towards punishment.” This is extremely conventional when thinking of mainstream understandings of war and peace, premised on ideas such as „what they have done to us in the past, is unjust, is unfair and we want justice.“ This form of justice is punishment in a very conventional setting of prison, which is of course to deprive of liberty rights those people who have engaged in kidnapping and massacres and murders. There was a lot of misinformation about this because the only crimes granted amnesty were political crimes. Rebellion is considered a crime against the state because people should be loyal to the nation state. That was the only type of crime given amnesty in the agreement. There was a lot of misinformation saying that people who committed grave crimes would be forgiven so to speak and that was absolutely not true. There was a special jurisdiction created for peace, with restorative justice mechanisms and overall the emphasis was on truth telling.

In terms of the layers, the first is the family and sexual and this is a very complex situation because months before the referendum there was a big scandal in Colombia about a new handbook that was to be produced by the Ministry of Education and given to schools about sexual diversity. If you actually read the handbook it says that there is an incredible amount of possibilities in deciding sexual identity. So you have anatomy but also chromosomes and hormones and all of it together becomes sexual identity. Then, it outlines that your sexual identity is not equal to your gender identity. So you can have a sexual identity that is coherently organized to be a woman but you may not identify as a heterosexual woman, for example. The handbook was a result of a decision by the Constitutional Court for the school environments to be much more respectful of sexual diversity because there were many different instances of violence in schools in Colombia against homosexual, bisexuals and transsexuals— not just students but also professors and teachers.

Part of the criticism of the peace agreement was that since the government has this ideology of gender, they were including gender topics in the peace agreement in a way that we would have the end of the nuclear family.

What we have in public schools in Colombia is basically a culture of intolerance of sexual diversity and therefore there has to be education about it. So based on that, UNICEF and other agencies were hired by the Ministry of Education to create this handbook. If you can characterize this situation by anything, it is bad communication strategies. They leaked early drafts of the handbook to the press and there was huge criticism by the Church and by the Conservative Party saying that what the government was doing was professing a gender ideology. This was understood to mean that we are not men, not women, not heterosexual, not homosexual, just something in between and it is okay to be with anyone—but that is not what the handbook is about but the Government really made an incredible amount of mistakes here. For example, the female education minister of Colombia is lesbian and was in the closet until the very last minute. So, the public response was that because she is a lesbian, she now wants to normalise it. From this very conservative corner, they believed that sexual diversity was linked to sexual promiscuity so the very idea of talking about sexual diversity would increase the chances of people engaging in sexual expression. Colombia is an extremely Catholic country, where of course the state is supposed to be secular. What happens is that if you are not able to talk about it in terms of religion, morals and dogma but say ‘we are protecting the nuclear family, we are actually protecting the institution of society,’ the state has to be neutral because the state only has the function of dealing with questions of the public space which should not interfere with the private sphere. This is something in feminism that we know was completely deconstructed five decades ago. There is no questioning of the private sphere, the state regulates the private sphere and not talking about this only covers it. So in the end, what you have was parliamentarian hearings and there was a big scandal and they had to remove the handbooks and up until today, they are not being taught in schools.

Part of the criticism of the peace agreement was related to the gender perspective of the agreement itself. The peace negotiation started in February 2012, and on the 27th of August 2012, the President went on national TV and said that they have been holding secret negotiations and now have a general framework of agreement, and are starting official negotiations in Cuba. At this time, there was no gender perspective, no female negotiators and there was incredible criticism about this. For example, The US Institute for Peace played a vital role in pushing for the creation of a gender subcommission, and the gender subcommission, as one of its main tasks, as per resolution 1325 of the UN, that there has to be a consideration of gender in every peace agreement. So in every part of the peace agreement, you have the gender commission making sure that different gender aspects were considered. Part of the criticism of the peace agreement was that since the government has this ideology of gender, they were including gender topics in the peace agreement in a way that we would have the end of the nuclear family. This would mean  the end of sexual identities in terms of clarity and clear boundaries and moral behaviour so that actually sex became one of the most important topics for people to vote against the peace agreement. They said, „you can’t do that. You can‘t include the gender perspective here, because it only shows that the government has its own gender ideology.“

This was a big conflictive topic and then if you move into layers, these discussions were supposed to be very rational. They were supposed to be held at the level of the mind, when they actually involved a lot of conflict at the first layer, in terms of sexuality and family but also at the socioemotional-communal layer, because part of the main arguments against the referendum was about the pain that the guerillas inflicted on society. It was about vengeance, it was about all these negative feelings that created violence. The government, different political parties and NGOs were never able to tap into the emotional discourse of the peace agreement. So you have the political, religious, social, economic forces, playing on these highly emotional, negative consequences of the war and you don’t have another voice tapping into questions of hope, love, solidarity, forgiveness. Forgiveness was a very important issue, only discussed in some of the very last weeks of the peace negotiations. One of the main criticisms then of the peace negotiations was that the guerillas never asked for forgiveness and they only did it just a few weeks before the referendum. It was just too late to change people’s minds. For example, the people involved in or working to get the ‘yes’ vote, never tapped into the positive emotions of the peace agreement. It was only very late that one of the main public figures, who is the director of an NGO, said, ok if we are going to win this thing, we need to make people enthusiastic about the agreement— but it was just too late. So everything that had to do with the first layer, sexual-family and the second layer of socioemotional-communal aspects, everything that had to do with the resistance of the agreement was never really tackled by those supporting the agreement and the rest. Therefore, everything that was supposed to be rational argumentation just got lost in this mess.

It is very interesting to see what happened at the fourth layer, the spiritual-policitary, because there was a very interesting visit from an Indian guru to Cuba who wanted to work with negotiators and really tried to spiritually reconnect them. Because the classical left-wing discourse in Latin America has been a secular discourse, where they are theoretically against the Church. In Latin America there has been a very important church-led discourse of justice, social peace, and everything that has to do with the theology of liberation since the late 60s. But in any case, at least officially, guerillas and church are not supposed to mix. I think that there was a lack of clarity first between how not being religious, in the sense of not being Catholic, could still open the door for a spiritual communion. There is no way you can get out of a 60 years war if you don‘t also connect also to this layer because there have been so many generations affected by violence that it just breaks apart the idea of society and community. In a highly polarized society, it is extremely difficult to become aware of this idea that ‘we are all one’ because we are so divided on these more egoic layers of the self that we are unable to see how the ‘other’ is also part of myself. So I think that intent in the end was a failure. We failed at creating a realistic image that we all have a place in the country. That as Ledearch so beautifully says, the key for the moral imagination to be successful in terms of peacebuilding is to have the ability to imagine former adversaries or enemies as also being part of the network or society that I am a part of. I think in this case, we failed to make this clear.
So all of this, takes us to the last part, which is about the conflicting parties. We have underestimated the mapping in this conflict. We thought it was about the state, about the guerillas and about the victims and now we need to make sure we also include these much more conservative, well-organized and politically-militant conflicting party which is not only, but largely represented by, right-wing or conservative forces in the country because they can definitely mobilize people. So since the referendum there has been already a lot of talks where these different groups that campaigned for the rejection of the agreement have tried to position themselves and say this is what we didn’t like about the agreement. We didn’t like the idea of truth-telling, or the idea of victims’ rights, the idea of an integral rural reform or the idea of the gender perspective of the agreement. I think there are a lot of lessons learned. There were some issues with really communicating what the peace agreement actually was about and that is a job that should have started at the beginning of the talks and not in the final weeks before the referendum. Now they are sitting again in Havana to discuss which points should now be incorporated in the agreement which means that the peace agreement will be redrafted.

Sexuality and gender are a fundamental part of the dynamic. This is what we were talking about at the very beginning, if you include sexuality and gender as part of your conflict analysis, no matter what you are talking about, you start there and start thinking of how it is playing a role — because it always is. To understand the very strong reaction to the peace agreement, we need to understand the dynamic of sexuality and gender. This is something that really moves people.