Gender Inclusivity & DDR in Colombia: Recommendations for Achieving Women’s Empowerment and Sustainable Peace

Author: Michelle Dolinar, 2019.

columbia pic

“In the context of Colombia, many child soldiers of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC) rebel group were processed through DDR facilities. Despite a concerted effort to disarm and demobilize child soldiers from the FARC and other armed opposition groups, the current failure of the DDR programs to reintegrate children is having lasting effects on peace building

Image from Wikimedia Commons. 


Child soldiers are a pervasive and enduring global problem. Both boys and girls are abducted or recruited to join armed groups or government forces, serving in many roles including, but not limited to: porters, sex slaves and even combatants on the front lines. As conflicts transition from violence to peace, child soldiers, and combatants in general, typically go through a process of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) that aims to initiate and provide continued support to peace building processes. Despite good intention, there remain significant gaps in how DDR processes respond to the unique needs of child soldiers. These gaps are even more pronounced with female child soldiers. In the context of Colombia, many child soldiers of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC) rebel group were processed through DDR facilities. Despite a concerted effort to disarm and demobilize child soldiers from the FARC and other armed opposition groups, the current failure of the DDR programs to reintegrate children is having lasting effects on peace building.

This policy paper will analyze Colombian DDR programs working with former child soldiers to identify shortfalls within the programs, as well as other aspects of the Colombian context which complicate the reintegration of child soldiers, and then make recommendations on how to fill these gaps. Furthermore, this paper will establish criteria to evaluate these recommendations, identify and assess a theory of change and address counter arguments to the recommendations. To conclude, this paper will work through potential implications of the findings from the analysis and explain how the findings of this paper can apply more generally to the field of DDR with former child soldiers.


Problem Analysis

The rate at which children are involved in the Colombian conflict is significant. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), there have been 7,518 cases of forced child recruitment into Colombian armed opposition groups since 1999 (“DDR and Child Soldiers Issues”). Young boys make up 71% of the recruits, whereas girls make up the remaining 29% (“DDR and Child Soldiers Issues”). Over half of all recruits are between the ages of 16 and 17 years old; however, there are cases which document children as young as 13 years old being recruited as well (“DDR and Child Soldiers Issues”). According to the same IOM report, 6,512 children have been disengaged from the conflict since 1999, with 274 former child soldiers currently enrolled in DDR programs (“DDR and Child Soldiers Issues”).

Since 1999, DDR programs have been operating under the Instituto Colombiano de Bienestar Familiar (Colombian Family Welfare Institute, ICBF). The proportion of boys and girls who have gone through the DDR programs almost exactly matches the gender distribution within the opposition groups: 72% boys and 28% girls (“Country Programme Document: Colombia”). Despite the accurate representation of gender in the DDR programs, some serious gaps remain in how the DDR programs address the gendered experiences of child soldiers. Other shortfalls of DDR programs in Colombia include a pronounced urban-rural divide and isolated occurrences of integrating children into the peacebuilding process. However, the recommendations made in this paper will pertain to the issue of gender inclusivity in Colombian DDR programs. Additionally, this paper will address how improvements to monitoring and evaluation can improve outcomes for children after they have completed DDR programming.

Former female child soldiers in Colombia have a unique set of circumstances, which make their reintegration more complex. One factor contributing to this complexity is that girls associated with the armed groups have been disproportionately victimized through sexual violence. Current figures estimate that roughly 41,313 girls under the age of 18 were victims of sexual violence between 2008 and 2012 (“Country Programme Document: Colombia”). Sexual violence is meant to include rape, forced contraception, forced abortion, forced sterilization, forced prostitution and sexual slavery (Schwitalla & Dietrich 58).

It is well documented that sexual violence has been committed against women and girls within the armed groups; however, sexual violence also served as a push factor for many females who voluntarily joined these groups. In many cases, girls perceived the armed opposition groups as more equal than Colombian society, and joined to gain protection from abusive family lives (Martuscelli & Villa 391). In spite of all this data, DDR programs in Colombia do not ‘adequately address the consequences of sexual violence [girls and women] have suffered before, during and after [the] conflict’ (Schwitalla & Dietrich 58).

Another factor contributing to the complexity of reintegrating girl child soldiers in Colombia is the challenge of re-entering a patriarchal society after experiencing empowerment through the conflict (Torres, Giha & Jaramillo 2). In continuation with this theme, girls and women are rarely ‘given neither a voice nor a vote in the peace negotiations’ or any significant role in peace building activities (Torres, Giha & Jaramillo 2). One must consider the goals of transitional justice and DDR programs; what is the society transitioning ‘from’ and ‘to’ (Bell & O’Rourke 35)? Although there is no feminist theory of transitional justice, many feminist scholars have argued that, in order to liberalize laws and improve the lives of women after conflict, more than just a quota system needs to be put into practice (Bell & O’Rourke 34). Often times, transitional justice packages only address the direct harms of conflict. Instead, these tools should go towards elevating the status of women in the country by undercutting the issues which contribute to the status quo.

Although Colombia has been more proactive in supporting female involvement in the peace process, physical representation has not necessarily led to representation of women’s issues being addressed in the transition process. In part, this is the result of machismo permeating throughout Colombian culture. Machismo greatly limits the roles of women in any kind of leadership positions, as they are seen as victims of the conflict rather than as potential perpetrators (Martuscelli & Villa 387). The problem with the ‘victim narrative’ is that it undermines the idea of girl children having autonomy or independence. It hides all cases where girls voluntarily joined armed opposition groups or willingly participated in direct combat. Instead, this blanket narrative reinforces that girls are forced or coerced to participate, therefore maintaining that they are always victims and never perpetrators of harm.

Although this discrepancy seems minute, its implications can be devastating for post-conflict society. When the role of girls is limited to the victim, other needs will go unaddressed in post-conflict reconstruction and transition. Additionally, when victims and perpetrators of the conflict feel as though they have been ignored in the conflict narrative creation process, memorialization, or historical education related to the conflict, this is usually the volatile foundation of unsustainable peace and the cause of future social instability. Martuscelli and Villa argue that, “…if child soldiers are portrayed as perpetrators, the risk of re-recruitment increases, and they become actual threats to the sustainability of peace because they will continue to participate in the conflict through other means.” So long as DDR programs fail to address the full variety of roles played by girls, the risk of re-recruitment will persist (Martuscelli & Villa 395). With this in mind, reintegration programs in Colombia should be cognizant of how stigma can play a role in pushing children back into armed opposition groups.

Another issue affecting the reintegration of child soldiers is the culture of impunity that persists around the recruitment of children as soldiers. Although the latest peace accords between the Colombian government and the FARC include child protection, there have been very few cases of individuals being prosecuted for child recruitment (Martuscelli & Villa 388). As long as this culture of impunity exists, re-recruitment is likely to continue; however, the scale on which re-recruitment may occur is unknown. Additionally, re-recruitment may be augmented by the failure of DDR programs to follow-up with participants after they have completed the program and left the housing facilities. Follow-up, in the form of check-ins, house visits, phone calls, and continued support in various forms could have a positive impact on reducing the number of children reintegrated into rebel groups and, in return, assist in strengthening the former child soldiers’ ties to their communities.

Additional considerations should be made to focus on the consequences of this protracted crisis. Forced migration remains an ongoing issue affecting civilians and child soldiers who have gone through demobilization. After completing DDR programs, many children cannot return to their communities due to ongoing violence, loss of family, and security concerns stemming from their status as former combatants in the conflict (Denov & Marchand 336). As such, there is limited understanding of how forced migration affects former child soldiers differently depending on their gender.

There are also many limitations relating to the DDR programs themselves. In a report from the Secretary-General on the United Nations Mission in Colombia, the programmes fell short in ‘[providing] protection, education, healthcare, recreational activities and the design of a reintegration programme for families with young children’ (Martuscelli & Villa 396). Reflecting upon the unique circumstances of girl child soldiers before, during and after the conflict, as well as the shortfalls of DDR programs in Colombia, this paper will now make recommendations for how to improve DDR programs through more robust and gender-inclusive considerations.


Theory of Change & Recommendations

If women’s empowerment leads to sustainable peace, then all DDR programs, and other transitional justice packages, should have women’s empowerment as a strategic priority to establish lasting peace. In this respect, each of the following recommendations for how to improve the experiences of girls in DDR programs is meant to instigate behavioral and social change. Each goal, in theory, should lead to elevating the status of girls and Columbia’s future population of women, therefore increasing overall female empowerment. According to a research study conducted at Harvard University, the greatest predictor of the peacefulness of a state is the treatment of women (O’Neill, 2). Based on this theory of change, the recommendations of this paper first and foremost aim to generate improvements in support for former girl child soldiers throughout the DDR process. However, it would also be wise to include boys in many of the recommendations as well.

Gender-mainstreaming in DDR and the peace process in Colombia is one way to achieve lasting peace and security. The future of peace and reconciliation in Colombia is, in part, dependent upon how well DDR programs can address the challenges faced by former child soldiers. This paper has identified serious gaps in how DDR programs address the unique circumstances of girls formerly associated with armed opposition groups. In order to promote inclusivity within the DDR process, and within Colombian society as a whole, this paper recommends the following actions:

  1. Develop and facilitate gender-inclusive and gender-sensitive programming activities in DDR centers for children and youth formerly associated with armed opposition groups. These gendered approaches must encompass the effects of, not only sexual violence against girls before, during and after the conflict, but on other forms of violence and discrimination against women as well (Schwitalla & Dietrich 58);
  2. Develop and facilitate gender-inclusive and gender-sensitive programming activities which address the variety of roles girls performed with the armed opposition groups, such as their roles as combatants, recruiters, porters, and in other support roles (O’Neill 4);
  3. Ensure that family planning and reproductive and sexual health needs are freely available to girls and women, specifically those who were victims of any form of sexual violence as a result of their involvement in armed opposition groups;
  4. Provide support to address practical challenges that make it difficult for the full participation of girls and women in DDR and transitional justice processes. Most notably, these support services should include the provision of child care for women with children who are eligible for DDR programs (O’Neill 5);
  5. Develop and facilitate DDR programs focusing on awareness of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), testing for HIV/AIDS and administering medicine and care when needed (Schwitalla & Dietrich 59);
  6. Provide medical and emotional support to girls and women who are pregnant or have given birth as a result of sexual violence committed against them during their involvement in armed opposition groups (Schwitalla & Dietrich 59);
  7. Promote de-stigmatization of girls and women involved in armed opposition groups to ease their transitions back to their communities and civilian lives;
  8. Facilitate the creation of peer support networks for girls and women who have gone through demobilization in order to provide long-term care (O’Neill 5);
  9. Ensure that DDR programs address the push factors (why some voluntarily joined armed opposition groups) of girls. These could include factors such as ideology, fear, economic factors, family reunification, empowerment, and others (Country Programme Document: Colombia 2015);
  10. Ensure that girls and women are equally and meaningfully included in peace building and transitional justice processes (O’Neill 2);
  11. Include girls and women, from both urban and rural communities, in the monitoring and evaluation processes of DDR programs in which they have participated (O’Neill, 5);
  12. Currently, lack of follow-up with program participants has led to many aspects of reintegrated life being unknown to the Colombian government. In the future, DDR programs must implement monitoring and evaluation systems which track the progress of both boys and girls after they have completed DDR programs. This will fill these gaps in knowledge with information that could help the ICBF determine best practices and areas for improvement within their programming;
  13. Ensure that monitoring and evaluation systems are able to determine the effects of DDR programs on both boys and girls after completion of the programs. In particular, emphasis should be placed on how forced-migration and, in some cases, the inability to return home, can impact child soldiers of each gender differently (Denov & Marchand 341);
  14. The conflict has produced long-term consequences that affect housing and the locations where child soldiers can safely reintegrate. In light of this, the Colombian government should provide long-term housing assistance to former child soldiers to assist their safe reintegration into society, and consequently, reduce the child’s likelihood of being re-recruited into armed opposition groups;
  15. Implement new strategies for deterring the re-recruitment of child soldiers. These strategies may be based on an increased awareness of how stigma against former child soldiers can serve as a push factor towards the re-recruitment of child soldiers into armed opposition groups. Additionally, greater efforts should be made to control the narrative around child soldiers as victims of the conflict.


Evaluation Criteria

These recommendations should, for the most part, be implemented within the DDR programs themselves. In response to this, evaluation of the success or failure of implementing these recommendations can be conducted internally as well. Implementing partners, notably the ICBF, should develop pre- and post- tests to be administered to program participants, program facilitators and program leadership. Pre-tests should assess the current environment within the DDR facility and provide the baseline by which to judge the success of these recommendations in improving the experiences of girls, increasing empowerment, and improving the reintegration process. Post-tests should assess the environment after the recommendations have been implemented and functioning for a predetermined length of time, preferably after one year.

Additionally, DDR programs can be evaluated by implementing a long-term monitoring program which tracks the progress of the demobilized child soldiers after they have completed the program. The monitoring and evaluation process should collect various pieces of information in order to assess how well integrated the children are in their communities, and to see if they have been re-recruited into armed opposition groups. One piece of data that is beneficial to the long-term monitoring and evaluation process is location. Since we know that children living in rural settings are more likely to be impacted by the ongoing conflict and armed opposition groups, knowledge of whether a child has ended up in a rural or urban setting could indicate whether or not that child has been re-recruited. Additionally, knowing who the child is living with could indicate whether or not the child has returned to their former armed opposition group. Finally, long-term monitoring and evaluation provides useful evidence to show where gaps in support still exist for demobilized child soldiers after the DDR process.


Counter Arguments

One potential counterargument to the theory of change and recommendations utilized in this paper is a prevailing narrative which portrays former child soldiers of any gender as perpetrators of crime rather than as victims of the conflict. Interestingly, it seems as though both narratives exist simultaneously, along with other perspectives on the child’s role in the conflict (Parra, Martín & Hoyos 760). In a study conducted at the Universitas Psychologica in Bogotá, researchers found that police officers and teachers saw the demobilized child soldiers as victims of the conflict, being either coerced or forced to join the armed opposition groups. In contrast, many of the demobilized child soldiers saw themselves as ‘active agents’ who freely chose to join armed opposition groups.

The real problem with both of these narratives existing simultaneously is that the program responses to both are quite different. DDR programs that address child soldiers as victims aim to protect and provide for the ‘lost’ child (Parra, Martín & Hoyos 760-761). In contrast, DDR programs that address child soldiers as criminals aim to isolate the child in order to protect the community from danger (Parra, Martín & Hoyos 761-762). Similarly, DDR programs that address child soldiers as active social agents ‘focus on a strategy that guarantees [the child’s] rights and is oriented to allow them to take responsibility for their own process of returning to civilian life’ (Parra, Martín & Hoyos 762-763).

In a protracted crisis like the one in Colombia, many children have grown up in the armed opposition groups, blurring the line between victim and perpetrator. Although it is true that many of the children have been victimized in various ways, is there a point at which the atrocities they commit outweigh the atrocities committed against them? Furthermore, can Colombian society truly achieve sustainable peace if a large portion of combatants are treated as victims and left unaccountable for the crimes they have committed?

Depending on which view one takes, DDR programs that protect children from prosecution could be seen to be inhibiting the peace and justice process. However, not all transitional societies put emphasis on achieving justice, but rather focus on truth and reconciliation. Although the goals of truth and reconciliation can be achieved through justice mechanisms, they are more often associated with truth commissions and other non-court related programs. Transitional societies that place emphasis on establishing justice may struggle in their decision to either prosecute or amnesty child soldiers. From the perspective that child soldiers are active agents in their involvement with rebel groups, they should be held accountable for their crimes. Alternatively, from the perspective that child soldiers are always victims of coercion, manipulation or forced participation in conflict, they should be afforded leniency in criminal prosecutions or left out of prosecutions entirely, except for when they are performing in their roles as victims.



Peace is not a threshold that, once surpassed, lasts forever. Instead, peace needs to be worked towards every day, by everyone. In Colombia, some would say that peace has nearly been achieved. Although the conflict continues, it does so on a smaller scale than in previous years. However, the peace process in Colombia remains incomplete due to the lack of gender-inclusivity in DDR, peace-building and transitional justice mechanisms. In order to prevent crisis escalation resulting from the re-recruitment of former child soldiers, DDR programs must take steps to address the unique challenges faced by girls formerly associated with armed opposition groups. The current failure to address the gendered experiences of girls before, during and after the conflict leaves them feeling invisible and disempowered in the peace-building process. Although the primary gendered aspect of the conflict in Colombia addressed in this paper was sexual violence, the recommendations made encompass a broad range of issues faced by girl child soldiers, including economic stability and reintegration. These gaps in DDR programs act as a catalyst to the re-recruitment of girls and are counterproductive to the peace-building process.

By now, it is clear that women and children are integral to the peace-building process, and that women’s empowerment is a crucial indicator of peacefulness in a society. The recommendations made in this paper are premised on the theory that if the experiences of girls during the DDR process are improved, Colombia will be able to achieve a stronger, more sustainable peace. After more than 50 years of conflict, and failed attempts at peace, it is time to turn past mistakes into action and work towards a future of gender equality.


Works Cited

Bell, Christine, and Catherine O’Rourke. “Does Feminism Need a Theory of Transitional Justice? An Introductory Essay.” The International Journal of Transitional Justice, vol. 1, 2007, p.23-44, doi: 10.1093/ijtj/ijm002.

“Country Programme Document: Colombia (E/ICEF/2015/P/L.27).” ECOSOC, 10 Aug 2015,

“DDR and Child Soldiers Issues.” USAID & IOM, 8 July 2018,

Farr, V. The Importance of a Gender Perspective to Successful Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Processes. Disarmament Forum, 2003,

Haer, R. “The Study of Child Soldering: Issues and Consequences for DDR Implementation.” Third World Quarterly, vol.38, no.2, 2017, p.453-468. doi:

Marchand, I., & Denov, M. ‘I Can’t Go Home’. Forced Migration and Displacement Following Demobilisation: the Complexity of Reintegrating Former Child Soldiers in Colombia . War Trauma Foundation,vol. 12 no.3, 2014, p. 331-343,

Marchand, I., & Denov, M. “One Cannot Take Away the Stain”: Rejection and Stigma Among Former Child Soldiers in Colombia. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, vol. 20, no.3, 2014, p.227-240, doi:

Martuscelli, N., & Villa, R. “Child Soldiers as peace-builders in Colombian peace talks between the government and the FARC-EP.” Conflict, Security & Development, vol. 18, no.5, 2018, p.387-408, doi:

O’Neill, J. “Engaging Women in Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration.” Inclusive Security, 31 Mar 2015,

Parra, J., Martín, F., & Hoyos, J. Child Soldiers in Colombia: 5 Views. Universitas Psychologica, vol. 11, no. 3, 2012, 755-768,

Schwitalla, G., & Dietrich, L. “De-mobilization of female ex-combatants in Colombia.” Forced Migration Review, 2012, from

Torres, P., Giha, Y., & Jaramillo, S. “Transitional Justice and DDR: The Case of Colombia.” June 2009,

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