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Women's Voices Heard Clear and Loud in Colombia Peace Deal

Members of the Colombian navy gather outside a church where President Juan Manuel Santos will attend mass on Monday, before signing a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in Cartagena, Colombia, September 25, 2016.

Under a newly-signed peace deal to end Colombia's war, women who have been raped by military forces or rebel fighters may expect to have the crimes against them investigated by a special unit.

The accord between the government and rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) also pledges to improve access to land for women farmers through a land bank and subsidies.

And seeks to encourage rural women to move away from growing coca, the raw ingredient for cocaine, by providing creches and other kinds of support.

It's unlikely such provisions would be in place had women been excluded from the peace talks but their role in the process has led to an unprecedented focus on women's rights in the final deal, setting a strong example for others, analysts said.

"Colombia has raised the bar in terms of women's direct and indirect participation in a peace process," said Miriam Coronel Ferrer, the Philippine government's chief peace negotiator with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the country's largest Muslim rebel group.

"It's a good model to inspire other countries. Excluding women hurts a peace process," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.

President Juan Manuel Santos and top FARC leader Timochenko signed the peace deal on Monday, ending a 52-year conflict that has killed 200,000 people and forced millions more from their homes.

The deal will be put to Colombians in a vote on Sunday, which is expected to pass.

Power relations

Despite its reputation for having a patriarchal culture, Colombia brought women into the heart of the peace process.

The government appointed a woman to be part of its chief negotiating team for the first time in late 2013, and the FARC has had several female peace negotiators on its side.

Negotiators also heard testimony from a commission on gender issues to ensure women's voices were heard, an initiative UN Women has described as the first of its kind.

According to the U.N. agency, having women at the negotiating table increases the chance of a peace agreement lasting 15 years by 35 percent.

Morena Herrera, a former guerrilla fighter for El Salvador's Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), recalls women being excluded from the 1992 peace deal.

"We fought for the negotiations. But when we read the accord we were stunned. We realised we weren't there. Women weren't mentioned in the text," said Herrera, a women's rights activist. "[Colombia's accord] ... is an opportunity to improve the status of women in society and power relations between men and women."

Fewer than four percent of signatories to peace agreements were women between 1992 and 2011, and less than 10 percent of negotiators were women, according to UN Women.

No amnesty for rape

Olga Amparo, who took part in the gender commission and travelled to Cuba where talks were hosted, said the accord recognizes that war impacts women differently.

For example, women and girls have borne the brunt of sexual violence committed as a weapon of war.

"The peace deal makes it clear that sexual violence is not up for amnesty," said Amparo, a women's rights activist.

As part of the peace deal, around 7,000 FARC fighters will hand in their weapons and reintegrate into civilian life.

Women can help to monitor a ceasefire, watching out for outbreaks of violence and signs fighters are rearming, but they may also be victims of fresh violence, said Coronel Ferrer from the Philippines.

"There's usually an increase in domestic violence when men who have fought in war come home," she said.

Making sure women in Colombia play a role in implementing the peace deal will be a challenge, analysts said.

Obstacles include ensuring women read the 297-page accord to know their benefits, making sure funds are allocated to women's rights programs and increasing the participation of women in politics.

"The accord is a tool for us. Now we have to ensure that what is written is translated into practice," Amparo said. "The big question is if the elites of this country will open up their doors to the participation of women in politics and give female ex-combatants jobs. There's still a long way to go."