05 May 2021

'Peace starts in the home': gender-transformative peacebuilding in Colombia

Mia Schöb writes about reintegration practices through which ex-combatants challenge and effectively transform traditional gender roles and labor division.

About the author


Mia SchöbMia Schöb is a PhD candidate in International Relations/Political Science affiliated with the Gender Centre at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies. For her doctoral research (2015-2021) and previous research projects, Mia has conducted extensive fieldwork in different Colombian regions. She has previously been a visiting research fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, and the Universidad de Antioquia in Medellín.

‘Peace starts in the home’

“Peace starts in the home, where we teach our kids to respect, to have equitable relationships and convivencia [to live side by side peacefully],” single father Ludovico tells me. Ludovico is an ex-paramilitary. Today, he runs a bakery from his home in order to be with his children. He also works as a soccer trainer in a prevention initiative against youth recruitment into armed groups. Elsewhere in Colombia, former guerillera Yana has quit her job. She prefers to found a home-based business and take care of her small children herself.

Like Ludovico and Yana, many ex-combatants in Colombia see the ‘mini-state’ of the family as the pivot of their reintegration into civilian life.

The ‘mini-state’ of the family

I speak of the family as a ‘mini-state’ because it constitutes the smallest unit of the state. It is has been the main affective reference for citizenship since the eighteenth century and it is the site where hetero-normative patriarchal models have historically been anchored and reproduced. The family is thus not ‘private’, as opposed to the state being ‘public’. Instead, the ‘mini-state’ of the family reflects and enables the larger structural gendered power relations that enable the state to govern its citizens.


Gender-transformative peacebuilding through the family

Through their everyday reintegration practices, ex-combatants challenge and effectively transform traditional gender roles and labor division. They also stretch gender norms – masculinities and femininities – when they broaden the range of possibilities of what it means to be and act like a man or a woman (1).  Thereby, ex-combatants build peace and state within their homes and their families in contextually situated, political and highly gendered ways.

The ‘mini-state’ of the family – the smallest unit of the state – is thus a key site of ground-up peace and state building in Colombia.

Background: the research project

My argument is based on the findings of my PhD project, titled Combatants for peace, queering figures, or ‘just some more Colombians:’ co-constructions of ex-combatants’ citizen-subjectivities in everyday reintegration practices. I draw on original empirical data from feminist institutional ethnographies in the state-led program that accompanies Ludovico’s and Yana’s reintegration. Over 300 people involved in reintegration in three regions and Colombia’s major cities (most of them ex-combatants and reintegration workers) co-constructed this data with me between 2017 and 2018.

In a recent article, I argue for more acknowledgment of ex-combatants’ everyday contributions as local-level peacebuilders, including through the gendered ways in which they manage the ‘mini-state’ of the family differently.


Political, gendered and lasting

This is particularly crucial in an unstable context like Colombia, where high-level politics constantly change and peace agreements with non-state armed groups remain partially unfulfilled, if achieved at all. Ex-combatants’ gender-transformative governance of the ‘mini-states’ of their families is a more sustained and stable form of everyday peacebuilding: it may be less visible, but it is equally political, gendered and essential for lasting peace. Let me explain my argument:

It is more lasting. Ludovico, Yana, and their peers define their civilian identities in relation to the family: to them, ‘being a good, decent, or normal citizen’ also means being exemplary parents and partners. When they prioritize care work and home-based income models, they show a determination to invest in a civilian future.

It is political. Ex-combatants claim a fundamental right to a choice that the violence that surrounded them in their childhood and their war participation had not allowed before: a loving family. Yana wants to remedy the structural violence that she experienced herself as a child and later as a combatant: she seeks to create a better future for her own children. But, at a larger scale, she likewise wants to do away with what she sees as the root causes of Colombia’s never-ending conflicts and violence. And so does Ludovico.

It is also profoundly gendered. Ludovico stretches the definition of what it means to be a man in the patriarchal region where he builds his civilian life. He is a model for the young boys in his family and community: his example gives access to alternative forms of ‘manhood’, which are often referred to as ‘new masculinities’. Yana seems to fit into the regional norms of femininity, as home-based care work is traditionally reserved for women. This increases her social acceptance as a woman and an ex-combatant, gives her an income, and creates the conditions for her family project (2). 

It is context-sensitive. Ex-combatants like Ludovico and Yana, along with their partners and reintegration workers, govern their families within the boundaries of what is thinkable, doable and desirable in the reintegration contexts (3).

It is also gender-transformative peacebuilding. Many feminist researchers acknowledge care work as an important element of peacebuilding. Unfortunately, evaluations of the regional gendered reintegration practices often misinterpret ex-combatants’ choice for care work and the home-based models that enable this choice. To them, regional reintegration workers and the ex-combatants they work with are ‘not doing gender’ or ‘doing gender wrong.’

Focusing on the ‘mini-state’ of the family’ by running home-based businesses and prioritizing childcare can thus be contextually situated, deeply political and gendered choices.

Doing gender differently in and through the ‘mini-state’ of the family

Yet, the historical experience of feminist struggles shows that the place where gender equality is hardest to achieve is the personal, the mundane, the private space: the flexible concept of the ‘mini-state’ of the family captures exactly this space. Ex-combatants like Yana and Ludovico transform gender norms and roles within their families. They invest in being ‘good, decent or normal citizens’ and create a better Colombia for their children’s future at the level of their homes and communities. Thereby, they build a kind of peace through the ‘mini-state’ of the family that is gender-transformative, that entails transformations towards gender equality.


Acknowledging local forms of gender-transformative peacebuilding

That ex-combatants’ contextually sensitive means to do so—e.g. through home-based businesses and prioritizing childcare—differ from those envisioned by national-level political strategies does not make these practices less feminist, gendered or gender-transformative. It just sheds light on different local forms of gender expertise and practices that merit more attention by researchers and policymakers.


In sum, my research identifies the ‘mini-state’ of the family as a crucial and thus far overlooked site of ground-up peace and state building in Colombia. Acknowledging it as such would be a first step to build on its gender-transformative potential for larger social transformations towards peace.


This is a deeply feminist claim if we consider that, at the core of the feminist struggle, stands the idea that choice matters.



(1) The gender binary I use here reflects the ways that my research participants speak about gender, not my personal understanding.

(2) I say ‘seem to’ because she and other ex-combatant women also constantly challenge traditional gender norms and roles, for example when they draw a unique strength from their war experience.

(3) This does not mean that a rigid hetero-normative patriarchal model is necessarily imposed through these regional practices: the concept of the family in Colombian reintegration is a flexible one.


Swiss National Science Foundation   


This research project has partially been funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (Doc.Mobility grant P1GEP1 174894).


Banner: @ Simon Berger / Unsplash