Exploring high-risk feminism and conflict in Latin America

Evangeline Arethwala

12 February 2024

This is an article from the CSC Development Theme: Strengthening global peace, security and governance

I chose to engage with women actors at the grassroots level, providing a bottom-up perspective of their experiences of mobilising in post-conflict moments. Women actors living in the community implement strategies [for gender justice] and this is often not recognised.

Dr Julia Zulver

Latin America’s history of military dictatorship and armed conflict has severely impacted women’s human rights. Although most armed conflicts have formally been resolved, some countries in this region still experience violence through drug trafficking, guerilla and paramilitary groups, and political instability. Gender-based violence (GBV) is often perpetrated in post-conflict societies due to structural inequalities and power relations defined by class, ethnicity, and sexuality.

Historically, women have been viewed as victims, although increasingly they are also recognised as human rights defenders and members of peacebuilding movements during and post-conflict situations. However, efforts to remedy gendered inequalities in post-conflict restructuring have often failed to recognise existing forms of feminists’ collective action and mobilisation efforts to address oppression and GBV. Gender stereotypical myths associated with the role of women as being nurturers and carers, often undermines women’s capacity and ability to seek justice.

Commonwealth Alumnus, Dr Julia Zulver is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research Fellow at the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies and the Instituto de Investigaciones Jurídicas at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) in Mexico. She investigates factors that motivate women to become high-risk leaders in Latin America, particularly in Mexico, El Salvador, and Colombia.

Developing a high-risk feminism framework

The Colombian armed conflict is the oldest ongoing conflict in Latin America. In 2016, a peace accord was signed with the largest guerrilla force, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Despite this historic peace agreement, Colombia still experiences high levels of violence, with ongoing attacks against community leaders, human rights activists, and former combatants. In particular, women leaders mobilising collective activism continue to face gendered threats which prevent them from participating in politics and in public spaces.

Efforts to address these gendered violenecs include the UN Security Council’s Resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security, which calls upon women to play a central role in peacebuilding. This model provides a largely top-down approach to increase women’s representation at all levels. As a result, women leaders participating in political movements and activism remain at high risk of suffering gender-related violence.

In response to this, Julia pursued a DPhil in Sociology at the University of Oxford through a Commonwealth Scholarship to conduct ethnographic research to understand how women’s mobilisation in post-accord Columbia has led to increased risks of gendered violence such as sexual violence and displacement, amongst others.

She shares that despite the risks experienced by women in violent contexts, she was intrigued to know why women continued to join women’s organisations to participate in collective action and support women’s rights, even when faced with such danger.

Julia’s doctoral research explored ways in which women leaders mobilised for gender justice despite facing high risks of violence in Colombia. As part of her research, Julia developed a framework on high-risk feminism to understand how and why women at the grassroots level choose to mobilise and come together to address issues of gender justice.

The framework enabled Julia to understand the strategies used by women living in communities faced with violence and conflict to express their grievances and demand gender justice. She looked at women beyond the role of peacebuilders and collected stories and narratives on ways in which women mobilised and formed collective action groups to address gender justice during conflict.

Through this research, she discovered that women were drawn to belonging to a group with a shared vision of achieving gender equality which they felt justified exposing themselves to additional risks.

Julia continues to use this framework in her current academic research work on gendered leadership factors that give rise to high-risk leaders across Latin America.

Amplifying women’s voices

Alongside developing this research framework, during her doctoral studies at the University of Oxford, Julia also gained skills in research methodologies and networking, which helped her develop as an ethnographic researcher. Networking is particularly important in her work as it enables her to build connections and trust with women’s organisations and communities, enabling research participants to feel safe.

Reflecting on her role as a researcher, Julia stresses her desire for justice through amplifying women’s voices. Reiterating that while most political efforts to promote women’s representation use a top-down approach, she employs a collaborative approach in writing women’s stories by involving them. By doing so, she creates a bottom-up approach which aligns with the principles of her research framework.

“I try to shorten the gaps of power that exist between those who make policies and the women who have to continue to live in the communities and experience the violence.”

Dr Julia Zulver with 3 women with Julia's book from the book launch in Bogota

Dr Julia Zulver promoting her book in Bogotá

Following her doctoral studies, Julia developed her research thesis into a monograph, High-Risk Feminism in Colombia: Women’s Mobilization in Violent Contexts, published in 2022. The book includes a collection of stories and narratives shared by women actors and their experiences of addressing gender justice across Latin America.

Julia translated the book into Spanish and shared it with the women in the communities to ensure that those who contributed can access the narratives, and that communities can learn from the stories shared in the book.


“Being talked about in a legitimate way in a book is a piece of evidence that they can then show to others. The women shared that, because of the book, their work might now be taken more seriously.”

Following its publication, the book has received international recognition, winning three major prizes. These include the Best Female Scholar Book Award and the Feminist Theory and Gender Studies Book Award from the International Studies Association. The book also won Book of the Year from the Conflict Research Society.

Julia shares her research findings within academic and policy spaces and was invited to present her book at Colombia’s Truth Commission. Here, she took the opportunity to bridge the gap with women actors and policy influencers by inviting women leaders to share their experiences and narratives of joining mobilisation movements for gender justice.

“My research presentations have emphasised the importance of including gender-sensitive and context-specific perspectives when implementing any policy aimed at women living in post-conflict zones. In brief, I have highlighted how being a woman peacebuilder is dangerous work.”

The first step in an academic career

Julia’s academic work has contributed important evidence on how women, peace and security programmes and policies are implemented on the ground. Her work has highlighted the grassroots efforts and bottom-up perspective of women’s lived experiences in post-conflict situations.

As well as being heavily invested in academia and research, Julia is also part of a Canadian feminist research consultancy: Ladysmith. Here, she consults on various projects for policymakers, UN agencies, and the Canadian government. Her work as a consultant includes developing training courses on gender and development for diplomats, conducting large-scale assessments of UN programmes such as the UN Gender Equality Framework, and producing research-based case studies and rapid gender analysis of countries.

Julia states that despite various forms of violence, the women she has worked with have all expressed the desire to continue working collectively to address these gendered issues. Through her book, she has helped enable their voices to reach a public audience, highlighting the important justice work they undertake.

She hopes to continue working in academia, giving voices to her research participants, and translating her work to policy influencers and civil society organisations to engage with vulnerable communities.

“My Commonwealth Scholarship was the first major step in my academic career. The resources it offered allowed me to undertake my doctoral research in a manner that was conducive to the extended ethnographic methods I implemented. Through this experience, I realised that I wanted to pursue a career in academia and the experience also gave me the confidence to apply for other fellowships that allowed me to continue on my academic journey.”

Dr Julia Zulver is a 2015 Commonwealth Scholar from Canada. She completed her DPhil in Sociology at the University of Oxford.