Colombia’s female FARC fighters wage a new war, for gender parity

Sruthi Gottipati

An independent journalist

When Angie Rios, 27, left to join communist rebels as a teenager, she told her mother never to change her phone number.

 

Nine years later, Rios is a seasoned guerrilla and sports a pierced eyebrow, a bandana, and gumboots, tempered by feminine flourishes – rhinestones dangle from her earlobes and throat; her fingernails are painted pink.

 

When the peace deal was finally signed in November between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known as FARC, and the government, Rios made a phone call.

 

“Hi mom, it’s me.”

 

For thousands of FARC women, who make up more than 40 percent of the armed group, homecoming is fraught. Right now, they’re reconnecting with family members who they’d left years, if not decades, ago.

 

Female guerrillas, many from remote corners of the country, told IRIN they never really looked back when they joined FARC.

 

They say they were fleeing the drudgery of domestic rural life. Among the communist rebels, they found the easy camaraderie and gender equity, at least the veneer of it, that they longed for.

 

Now, after laying down their arms as part of a historic peace deal, they face a unique stigma. Whereas men are viewed as macho for having fought in the war, women are seen as “loose” for having slept with male guerrillas, and tainted for having undergone abortions. Even the rebels themselves, one researcher says, reject their former lovers.

 

A government reintegration programme, previously accused of pigeon-holing female ex-fighters into home economics style workshops, is now bracing for the gargantuan task of assimilating them into communities that can be unforgiving to women who shirk traditional gender roles.  

 

Female guerrillas say they’re determined to fight back – this time for gender parity. The stakes are high: Reintegrating these women into society is essential for Colombia to move past war and truly end the longest-running conflict in the Americas.

 

When IRIN spoke to her, on a rain-battered day in June, Rios stood in the kitchen of one of the 26 rural camps holding FARC rebels, frying beef and pork in a vat of bubbling oil, pinching the crisp meat with a pair of tongs.

 

Rios said her mother didn’t recognise her voice at first when she called: “She thought I was dead”. When she did realise it was her daughter, she broke down and cried. Her father, an evangelical Christian, began to thank God.

 

“At first, they didn’t like what I did with my life, but they now support me,” said Rios. “I don’t judge them and they don’t judge me.”

 

Rios now calls her parents every day. They talk about what they’re doing, how they’re going to meet up very soon. They don’t speak about religion. “My mother calls me ‘my little girl’,” Rios said.

 

The oil spluttered as she dropped in more meat. How does she feel cooking for her comrades — the same task that from the age of 13, working in a low-paying kitchen to support her six siblings, finally stirred her to leave home in Meta province and join FARC?

 

“It’s not something I do all day,” Rios responded, adding that she used to keep guard and is now also pursuing a course at the camp to fulfill her childhood dream of becoming a dentist. “I want everyone to have a nice smile,” she explained.

 

There are other dreams too. Rios wants to have children with her partner, a FARC commander. She feels a sense of relief that she won’t have to worry anymore about him dying every time he steps out on a mission. She wants to help the FARC fight for its cause in its new incarnation as a political party.

Ex-FARC combatant Angie Rios
Sruthi Gottipati/IRIN
Angie Rios

No gender utopia

 

Rios’s mountainside camp in the municipality of Icononzo holds 300 people, of which 125 are women, in keeping with the gender ratio of FARC as a whole.

 

“For us, women have the same rights as men,” said 38-year-old Gregory Morales, a 17-year veteran of the rebel group.

 

And it appears to be true. Women and men don the same fatigues and do the same work: cleaning, cooking, construction.

 

Unlike the right-wing paramilitaries it fought against, FARC has a gender discourse, said Kimberly Theidon, a professor and academic director of gender analysis in international studies at Tufts University’s Fletcher School.

 

Both the former and current women in FARC IRIN interviewed said they had joined the rebels willingly and had been free to choose their sexual partners. None said they had faced sexual assaults – statements in keeping with what one trauma counsellor who works with ex-combatants had also observed.

 

These accounts differ from reports published by human rights watchdogs like Amnesty International and those rights didn’t extend to their bodies when it came to pregnancies.

 

“If you’re a guerrilla, you have to take contraception,” said Victoria Sandino, a senior FARC leader who was the group’s representative on a gender sub-commission during peace talks in Havana, Cuba.

 

She said it was a requirement because FARC was in an active war. If guerrillas got pregnant and wanted to keep the baby, they had to leave the group. If they wanted to stay, they had to abort, said Sandino.

 

FARC, despite its stated ideals, is no gender utopia.

 

“There’s the ideology and there’s the reality, and there’s a gap between the two,” said Theidon, noting how she had seen middle-aged commanders with pretty girls by their side. “What’s with the 45-year-old man with the young guerrillera?”

 

Theidon, who has researched the FARC extensively, said male guerrillas have said they don’t want to marry their comrades because the female fighters have had multiple sexual partners. “There’s a stigma around these women, even among the ones they served with.”

 

Women aren’t represented in the top echelons of the armed outfit. In the seven-member secretariat that governs the FARC, for instance, there are no women.

 

“For us, it’s been hard to be in positions of leadership because it’s an army with a patriarchal scheme and machismo,” Sandino acknowledged, adding that during the peace negotiations, an internal struggle for recognising women ensued.

"When you’re going to place the landmine, you need to make sure you don’t breathe, that your hands don’t shake"

Five years ago, she said, there were no women among the 31 senior commanders of the FARC’s joint general staff. Now, there are 61 commanders and 11 of them are women.

 

Friendship and fraternity

 

Ever since 32-year-old Yurany Cardenas was a child growing up on a farm boxed in by jungle in Guaviare province, she craved for camaraderie. She dutifully helped her mother and little sister grow corn and yucca, but it was an older male cousin she looked up to. When she was 14 years old, that cousin, aged 22 at the time, left to join the FARC.

 

Cardenas, like others raised in secluded corners of Colombia, was already familiar with the group. Her mother was too poor to send Cardenas and her sister to school and FARC fighters pitched in. “They gave my mother money so I could go to school, buy books and uniforms,” said Cardenas. “With their help, I studied three years of primary school.”

 

But Cardenas wasn’t interested in school. She wanted to join her cousin. Cardenas said she made several attempts to convince the guerrillas and they finally agreed, on the condition she spoke to her mother about it. Her mother, unsurprisingly, begged her to stay: “You’re big, but not big enough,” Cardenas recalled her saying.

 

One day, when Cardenas was kicking around a football and her mother went to wash clothes, she spied her opening. The guerrillas took her in a boat to a FARC camp. She didn’t find her cousin but still stayed. “I liked the fraternity, the relationships.” She felt like she finally fitted in.

 

Cardenas said she worked as a nurse for three years before realising she had the aptitude for a more deadly undertaking: laying landmines.

 

“You need to be calm, and I had those skills,” said Cardenas, adding that she doesn’t drink much coffee and doesn’t smoke. “When you’re going to place the landmine, you need to make sure you don’t breathe, that your hands don’t shake.”

 

Her commander, she said, was surprised at her suggestion: There weren’t many women who were handling explosives. Soon, she went from treating comrades wounded by landmines to placing them to kill government soldiers. Cardenas did not look remorseful.

 

“She might not be seeing the mutilated children who the landmines killed,” said Theidon, adding that guerrillas are quickly socialised and indoctrinated to carry out horrific violence.

 

Cardenas had a miscarriage once when she didn’t know she was pregnant. She also opted for an abortion when she was in the middle of a combat operation. Another time, she travelled to her mother’s house with a swollen belly, clutching money FARC had given her for a C-section. She returned to fight four months later. Her daughter, now 17 years old, lives with Cardenas’s mother in Meta.

 

As she spoke, behind her, a pickup truck rattled up the mountainside and paused next to a tent. Female guerrillas clambered on, jovial and laughing raucously, slipping in happily next to their male colleagues.

Ex-FARC Yurany Cardenas
Sruthi Gottipati/IRIN
Yurany Cardenas

Was it difficult to give up her daughter? “Yes, of course,” Cardenas continued. “But I had to complete the mission.”

 

In the FARC, guerrillas are only allowed to visit family if someone dies or is sick, said Morales, the FARC veteran. Rebels are reluctant to visit their families anyway, for fear relatives could be threatened if they’re linked to FARC.

 

Since the peace deal, Cardenas talks regularly to her daughter by phone. She last saw her when she was five years old. “She told me, ‘I’m used to not having you in my life but I’ll still wait for you, don’t worry’,” Cardenas said. “Now I dream and I hope to spend more time with her and my mother.”

 

Navigating a new world

 

In Bogota, the National Reincorporation and Normalisation Agency (ARN) is closely watching the peace process inch forward. It’s not the first demobilisation it has had to contend with. Armed groups have long fought for, and controlled, territory in Colombia. From 2003 to 2006, about 40,000 individual fighters left the paramilitary coalition known as the AUC and some 32,000 demobilised collectively.

 

In the past 14 years, agency officials say they helped reintegrate 50,000 ex-combatants into civilian life and they plan to draw on those lessons to shape a new programme for the FARC.

 

“I insist, everything must be adapted,” said Joshua Mitrotti, the director of the agency, seated at a conference table in his office. “And everything must be agreed upon with the FARC. But it is easier to start with a proven experience and (a programme) that has previously been monitored and evaluated.”

 

A census is taking the pulse of what fighters need, which a council consisting of FARC and agency leaders will then use to determine the next steps. But with 7,000 fighters being absorbed into the fabric of Colombian civil life at once, the agency has its work cut out. Reintegration, agency officials stress, should not only benefit ex-combatants but also the communities that receive them.     

 

Part of the agency’s mandate involves ensuring that former rebels get jobs and become financially independent. To do so, FARC plans to establish a cooperative to carry out projects to help guerrillas navigate what is a whole new world for them. And it’s this collective reintegration that Sandino believes holds the most promise for female ex-combatants.

 

She said initiatives being explored include having round-the-clock kindergartens that would allow mothers to study or work at the same time, making food preparation a shared responsibility. It would mean “women don’t have to stay at home cooking”, Sandino said. Even communal laundromats are being discussed, she added. 

 

Sandino believes such bold measures, “never seen before in Colombia or in the history of Latin American countries”, will help women gain access to the same opportunities as men and draw them into public life.

 

“We don’t want women to retreat into a domestic world. That’s not want they did as guerrillas,” said Sandino. Instead, she visualises a collective economy where women will be an active part of political, social, and community life.

 

It’s the kind of principles she believes she fought for with an Israeli-made Galil assault rifle ever since she joined the rebel ranks 25 years ago.

 

Sruthi Gottipati reported on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project.

 

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TOP PHOTO: Traditional gender roles in Colombia - a new frontline for female ex-FARC guerrillas. CREDIT: Galo Naranjo/Flickr