Recently the New York Times reported on a FARC guerrilla camp in Colombia. The FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) is a left-wing group that has been fighting the Colombian government since the 1960s. As you’d guess, there’s gendered violence throughout the Colombian armed conflict, committed by the state, paramilitaries, other guerillas, criminal gangs and, of course, the FARC. But the Times’s recent FARC article was limited by a lack of discussion of its troubling gender hierarchies.
So what was missing? Here’s what we know.
Free love may not be so free
The reporting includes a mention of “free love” within the FARC and comments on the lack of marriage within the group. For instance, one section says that when people “want to have sex, they tell the commander and then slip off into the woods, with palm fronds for bedding.”
But a wealth of research reveals that these “free” interactions are in fact carefully controlled. As reporter Nicholas Casey notes, sexual interactions require permission from commanders, raising questions about whose consent matters.
Some within the FARC do appear to have consensual sexual relations. But not all. For example, IUDs and contraceptive shots have reportedly been administered to girls as young as 12 years old. It’s hard to argue that these girls are able to offer meaningful and informed consent.
Sometimes “consensual” sex is a transactional exchange of sex for benefits
Relations within a hierarchical armed group — just like relations within civil society — are shaped by power. Women’s decisions about sex are influenced by the benefits and protection that some women and girls get from being sexually involved with men within the FARC, especially with powerful commanders. Natalia Herrera and Douglas Porch quote Tanja Nimeijer, a Dutch woman who joined the FARC:
The commanders are the aristocracy of the FARC whose women are de facto members of the chain-of-command, accorded special privileges like a ‘staff’ job, better food, alcohol or medical treatment, ability to have children and leave them with their families rather than with complete strangers, or the commuting of a court-martial sentence. ‘The comandante’s woman is a special case’, she [Nimeijer] wrote in her diary, ‘and they have certain privileges, always have all the intelligence, and sometimes give orders.
The end of the relationship often marks the loss of benefits.
Contraception and abortion are often forced on women
The FARC, like many armed groups in other settings, considers a pregnancy or a young child within the group as potential reason for women to desert. And so the FARC strictly controls its female militants’ reproductive lives, including with forced contraception and abortion.
Angela, a former FARC child soldier who joined the group when she was 12, shared this with Human Rights Watch:
They put in an IUD the day after I arrived. That was the only birth control I ever used. If you get pregnant, you have to have an abortion. Lots of women get pregnant. I had two friends who got pregnant and had to have abortions. They cried and cried. They didn’t want to lose the baby.
To be sure, some within the FARC have abortions willingly, though not all. Shana Tabak’s research reports that a woman visited a FARC nurse to monitor her pregnancy and realized later that the nurse had aborted the fetus without her approval. Human Rights Watch echoes that in an interview with an unidentified former child soldier:
The worst thing is that you can’t have a baby. Two years ago, in 2000, I got pregnant. They gave me an abortion, but they didn’t tell me in advance that they were going to do it. They told me they were checking on it. I wanted to have the baby.
When they do give birth, women may be forcibly separated from their children
The FARC hierarchy may take children away, for fear that parenting will distract mothers from their roles within the guerrilla group. And for good reason: Female combatants have reported that having children while in the FARC was one of the reasons they left. Out of 112 women who left the FARC between January and June in 2011, 57 say they did so because they wanted to find and reunite with their children. It is unclear whether those women would have chosen to stay in the FARC had they been allowed to keep their children with them.
Not all women face these restrictions, but many do
The FARC – like other organizations – is not monolithic. Some of these practices have changed over time; others are not consistently enforced, or target particular women but aren’t blanket policies. In fact, some women have voluntarily joined the FARC (as opposed to being forcibly recruited) because of past experiences with violence in Colombia, because they believe they will get the benefits of the FARC’s protection and a more secure livelihood than in civil society, or the possibility of more agency and equality than they would have in civilian life. For women and girls within the FARC, moments of freedom, agency and engagement can coexist alongside limitations and harms suffered inside the armed group.
The FARC has a glass ceiling
The FARC includes men and women – but, despite its proclamations of gender equality, women are not fully equal. Women have held a variety of roles, from cooks and nurses to combat commanders, and some of them have reported relishing forms of equality that were absent for them in civilian life. But there’s only so far any female FARC member can go within the organization.
The FARC Secretariat, which provides military and political leadership, has never had a female member. Women were initially included in limited ways in the peace talks held in Havana between the FARC and the Colombian government, and were primarily there to narrate their experiences as victims of violence. Tanja Nimeijer, a Dutch guerillera of the FARC, was the only woman included in a combatant capacity.
In other words, even though being part of the FARC may be empowering for some women, there are limits to this power and influence.
If women aren’t heard from during peace talks, they suffer after the conflict ends
Failing to understand the diversity of women’s experiences within armed groups can complicate their reintegration into civilian life. Research has highlighted a number of challenges. For instance, to qualify for benefits in some disarmament programs, combatants may be required to turn in a weapon, which not all women and girls in armed groups have.
Susan McKay and Dyan Mazurana’s research with female child soldiers in Sierra Leone, Northern Uganda and Mozambique has found that women and girls’ participation in armed groups is sometimes seen as violating social norms more than men’s, thus complicating their reintegration into peacetime communities.
And as Kimberly Theidon notes, while some reintegration programs do focus explicitly on the wartime experience of women and girls, few explicitly examine wartime masculinity and its peacetime reconstruction.
Stories reporting on the anthropology of everyday life during conflict and within armed groups can illuminate the full range of members’ experience — or can erase their realities. For instance, while it’s important to recognize that women and girls have been part of the FARC, those who tell their stories and who craft the peace must understand their complex and diverse motives and experiences. Similarly, research has shown us that the twin categories of “perpetrator” and “victim” of violence aren’t neatly separated: The same person may have been simultaneously committing violence and a victim of it.
Initiatives during what Carolyn Nordstrom calls “the time of not-war-not-peace” need to draw on the full range of these complex stories if they want to ensure the peace and prevent women and girls from being recruited into the guerrillas next time.
Roxanne Krystalli is a researcher on gender, violence and transitional justice and a PhD candidate at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Find her on Twitter at @rkrystalli.