To Be a Guerrilla, and a Woman, in Colombia

The country's historic peace deal means thousands of female fighters are giving up their weapons. But what happens then?

FARC fighters stand in a field
FARC fighters stand in line during the opening of ceremony congress at the camp where they prepare for ratifying a peace deal with the government. (John Vizcaino / Reuters)

From her perch at the top of a hill at a school for at-risk youth in Bogotá, a 17-year-old girl wearing a white track suit, her hair pulled into a ponytail, could see the city stretch before her. Her straight back and easy assertiveness were the only signs that, just six months earlier, she was roaming the jungle with the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), a communist guerrilla group that formed in the late 1960s with the aim of overthrowing the Colombian government. The group formally demobilized in 1991, but since then, dissident factions have continued to fight and finance themselves via drug trafficking. Nowadays, the group’s ranks have dwindled to around 100 fighters, down from 3,000 at its peak in the 1970s, but it still holds sway in some rural areas of Colombia where the state is largely absent.

When I visited the young woman at her school this April, she told me she fled her home in Norte de Santander in 2015 to join the EPL to escape her family. Her stepfather began sexually abusing her when she was 12, and when her mother found out four years later, she turned her anger on her daughter. She joined the group at 16, she said, not to achieve some ideological goal, but to “unburden [her] mind.” In only two months in the jungle, she learned how to carry a 50-pound pack and a rifle, and barely escaped being pummeled by an improvised mortar that landed next to her during a firefight.

She is one of thousands of women who have fought in leftist guerrilla groups during more than half a century of war in Colombia. Groups like the EPL, the National Liberation Army (ELN), and, most notably, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) took up arms to fight against land and wealth inequality, but wound up turning to illegal activities like kidnapping and drug trafficking to finance their operations. On September 26, after four years of negotiations, the largest rebel group, the FARC, signed a peace treaty with the Colombian government. This means that, soon, an additional 7,500 combatants, including about 3,000 women, will demobilize en masse.

Disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) has played a crucial role in the government’s strategy to weaken leftist rebel groups. Between 2002 and 2012, the FARC shrank from 20,000 guerrillas to 8,000. But critics say the Colombian government’s efforts to bring women back into civilian life have always been lacking. Women made up about 40 percent of the FARC and about 25 percent of the ELN; about 20 percent of leftist guerrillas who participated in the government reintegration program between 2003 and 2012 were women.

The young woman I met in Bogotá wants to be an architect. She’s a natural leader, and the school has put her in charge of a group of girls. But she faces a host of challenges. She misses her friends, the security of her rifle, and life in the camp, which she talked about wistfully. The only reason she doesn’t rejoin, she said, is because she knows it would kill her mother. Like other female ex-combatants, she faces intense stigma for betraying not only her country, but her gender.

When she leaves school and finishes college, she’ll face a culture that expects her to care for children, keep a clean house, and meet a high standard of beauty. When friends or future employers discover her guerrilla past, they might reject or even fire her. If she chooses to get married, that, too, might be difficult: Men, even former guerrillas, can see women who have been members of rebel armies as damaged goods.

The Colombian government’s problem with women combatants is apparent from a public-service campaign designed to look like a lipstick ad. It reads: “Guerrillera, feel like a woman again. Demobilize.” Designed by the PR firm MullenLowe SSP3 in 2012 for the Colombian government, it features lipstick colors with names like “freedom,” “love,” “happiness,” and “tranquility,” and promises women that they can “smile and become the mother [they’ve] always dreamed of being.”

It’s hard to imagine the lipstick campaign convincing Sandra Sandoval, a 34-year-old former combatant I met in Bogotá, who joined a local FARC militia when she was 17. When she heard that paramilitaries—rival right-wing militias—were coming after her for being a member of the FARC, she escaped into the jungle with the guerrillas, leaving behind her first child, a baby girl. Sandoval later rose to become a commander, using her position to help local communities find the resources to build schools and roads, she said. “At any moment you could die in the struggle … but sometimes you feel that you’d die peacefully because maybe in some future, others could enjoy that transformation that you were fighting for.”

In 2003, after she had been with the FARC for five years, Colombian security forces captured and held Sandoval for questioning overnight. Other FARC combatants assumed her quick release meant she’d betrayed them. Her life in danger, she fled to the Colombian army and demobilized through a program at the Ministry of the Interior, which led the DDR effort at the time. The program expanded several times until in 2011 the government formed the Colombian Reintegration Agency (ACR), the office that now guides former combatants into civilian life.

But Sandoval left the program in 2012, she said, because she disagreed with the DDR process, which she felt failed to offer her the support she needed to survive in the city and apply to college—both entirely new phenomena to her. The program did not help ex-combatants who are mothers find childcare while they participate in program’s requirements, she added. The program also often pigeonholes women into more domestic careers, according to Kimberly Theidon, an anthropologist at Tufts University who has done extensive fieldwork with former combatants. In Sandoval’s case, she finished her high-school degree in a year and in 2005 was offered vocational training. “I was asked to choose between cooking, tailoring, or computer maintenance,” said Sandoval. She chose computer maintenance, something she’d never done. She later received a government scholarship and studied systems engineering, though she said she left her first class in tears because she had never learned advanced math.

In 2013, the ACR started incorporating gender analysis into their program in earnest. Joshua Mitrotti, the head of the ACR, said that challenging traditional gender norms is now a part of his agency’s mission. “If [women] want to maintain that traditional role, perfect. If they want to innovate beyond that, we can support them,” Mitrotti said, insisting that now the options for female ex-combatants are exactly the same as those for men, and that the ACR tries to encourage their leadership, especially among other combatants.

But Mitrotti went on to contradict his own feminist bona fides. He said that female former combatants have sometimes lost their “feminine features” by doing the same work as men and want to get them back. “We put a strong focus on accompanying them and helping them again reconstruct those feminine features that they want to construct.”

Of course, some, like Sandoval, “never saw [herself] as feminine.” Peasant women have to do hard physical labor from the time they are children, she said. As a girl, she grew accustomed to carrying firewood and working with a machete. She started wearing makeup at 25, not because she sought to be more feminine but because she lives in Bogotá and wanted to fit in. Life in the city has made her question herself. “They say my way of walking is very macho,” she said.

Roxanne Krystalli researches transitional justice and gender violence at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. She said that the low number of women who’ve undergone formal integration via the ACR means that women are likely choosing to demobilize without government support. That puts them at risk of retaliation from their home communities and the armed groups. It also means they are missing out on the allowance, psychological support, and job training provided by ACR.

It’s unclear why women reintegrate with the government at such a low rate. It could be due to poorly conceived PR campaigns, or the belief that the programs won’t address their needs. Or it could be that the path to reintegration is a dangerous one. Guerrillas who wish to demobilize must turn themselves in to the Colombian army, which then hands them over to the appropriate government office. But Theidon said that first step may be particularly frightening for women, given how rape has proliferated as a tool of war in the Colombian conflict.

The ACR declined to respond to Theidon, Sandoval, and Krystalli’s critiques, citing Mitrotti’s busy schedule during the signing of the FARC peace deal. Sandoval, who re-registered for the ACR program two months ago, said that it it is now more personalized, and has expanded its geographic reach. But it remains to be seen whether it has made the structural changes she thinks are necessary, she said.

Colombia’s reintegration programs have historically been male-dominated. Theidon said that when she visited shelters for former combatants “it was a very masculine space.” She questioned whether women would want to be one of the only women in a shelter or on a small farm. Krystalli added that women may choose to demobilize informally because of the stigma they face as former combatants, which is greater for women, who have contradicted the idealized role of a peaceful, loving mother.

After living with a group that at least nominally valued equality, this can be difficult to accept. An 18-year-old former ELN combatant that I interviewed in Palmira said that returning to civilian life is made doubly difficult by the stigma she experiences as both a former combatant and as a woman. “They always think that women are more domestic, more feminine, and all that, but not back there,” she said. With the guerrillas, “it’s gender equality, we’re all equal. So it’s difficult.”

This stigma is sharpened by the stereotype that women in the FARC sleep with commanders to advance their rank, a sexualization bolstered by the notion that the only reason a woman would join a rebel group is because they were forcibly recruited or wanted to escape abuse at home. Theidon found that just 9 percent of combatants in leftist militias were forcibly recruited. Most joined because they lived in areas where, with the presence of the Colombian state virtually invisible, the guerrilla group was more or less in charge, its presence normalized, or because an acquaintance who was already in the group convinced them to join.

“The government projects the idea that we were brought to join armed groups by force, that we had to be the lovers of the combatants and the commanders. That we slept with everyone,” Sandoval said. “It’s making us into idiots. It’s saying women don’t have the capacity to think and make a decision.”

Though the FARC and ELN profess to believe in gender equality, and use this claim as a recruitment tool, neither group offers a feminist utopia. Coerced sex, rape, and forced abortions have been widespread problems in both groups. Many women were also forced to give up their children. Jeimy Velasquez, a 30-year-old currently taking ACR-funded dress-making classes, still cries when she talks about having to leave her two-year-old son when the FARC forcibly recruited her. She didn’t see him again until he was five. While she was with the group, she had to keep her feelings “good and buried” because the commanders couldn’t know that she was in pain, she said. She carries the guilt of not only missing part of her son’s life, but of recruiting others to join the FARC. “For me, this is to steal someone’s life from them,” she said. She now gives presentations to young people to try to convince them not to join guerrilla groups.

Theidon explained that female ex-combatants carry a different kind of guilt than male ones.  “Many of them, because of forced abortions, because of having partners that they didn’t necessarily want, because they had children they didn’t keep, felt that they’re bad moms, they’ve been bad women.”

But the guerrillera experience is full of contradictions. The young former ELN combatant, who was with the group from ages 14 to 16, savored her uniform and her rifle. “It gives you authority,” she said. When asked if local people were afraid of her, she said no. In rural communities, she explained, people grow coca to live, which government forces destroy. So guerrillas “get their affection because they’re protecting what they rely on to eat and survive.”

For Velasquez, it was the worst thing that has happened to her. Yet it gave her skills—discipline, punctuality, obedience—that now serve her well. She also formed connections with other guerrillas. “In the middle of pain, you make a family,” she said.

Reporting for this article was funded by an Adelante fellowship from the International Women’s Media Foundation.