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.”