Colombian Rebels Mix Genders, Not Opportunities

Women rebels fighting the Colombian government live the lives of soldiers in training camps, yet have little expectation of promotion, have no control over their reproductive lives and face death if they dare to leave.

Colombia Rebel

CAMP LA LIBERTAD (WOMENSENEWS)-On a recent Sunday afternoon, a group of women rebels with painted fingernails stroll into camp. Several men play volleyball on the grass, while the women cast amorous glances at them. The women wear baggy camouflage trousers and necklaces; they've cast off fatigue jackets to show off their curves. “Flirting is the same here as in civilian life,” an 18-year-old with the nom de guerre “Shirley” said as she watched the rebel men play. “You talk; you look.”

Not quite. These women belong to Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the oldest and most powerful rebel group in Latin America. They are mentally tough and physically strong. They are part of a force that has fought against the Colombian government for 38 years and has been accused of financing itself with kidnapping and “taxing” plantations that grow coca and poppy seed, the raw ingredients used to process cocaine and heroin. Among other crimes the rebel group has admitted to is killing three American activists almost three years ago.

As part of peace negotiations with the Colombian government, the rebel group received an area in southern Colombia twice the size of New Jersey, known as the demilitarized zone. This camp is on the banks of a winding river and covered by tall trees, about 174 miles (280 kilometers) south Bogota, the Colombian capital.

Rare Interviews with Women Rebels

A visitor to this camp was given rare glimpse of life there and found that, while the number of women members in the rebel camp is high, their satisfaction with their role and their expectations are not. This reporter lived in the camp for five days and talked freely with the women there.

The women in this camp, most of them of peasant origin, are fierce fighters with an average age of 20 and at least five years of experience in a rebel military unit. Nearly one out of every three of the group's members is a woman, according to a tally by the organization. Women who belong to a rebel group rarely get promoted and are compelled to use birth control. They, in fact, sign over their lives to the rebel group because they cannot leave. Desertion is punished with death. Many have bullet wounds in their bodies and wounded souls they only whisper about.

In this camp, deep in the tropical jungles of southern Colombia, Shirley is one of many regular combatants. The camp is also a training ground for rebels who are moving up the ladder.

This training camp has a few female instructors, but none of the women trainees are likely to assume higher responsibilities. Indeed, women are absent from many higher positions in the rebel group, including the peace negotiations.

“I ask myself why there are so few women commanders or women at the negotiating table,” said Valentina, a communications instructor with bright hazel eyes and long hair, one of the few women in the middle levels of this rebel organization.

“Mariana” is the only female in the mid-level group negotiating with the government; the only other woman in a position of power is the commander of a unit in central Colombia. In the rest of the 63 units and in the negotiating groups from both the government side and the guerrillas, only men are present.

“I think the answer is machismo,” said Valentina, who added that women only started in the rebel group less than a decade ago. Regardless of the apparent lack of equal opportunity within the rebel group, women are still drawn to it, for the same variety of reasons that have caused young men to leave their homes.

Natalia, a first-aid teacher, is a tall, sweet-faced 21-year-old who said she joined to get away from her stepfather, who mistreated her and her mother.

Carolina, who was running the high commanders' kitchen, said she joined the group voluntarily when she was 14. In some small towns in southern Colombia, she said, each family was expected to give up a son for the “revolution.” Although in her town, no such demand was made, nevertheless she told her father she wanted to go and he told her she could go ahead.

Lucero, the political organization instructor and mother of a 9-year-old, was the only one who said she joined out of idealism. “The establishment won't change unless it has to, that's why we are fighting,” said this petite woman. She added: “War is the most terrible enterprise that people can start.”

Columbian RebelsStrict Rules Against Pregnancy, Except. . .

As tough as their lives are as soldiers, their personal lives are even harder. The rebel group has strict rules forbidding everything from promiscuity to childbearing.

A fighter wanting to spend the night away from his or her assigned bunk must get permission from the commanding officer. A steady relationship can be formalized with an “association permit,” the rebel group's equivalent of marriage. But commanders have the power to dissolve the union if fighting or jealousy disrupts the unit. Many members choose to keep their relationships secret.

The women in this camp get periodic shots to prevent pregnancy. In other units, they are given IUDs. Whichever method they select, it's not an optional decision-it's an order.

Lucero, the political instructor, gave birth while in a member. She said she had to undergo an open “self-criticism” in which she stood up in front of her unit and pledged to never get pregnant again. Her 9-year-old child is being raised by her family elsewhere in Colombia.

Her experience is apparently exceptional. She may have been allowed to remain pregnant because she is the woman of a high-ranking commander. Whispering, other women in the camp said that the rule is that pregnant members undergo an abortion, which is illegal in predominantly Roman Catholic Colombia.

On this sunny Sunday strolling in the green plains, Carolina, an older woman in this camp-she's 25-dreams of having a baby and a family. But it's only a dream, because she isn't allowed to leave and isn't allowed to get pregnant if she stays.

“I'm worried that I'll never have a kid,” said Carolina who has been a member of the rebel group for 10 years.

Margarita Martinez covers war and social trends in Colombia.

For more information:

Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (in English)

Latin American Guerilla Groups Come and Go

Patterns of Global Terrorism: 1999Latin America Overview