What It's Like to Be a Female Guerrilla Fighter in Colombia

For half a century, women have fought in the Colombian jungles as members of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), often referred to as the world's longest insurgency. Though they engage in combat alongside men, they're still...
March 24, 2016, 4:30pm
Image via Flickr user Silvia Andrea Moreno

When Camila's parents separated, she had a thought typical to any 15-year-old girl going through a tough experience: She imagined running away and escaping her problems. Unlike most girls, however, Camila lived in a part of Colombia controlled by the country's largest guerrilla insurgency, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by the Spanish acronym FARC. Thus, as she imagined leaving her parents' home, joining the armed group crossed her mind as a plausible option. It wasn't until much later—at the age of 23—that she decided to act on the idea.

"Most of us arrived in the group because of all the difficulties we faced in our lives," said Camila, whose name has been changed to protect her identity.

Women have always been an important part of guerrilla warfare, despite societal assumptions that armed conflict is reserved for men. FARC formed in 1964 when a group of young Marxists took up arms to fight for land rights and anti-imperialist reforms. Its peak membership reached 18,000 in 1999 and has since deteriorated to about 8,000, but the group still holds key strongholds in the Colombian jungle. For half a century, women have fought in the Colombian jungles as members of FARC, often referred to as the world's longest insurgency. The Colombian government estimates that about 30 to 40 percent of rebel combatants are women and girls.

In some ways, armed combat breaks down gender roles. Women fight alongside men and can even serve as commanders. They carry assault rifles, march in formation, and risk their lives. But in other respects, women experience unique challenges as members of an armed insurgency such as FARC. Living alongside men in close quarters can make these women vulnerable to sexual assault—and, although FARC's internal policy forbids rape, reports show that some female guerrillas in the group were forced to submit to sexual slavery; in addition, Amnesty International has criticized both FARC and the paramilitaries for using rape as a weapon of war. Getting pregnant and starting a family is also forbidden: Colombia's Attorney General is investigating at least 150 cases of former female guerrilla who were forced to terminate their pregnancies, and a Colombian newspaper estimates that 1,000 forced abortions take place per year in FARC camps.

Since November 2012, FARC and the Colombian government have been negotiating terms for the guerrillas to put down their arms—including land reforms, an amnesty policy, and integration of FARC into the political system. The three-year peace process continues past its original March 23 deadline with many women involved in the process. Some experts say that female participation in civil society will indicate how successful the peace will be in Colombia. Nearly a decade after demobilizing, Camila reflects on life after combat and shares what it is like to fight and dream of a better future as a woman in FARC.

Taking up arms as a mother and wife

One brisk November morning in 2003, Camila woke up feeling a heavy weight in her chest. She had grown up in a conflict zone in Colombia, but she didn't become directly affected until paramilitary forces gained more influence in her town. Camila's father and 14-year-old brother were tortured by paramilitary forces who wrongly accused them of collaborating with guerrillas, and her brother joined FARC out of vengeance and a need for protection. Afterwards, Camila and her mother were illegally detained by paramilitaries and accused of supporting the guerrillas, and this stirred up anger in Camila. With two young children to take care of and her husband living in the jungle as a FARC guerrilla, she felt the need to take control of her life.

"My dream was always to have my own house for my family and not always be under the shadow of my mother," she said. For Camila, the best way to do this was to join the guerrillas, which gave her a sense of power. Camila grew up admiring FARC when she saw them in their camouflage uniforms. They maintained a sense of order in her town that the government never provided, she said.

That November morning, she went to talk to a commander who promised to help her study after a few years of service. He gave her a waiting period to decide if she truly wanted to join, but it wasn't necessary: Camila had already made up her mind. She understood that joining meant leaving her kids, but she believed it would give them a better life in the long run.

"The most difficult thing for me was to leave my kids because I had never spent so much time away from them," she said. "I think this is something that a child never understands, why a mother would leave them."

For two years, Camila lived in the jungle and was only able to contact her children through letters. During times of solitude, these letters consoled her. Her daughter often wrote that she was proud of her mother's decision to fight, even though Camila doubts the child fully understood.

Life as a woman in FARC

"All the woman that are there, it's because they rebelled against something," said Camila. "They rebelled against their mothers and fathers. They rebelled against living in rural Colombia and having children. They rebelled against something in the system that they didn't like."

For Camila, this rebellion was against the state's failure to protect her. Being part of an armed group empowered her after she had faced discrimination and poverty. Camila's role in carrying out the revolution started off as part of the propaganda team, based on her natural ability for photography and design. She later transitioned to military operations. But life in a FARC camp is not just military drills; a woman who joins an armed group doesn't lose her humanity, nor does guerrilla life isolate her from the harsh realities of being a woman. One in three women experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, and armed conflicts exacerbate the level of violence against women. Millions of women in the developing world lack access to birth control.

Female FARC fighters must navigate a minefield of issues regarding sex, sexuality, and reproductive health—such as limited access to birth control, potential harassment from male peers, and double standards. This is all further complicated when 60 to 70 individuals live together in the jungle with limited interactions with the outside world.

They teach you that a female guerrilla has the same rights as her male colleagues. But at the end of the day, she is still a woman. Being a woman in war is tough.

For example, the rebel fighters rarely sleep alone, Camila explained. Couples usually sleep together, and single men and women sleep in groups of three or four. Camila was already married to another FARC guerrilla when she joined the insurgency, but she still took certain precautions to protect herself from sexual assault or rumors.

"When my husband wasn't there, I would sleep beside two or three other guerrillas. You look for this. There's a sense of camaraderie," she said. "But I always slept with two or three people and not just one so that rumors wouldn't start."

FARC internal policy does not tolerate physical or sexual abuse between any two members of the group—men and women alike—but this does not eliminate the problem. Camila remembers one male fighter who constantly made sexual advances at her, which she rejected. One day, this same guerrilla hit another female fighter after discovering their sexual relationship was not exclusive. He was punished, but the commander justified his actions by saying the female fighter had acted promiscuously.

"[In the guerrilla camps] they teach you that a female guerrilla has the same rights as her male colleagues," Camila said. "But at the end of the day, she is still a woman. Being a woman in war is tough."

Life after FARC and finding peace

Camila never intended to remain a guerrilla for life. After two years, she asked for permission to leave the group, which was granted to her because she joined under an agreement with a commander that her service would be temporary. But transitioning into civilian life was not easy as a young mother in a country still enduring a conflict.

"In Colombia—and Latin America and around the world— it is more difficult to be a woman," she said. The South American country ranks 98 out of 187 on the UN Gender Equality Index. "For a demobilized women, it's even more difficult because on top of demobilizing, you are a woman in a society working against you."

Since demobilizing, Camila has gone through the Colombian government's reintegration program, which provides mental health, educational, and job assistance services. She now works as a liaison between the agency and guerrillas. Soon she will graduate with a degree in graphic design, a career she chose partially based on her experience designing FARC propaganda. With support from her family, Camila has been able to heal from the personal hatred and vengeance that led her to take up arms, a choice she now sees as an ineffective way to work towards a political goal and one that has had irreversible consequences on Colombian society. As the peace process winds down, thousands like Camila will demobilize in the upcoming months. Forgiveness from all parts of Colombian society is the next step, she believes.

"When you leave the group, you see things differently," she said. As a fighter, she saw power in an armed struggle. But the lack of social progress since she demobilized nearly a decade ago has made her doubt these methods. "No one who takes up arms accomplishes positive things. The Colombian story shows this."

This is an observation Camila can only make decades after her 15-year-old self lay in her bed staring up at the ceiling, dreaming of donning a camouflage uniform to make her problems disappear.