Victims, Revolutionaries, or Heroic Mothers? The Debate of Reproductive Politics in the FARC

By Vanesa Giraldo-Gartner[1]

Emergent Conversation 11

This essay is part of Bureaucracy, Justice, and The State in a Post-Accord Colombia, published on the fourth anniversary of the accord.

Colombian FARC hands over final batch of weapons. MESETAS, COLOMBIA – JUNE 27: Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos (2nd L) takes care of a baby held by FARC top leader Rodrigo Londono, as known as Timochenko (2nd R) during a disarmament ceremony in one of the FARCs former military strongholds, Mesetas, Colombia on June 27, 2017. Photo by Handout / Presidency of Colombia/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

After four years of negotiations and the signing of the peace accord, then-Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos and the supreme leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC-EP)[2], Rodrigo Londoño, celebrated the disarmament of this guerrilla movement at a public event. In the presence of international delegates, government officials, and FARC representatives, the president said: “Today, we emotionally confirm the end of this absurd war that not only lasted more than five decades but also left more than eight million victims and killed thousands of Colombian fellows.” To close the event, a guerrilla woman (Fariana) walked into the stage with a baby girl in her arms and passed her child to Santos and Londoño. They held the baby for a few seconds while news cameras captured the moment and passed the baby back to the unidentified woman. The babies of guerrilla women began to appear as a symbol of peace in the mass media under the headline “the Baby Boom in the FARC.” In the months that followed the signing of the accord, the press was inundated with images of farianas in guerrilla uniforms, some with rifles on their backs, carrying their newborn children in the caravans toward the special zones designated for their reincorporation into civil society.

Public tributes to ex-combatant mothers not only portrayed a romantic ideal of the restitution of gender norms in the aftermath of war, the images were also attempting to dissipate historical tensions between the FARC and the Colombian government related to reproductive practices in the guerrilla movement. Based on three years of ethnographic and archival research, I aim to contest the implications of discursive articulations that link meanings, realities, and possibilities (Slack 2005) about reproductive politics in this guerrilla group. In line with other essays of this collection that have complicated the construction of victimhood (McFee 2020; Ramírez 2020), this essay offers a critical perspective on the political and symbolic implications of the discourse of sexual violence to understand the reproductive lives of ex-combatant women.

The government have accused the FARC of strictly regulating the sexual and reproductive behaviors of female combatants, who made up between 20% and 40% of the fighting force (Castrillón 2015; Sanin & Carranza 2017). Indeed, information from intercepted radio conversations between commanders, intrauterine devices discovered during the autopsies of female guerrillas killed in combat, testimonies about forced abortions from combatants who deserted the group, and academic and legal investigations confirmed that contraception was compulsory and in the event of pregnancy many women combatants were forced to abort. This debate was revived during the peace negotiations after the capture of “El Enfermero” (the Nurse), an ex-combatant implicated in performing at least 150 abortions on female fighters from the FARC and other two guerrilla groups. The Attorney General declared that mandatory contraception and forced abortions were a common form of sexual violence in the FARC (Fiscalía 2015). “El Enfermero” was accused of forced abortion in protected person, among other crimes related to his collaboration with the FARC (Fiscalía 2016), and condemned to 40 years of prison in May of 2020.

As Sanchez Parra and Fernandez Paredes (2020) suggest, gender-based violence in the armed conflict remains a contentious arena of disputes after the peace agreement. Some women who left the movement before the signing of the agreement continued denouncing reproductive practices in the armed group, with the support of civil society organizations, such as Women’s Link Worldwide (WLW). This is a nonprofit organization that works to bring gender perspectives into human rights law and has played an important role in the defense of reproductive rights in Colombia. WLW’s legal advocacy led the Colombian Constitutional Court to recognize the status of victims to former combatants subjected to sexual or reproductive violence. The Victim´s Law excluded all adult members of armed groups from its beneficiaries, therefore, they could not receive government aid for social, psychological, or economic reparations for victims. The Law for Victims of Sexual Violence in the Armed Conflict did not solve this exclusion, since it adopts the International Humanitarian Law definition of “protected person,” which also excludes people belonging to armed forces.

In 2019, WLW exposed this legal limbo to the Constitutional Court through a writ of protection of fundamental right in favor of a former combatant, who they called Helena to protect her identity. She was recruited by the FARC at the age of fourteen, subjected to mandatory contraception, and forced to abort with harmful consequences for her mental and physical health. The Court recognized this woman as a victim of sexual violence (specifically, mandatory contraception and forced abortion) and mandated the Unit for Comprehensive Victim Support and Reparations, known as the Victim’s Unit, to include her as a beneficiary of their programs. This sentence aligned with the decision of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2019 to declare guilty Bosco Ntaganda, a former commander of the rebel group Union of Congolese Patriots (UCP), of the war crimes of rape and sexual slavery against other members of the UCP. This was the first time that the ICC convicted a commander for sexual violence offenses committed against members of his own troops (ICC 2019).

Although most of the Constitutional Court judges agreed that the Victims’ Law in Colombia should not exclude members of the armed forces who were themselves victims of sexual violence, one judge considered that the exclusion of combatants was not a problem in this Law. Still, he recognized that Helena deserved the benefits of Victim’s Unit because she was not a combatant. In his account, she had not joined the FARC to reinforce their military structure, but to serve as a sexual and domestic slave. WLW, however, had not alleged this fact before the Court. In fact, their public report states that Helena’s pregnancy resulted from a consensual relationship (WLW 2019). This judge’s position highlights critical questions about the political and symbolic implications of understanding reproductive practices among female combatants through the framework of sexual violence. Following Das’ (1997) analysis of rape and judicial discourse, by assuming that Helena was a sexual and domestic slave, the judge established a set of semantic transactions between her experience and the judicial discourse of sexual violence that produce a particular form of victimhood recognized by law. As Ross (2003) illustrates regarding women and the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, definitions of “victim” and “violence” shed light on certain truths while obscuring others. The judicial discourse on sexual violence produces ex-combatant women as victimized subjects, by eliminating both their military identity and their sexual agency.

In contrast, women who remained in the FARC as members of the political party expressed their open support for their leaders when it came to gender politics in the FARC. To the accusations of sexual violence, Farianas who participated in peace negotiations replied publicly that this guerrilla movement had always guaranteed a woman’s right to decide whether they wanted to be mothers or not, liberating them from the maternal roles imposed by a patriarchal society. Farianas declared that female combatants were political subjects committed to social justice who fought for a better society, not victims of their male comrades. As one of them told me: “War and motherhood are incompatible. That is why we don’t have children. We are not victims; we are women with rifles.” They stated that they would keep advocating for the legalization of abortion in Colombia, where it was partially legalized, since 2006, in cases which present health risks for women, severe fetus malformation, or are the result of rape, incest or forced insemination.

FARC’s Temporary Demobilization Camp. VEREDA LA ELVIRA, COLOMBIA – JANUARY 17, 2017: Two female FARC guerrilla fighters in full combat gear, stand playing with the baby of a comrade inside a demobilization camp on January 17, 2017 in Vereda La Elvira, Colombia. Women in the movement were not allowed to have a baby in the past but since the peace negotiations were ongoing, there has been tolerance towards womens right to give birth. FARC guerrillas spend their final days as an armed group inside a demobilization camp and carry on with their daily routine as usual, remaining optimistic about the future and prospects of peace before reintegrating into society. Vereda La Elvira is a camp in municipality of Buenos Aires in Cauca department of Colombia. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia better known as FARC reached a peace agreement with the government of president Juan Manuel Santos in 2016 after 52 years of armed conflict and if everything goes according to the agreement they are due to hand their guns within180 days starting February 1st to the United Nations monitors in order to be melted and shaped into monuments of war. Photo by Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images.

An ethnographic reading of the history of women in the insurgency offers nuances to understand these conflicting positions and complicates the narrative of sexual violence as a single framework to study contraception and abortion among Farianas. As Shaw Crane (2020) and Azuero-Quijano (2020) discuss in their essays, the political and economic configurations of the FARC have undergone several transformations during more than fifty years of armed conflict and in the transition to the post-agreement. Reproductive policies were a central part of these transformations of the FARC from a grassroots guerrilla movement into an insurgent army and, finally, into a community-based political party. Women’s participation in the FARC always involved, following Morgan and Robert’s concept of reproductive governance, mechanisms “to produce, monitor, and control reproductive behaviors and population practices” (243). In decades of armed conflict, both mechanisms to govern women’s reproductive behavior and women’s responses emerged through different political, military, and moral regimes that were configured in the violent tensions between the state and the insurgency. These regimes produced women’s subjectivities as revolutionaries, combatants, and victims. Although each of these subjectivities have been particularly visible in specific historical moments, they are not mutually exclusive and each of them are part of the complex political transitions of women in guerrilla movements in Colombia.

The FARC was initially constituted in 1960s by a group of peasant families defending themselves against government’s anticommunist policies. With the exception of some female leaders, most women participated as the wives and mothers of male combatants. They were responsible for cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, taking care of children, healing the wounded, and, occasionally, performing military tasks. The emergence of several guerrilla groups in Colombia and Latin America as well as the transformation of the FARC into a military organization in the 1970s encouraged Farianas to redefine their roles in the organization. To be part of the new political and military project, women demanded the same rights and duties as their male comrades and called for the equal redistribution of both military and domestic tasks between men and women. This form of egalitarianism eventually minimized motherhood as one of the main contributions of female fighters to the revolution, and, along with women in other guerrilla movements in Colombia and Latin America, Farianas defended access to contraception and abortion. As one ex-combatant woman explained to me:

Contraceptives did not just make us suitable for combat, it made us combatants! Men and women had to do the same. I fight, you fight, I cook, you cook. How could you be in a guerrilla movement if you were pregnant? A guerrilla life is all about running, you have to run all the time, and you cannot do that if you are pregnant. That’s why contraceptives were part of your personal supplies, just like clothing or personal care items that we were provided.

The demand for contraception and abortion was not exactly aligned with other feminist struggles. For revolutionary women postponing motherhood was a condition to participate in the collective military and political project of guerrilla movements while civilian feminist groups framed the right to abortion as a condition for women’s liberation. But the distance between the social justice and the gender equality agendas in the 1970s did not make them incompatible. Guerrilla women carved out a political space for women in Colombia and Latin America that eventually evolved in some common causes with feminist movements, such us the legalization of abortion that several feminist organizations, including WLW, made partially possible in 2006.

Two failed peace negotiations in 1984 and 2002 lead to massive incorporation of women as combatants to reinforce the military structure of the FARC. This came along with the strengthening of reproductive policies, in particular, after the escalation of the armed conflict due to intense persecution from state military forces, and the presence of anti-guerrilla paramilitary groups and drug cartels. Compulsory contraception was established in 1993 and in the event of pregnancy, Farianas had to either send their baby to a surrogate home or abort, depending on the conditions of the battlefield. What had initially been a hard-won victory for guerrilla women turned into one of the most significant forms of violence against them. But violence did not only come from the FARC. Women who managed to finish their pregnancies because they either received permission of the commanders, hid their pregnancy, or fled the group, were exposed to the state military forces and paramilitary groups violence. They were persecuted when they left the battlefield to give birth or visit their children and some of these children were lost or placed for adoption without their mothers’ consent. Sandra, an ex-combatant who refused to abort against the orders of her commander, told me about the experience of having a child during Plan Patriota, the most aggressive military plan developed by the Colombian government and funded by the U.S.:

During Plan Patriota, if you had a baby, you couldn’t even breastfeed him. You had to leave him in a farm with another family, like a dog. When they [FARC] took my daughter, it was like my soul was ripped out of my chest. But the group of ten guerrilleros that was taking my baby to a surrogate family was ambushed by the military and they were all killed. After the combat, they [the military] found my baby and sent her to Bienestar Familiar [state institution in charge of adoption]. […] Since I demobilized [seven years ago], I have been looking for her everywhere. The military offered me help if I cooperated with them, but I was not going to get in more trouble.

A change in reproductive policies was also a central part of the peace process. When negotiations in Cuba (2012-2016) were successfully concluding, the pregnancy ban was one of the first rules to be removed. By the time FARC combatants were moving to the locations prepared for collective reincorporation, many were carrying newborns or were reunited with the children they left with their families. Others are still looking for their children. In June of 2017, a census reported that there were 164 pregnant women and 98 children in the reincorporation areas (Universidad Nacional de Colombia 2017) and by December of 2018, 258 new pregnancies were reported (ARN 2019). It is around this time that images of harmless moms putting aside their weapons to take care of their babies colonized popular representations of ex-combatants.

However, ex-combatant women were doing more than exchanging rifles for babies. The gender approach and the proposed Integral Rural Reform of the peace agreement opened opportunities to advance a reproductive justice agenda as the right to have children, the right to not have children, and the right to take care of their children in safe communities (Ross and Solinger 2017). The agreement recognized the importance of addressing gender inequalities and the specific effects of war on women and LGBTQ people, sought to guarantee rights for women in rural areas, and created spaces to improve political participation of women. It also acknowledged the precarity of health in rural areas where maternal mortality is 50 percent higher, neonatal mortality is 24 percent higher, and child mortality is between 33 percent and 40 percent higher than in urban areas (Minsalud 2019). Although these rates have decreased for the whole country between 2005 and 2017, the gap between rural and urban areas remains steady. Consequently, the government included rural health as a central dimension in the Integral Rural Reform, created a National Plan for Rural Health with the participation of networks from the civil society and academia such as Red Salud-Paz (Health-Peace Network), and developed the program Health for Peace with PAHO, UNFPA, and IOM, to improve Primary Health Care Services in the twenty-five municipalities where ex-combatants are reincorporating to civil life with a special emphasis on sexual and reproductive health.

Women in reincorporation areas are supporting and leading many of the initiatives for sexual and reproductive rights and advancing an agenda to improve conditions for motherhood. The “Health for Peace” program is not only implemented in reincorporation areas but also in rural communities around them. As an UNFPA official stated, “The empowerment of ex-combatant women should be like a flower that inspires women in other communities.” In addition, Farianas are developing campaigns on father involvement and building day-care centers in their communities, so women can keep participating in the economic and political life of the emergent political party.

Conclusion

Four years after the signing of the peace agreement, there seem to be three coexisting discursive articulations (Slack 2005) producing ex-combatant women’s identities: the victim of sexual violence in search of recognition; the revolutionary woman who fights for women’s rights; and the heroic mother who vindicates the name of the FARC through the sacred symbols of motherhood. What are the effects of highlighting one and obscuring the others?

There is no doubt that acknowledging gender-based violence within armed forces is essential for a just transition to peace. It helps us reveal the specific impact of war on women’s lives and develop mechanisms for justice and reparation. In this sense, the ruling of the Constitutional Court that recognized an ex-combatant woman as a victim as well as the 007 case of the Especial Justice for Peace that is currently investigating sexual abuse and forced abortion against minors in the FARC are important precedents for Colombia and the world. However, the ruling should also open a conversation about the possibilities and limits of the framework of sexual violence to approach the complexity of women’s experiences in war.

In line with critical debates on the homogenization, de-contextualization, and objectification of conflict-related sexual violence (Meger 2016), this essay challenges normative ideas about women as victims and examines the relationship between sexual violence and other forms of gender-based violence, both before and after armed conflict (Eriksson, Baaz, & Stern 2013; Green, Cohen, & Wood 2013; Theidon, Phenicie, & Murray 2011; Wood 2008, 2014).  As other ethnographic works have shown, transitional justice institutions can obscure the diverse identities of women as well as their everyday forms of resistance by adopting rigid definitions of “victims” and “violence” (Ross 2003; Theidon 2014).

Highlighting the victimized part of women’s experiences in the FARC while obscuring other dimensions has a problematic and depoliticizing effect on women’s struggles. It erases the complexity of their claims as guerrilla women, and blunts possibilities for the freedom they found in insurgent life to transform gender norms. This focus on victimization also excludes forms of reproductive violence that are perpetrated by other actors, including the state, such as forced adoption. The experiences of Farianas are part of a broader history of women’s struggles in Colombia for reproductive justice. Neither the innocent mother nor the passive victim does justice to these struggles.

Vanesa Giraldo-Gartner is a medical anthropologist with primary area specialization in Colombia and a research focus on reproductive politics—particularly in relation to armed conflict, peace transitions, rural reforms, and intercultural health. She is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Massachusetts’ Department of Anthropology, an MPH from the National University of Colombia, and a member of Red Salud-Paz.

Notes

[1] PhD Candidate of Anthropology. University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

[2] The name FARC has had different meanings since the 1960s. In 1966, this guerrilla movement adopted the name of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC by its initials in Spanish), in 1982 they added the words “people’s army” to recognize their identity as a military force (FARC-EP), and in 2017 they decided to keep the acronym to name the political party created after the peace agreement but with a new meaning: “the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force” (also FARC by its initials in Spanish). Furthermore, those who did not join the agreement, called by the media “the dissidents,” are reclaiming the name FARC. To avoid confusion, this essay employs the initials FARC to refer to those who participated in the peace agreement and are now in the process of reincorporating to civil life.

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About Jennifer Curtis

Jennifer Curtis is an Honorary Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh: http://www.sps.ed.ac.uk/staff/social_anthropology/curtis_jennifer.

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