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February 09, 2021

On Victims’ Recognition: Gendered Politics of the FARC’s Forced Recruitment


Written by Dr Sonia Garzon-Ramirez

When the peace talks between ex-Colombian president Santos and the then Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were about to kick off in 2012, the word “forgiveness” started to occupy Colombian social media and newspapers. While some victims were confronted with the dilemma of whether or not to forgive their perpetrators, others expected the FARC guerrilla to make a gesture of peace and ask their victims for forgiveness. However, at the beginning of the peace negotiations, there was a sense of general shock among the population when, instead of offering an apology, the top FARC commander Rodrigo Granda said during an interview with BBC correspondent Sara Rainsford that the FARC were themselves victims of this war.

With the exception of this controversial interview, there have been no further public discussions about whether the FARC as a group has been a victim of war. However, as recently as December 2019, Colombia’s Constitutional Court issued a decision that touches upon interpretations of Colombian transitional justice law with regard to victims. Indeed, with this decision the Court has opened a door to considering whether there might have been some individual victims within the ranks of the FARC. It might well be that, by not taking this debate forward, Colombia is missing an important opportunity to hold FARC leaders accountable, and to know the truth about the patterns of FARC violence and oppression that kept the war going.

The FARC’s Moves Towards a Formal Apology

Colombian victims had to wait until the last moment, when the peace agreement was about to be signed and voted on in a popular referendum, before receiving a gesture of apology from FARC leaders seeking forgiveness. Fortunately, since the approval of the peace agreement in 2016, several acts of public apology have taken place. Despite the FARC’s initial recalcitrance, Colombians have seen the FARC steadily moving towards the recognition of crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by their forces. As of today, FARC leaders have offered public apologies for forced displacement, massacres, kidnapping, and political assassinations that they had previously downplayed or denied. It is worth noting that the FARC is not the only armed actor responsible for the more than 7 million victims resulting from 5 decades of internal war. Other guerrilla groups such as the National Liberation Army (ELN) and paramilitary groups have also contributed to the record of massive human rights violations, and between 2013 and 2016 during the Santos administration, the Colombian government made significant steps towards recognizing the state’s responsibility for human rights violations.

Colombian transitional justice norms as well as the so-called Victims’ and Land Restitution Law of 2011 (hereinafter Victims Act) echo UN principles and guidelines on the “Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law” of 2006. Thus, the Victims Act considers as victims “persons who individually or collectively have suffered damage due to events occurred (..) as a consequence of violations of International Humanitarian Law or of serious and manifest violations of the norms of international human rights violations, which occurred on the occasion of the internal armed conflict.” It also states that there can be direct and indirect victims, as for instance partner or family members, and that victims are also persons who have suffered harm when intervening to assist victims in danger or to prevent victimization. However, the Victims Act explicitly excludes from the victim’s category members of non-state armed actors organized outside the law, such as guerrilla or paramilitary groups, “except in the case when children or adolescents have been separated from the guerrilla when they were minors.”

In 2020 the Colombian government asserted that in the last 20 years, the FARC has recruited 9,000 minors. As academic research has documented, attempts of desertion were severely punished by the FARC regardless of age, even with the death penalty (Gutiérrez 2018; Borch and Stuvøy 2011). Despite the cruelty of these rules and overwhelming evidence, FARC’s top leaders have oftentimes dismissed their use of forced recruitment or have denied the FARC’s responsibility as an organization. Misleading information about the combatants’ recruitment age and the assertion that, if it even occurred, child recruitment was not a policy of the FARC central command (known as the FARC secretariat) have been some of the arguments used by top commanders to avoid assuming responsibility. According to FARC leaders’ elusive discourse, if child recruitment took place, it was undertaken by the guerrilla frontline on the ground, over which the FARC secretariat could not always have control.

Given the above and by providing this exception, it is worth considering whether the Victims Act was creating a legal vacuum. Might the Colombian state have left without protection persons who were forcibly recruited when they were children but who have never had the chance or were unable to flee from the guerrilla’s ranks?

Aligning with International Standards

From the perspective of international frameworks, the prohibition of forced recruitment and the protection of victims are absolute. Regardless of the age of the victim, forced recruitment is described in the Rome Statute Art. 8 (2)(b)(XV) as a War Crime. In addition, the recruitment of children is prohibited in Protocol II Additional to the Four Geneva Conventions of 1949 Article 4(3)(c), and in the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict of 2000. Furthermore, UN resolution 2391 of 1968 affirms “the principle that there is no period of limitation for war crimes and crimes against humanity.” On the other hand, because of the so-called Block of Constitutionality (Garzon 2017; Constitutional Court 2003), the Colombian state is bound to apply the international norms the country has ratified, even if they are soft law. This category refers to agreements, guiding principles and declarations that have no legally binding force, such as the Paris Principles and Guidelines on Children Associated with Armed Forces or Armed Groups. However, as Catherine O’Rourke suggests (2019), the fragmentation of international humanitarian law and its interpretations across different institutions have allowed for uneven applications or unclear impact on domestic contexts.

The case of Helena (pseudonym) ruled on 2019 by the Constitutional Court exemplifies some of the ways in which interpretations of the Victims Act resulted not only in inconsistencies with international frameworks, but in the undermining of the rights of victims to reparation, truth and justice.

Helena was forcibly displaced and forcibly recruited by the FARC at age 14. Once in the ranks, Helena was subjected to forced contraception and forced abortion. In 2019, Helena’s case was brought before the Colombian Constitutional Court by Juliana Laguna and Marina Ardila, lawyers from Women’s Link Worldwide. Her case represented an example of a number of cases of women ex-combatants who were forcibly recruited by the FARC but to whom, willing or not, the Colombian state has denied recognition as victims. Furthermore, her story sets a precedent for how the fragmentation of international norms aimed at protecting women and girls among the guerrilla might have allowed women’s disenfranchisement and FARC top leaders’ impunity for the instrumental use of gender and sexual-based violence to feed the political economy of their war.

Arguing that Helena was an adult when she left the guerrilla, the Unit for Integral Attention and Reparation of Victims (hereinafter Victims’ Unit) created by the Victims Act refused to grant Helena a victim status. This decision removed her right to reparation set within the Victims Act and, indirectly, to adequate access to health services despite having experienced sexual violence. Thus, in the landmark Constitutional Court decision SU-599 of 2019, the Court ordered the Victims’ Unit to include Helena in the National Victims’ Registry for the crimes of forced displacement, forced recruitment and sexual violence (forced contraception and forced abortion), and to meet the conditions to grant her access to the right to reparation.

As with other previous cases brought by feminist organizations before the Constitutional Court, the experience of Helena reaches out to the broader FARC guerrilla economy of war. On one hand, it shows how the guerrillas operated in ways which were inconsistent with the discourse of gender equality that their Marxist doctrine and propaganda have spread (NCHM 2017). Patriarchy is malleable as Cynthia Cockburn and Cynthia Enloe claim (2014) and, in effect, allowing women to hold arms and assigning them to military activities did not spare the FARC from reproducing the hierarchical patriarchal structures that they claimed to have overturned among their ranks. Rather, the FARC machinery prompted a form of militarized femininity that involved sexual heteronormativity and manipulated women’s sexuality so as to feed into its own political aims.

Malleable Patriarchy and the FARC’s Tactical Use of Women’s Forced Recruitment

Testimonies of women ex-combatants collected by the National Centre for Historical Memory (hereinafter NCHM) describe the FARC’s appraisal of a hegemonic patriarchal masculinity, and its promotion of tactical aggressiveness against the fragile or the weak and of a female militarized subjectivity. To illustrate, the NCHM refers to personal features such as “strength, roughness and violence” (2017: 165), which were encouraged among the guerrillas and even traded off by FARC commanders against privileges over access to women’s sexuality. In parallel, women’s promotion possibilities in the FARC hierarchy were often mediated by sexual exchanges. Rigorous and detailed control of women’s sexual and reproductive lives made women carry the full weight of brutal forms of forced contraception on their own bodies. Thus, contraception within the FARC ranks was not an expression of women’s sexual freedom or autonomy but a tool to guarantee that women were available for both sex and war. Moreover, pregnancy was a privilege which, if ever allowed, was only granted to women related to guerrilla leaders (NCHM 2017: 119). Thus, the guerrilla machinery was built on a process that sought to transform women who had to adapt in order to navigate through its patriarchal structures if they were to survive.

By 2018, the peace agreement had made possible the demobilization of more than 13,000 FARC fighters and, according to the FARC self-assessment, women made up 40% of the guerrilla. Looking at such a level of women’s participation might prompt us to go beyond asking where the women were within the guerrilla ranks. We might instead ask why women were recruited on such a massive scale and how women’s recruitment fed into the FARC’s political economy. Gutierrez & Carranza (2017) describe an interlinked dynamic of push and pull factors driving women’s recruitment by the FARC guerrilla. As with the story of Helena, ethnographic research of the NCHM provides evidence of the use of menaces, extorsion and violence by the FARC to enforce child recruitment, which account for some of the push strategies used by recruiters. But in the meantime, NCHM’s research shows that the FARC, indeed, tapped into social, economic and cultural inequalities as well as everyday forms of oppression endured by women living in rural contexts. Using these factors as push forces, the FARC recruiters managed to disseminate an appealing discourse with the promise of a better life, freedom, women’s autonomy, empowerment, and personal advance. Those push and pull factors might explain the FARC’s recruitment success. Yet, they alone are not sufficient to explain the why of FARC’s gendered recruitment politics, as in fact the FARC has not always included women in its ranks (ibid.).

Indeed, the history of the FARC reflects a transition from being a peasant self-defence group in the 1950s to becoming a mobile hierarchical military structure able to achieve territorial control over extensive rural areas. While such transformation was fuelled by the FARC’s decision in the 1990s to gain control over drug-trafficking related activities, it would have not been possible without the FARC’s ability to become a socially self-contained organization. To this end, the FARC sought to control its fighters’ lives and pushed forward women’s forced recruitment so as to prevent their male guerrilla from engaging in sentimental relations with civilian women.

It would be misleading to claim that massive women’s recruitment by the FARC was just the result of their voluntary decision. To prevent the reparation of women who suffered forced recruitment and the clarification of the truth about the gendered use of forced recruitment would mean for Colombia to fail in its duty of memory and to guarantee the victims’ right to non-repetition. The legal advocacy of women's organisations in Helena's case can allow many victims to overcome the legal void created by the fragmentation of international humanitarian law and the gender blindness of inadequate interpretations.

Author Bio

Sonia is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of International Politics at Aberystwyth University, UK. She joined WICID as visiting researcher in November and December 2020. Her research lies at the intersections of peacebuilding, transitional justice, and gender and its intersectionalities. Sonia received her PhD in Comparative Gender Studies from Central European University, Budapest.

More information about her MSCA Research Project is available in the blog


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