During her 35 years in Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, Viviana Hernández had to fight, camp, carry loads and face death just like a man. In return, she and other female fighters had a seat at the table, rose through the ranks and got to make decisions about the hemisphere’s longest armed struggle.
Now, as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) seem poised to sign a peace deal that might end the half century conflict, women on both sides of the political divide are trying to guarantee that female fighters don’t lose their hard-earned status as they reenter a society that’s often resisted gender equality.
“We don’t want to repeat what we’ve seen with other female guerrillas in other organizations,” said Hernández, 50, a member of the FARC peace delegation in Havana. “Once peace deals come along, they go back to washing dishes and taking care of their husband’s kids...they are notoriously absent from the spaces where decisions are made.”
Hernández and other guerrilla leaders say anywhere from 35 to 45 percent of the FARC’s estimated 7,000 fighters are women.
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In 2012, shortly after peace talks formally began in Cuba, a gender sub-commission was established to make sure that female fighters didn’t get left behind.
Culturally, war is made for men...Society’s attitude is that women didn’t belong there in the first place, so now they have to suffer the consequences
María Paulina Riveros, head off gender sub-commission at Colombian peace talks
One of the gender commission’s main goals is to overcome the stigma that surrounds women combatants, said María Paulina Riveros, the government’s representative to the body.
While men are often welcomed home from combat as “heroes” or “veterans,” the women are often blamed for abandoning their families or children, she said.
“Culturally, war is made for men,” Riveros said. “Society’s attitude is that women didn’t belong there in the first place, so now they have to suffer the consequences.”
Among the issues the commission is dealing with is how to support women who might take up farming in a country where the land is often in the name of a husband or male relatives. The group is also developing mechanisms to guarantee that female FARC members who put down their guns can play a role in politics.
Perhaps the biggest challenge comes in how to keep demobilized fighters — male or female — safe.
During a previous peace attempt, the FARC and other leftist groups tried to enter politics by forming the Unión Patriotica party in 1985 only to see thousands of their members (more than 3,500 by the organization’s own count) assassinated, including senators, congressmen and presidential candidates. The FARC eventually abandoned the effort and took up arms again.
While both genders may be vulnerable once they reenter civilian life, there are key differences, Riveros said.
“The threats to women also extend to their families, their children,” she said, “and that doesn’t happen with the men.”
On Thursday, President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader Timoleón Jiménez laid out the groundwork for a bilateral ceasefire and disarmament. They also established mechanisms to protect guerrillas-turned-civilians. Those were some of the thorniest issues standing in the way of a deal, and Santos said a final peace pact might be signed by July 20.
In the last 13 years, the Colombian Agency for Reintegration has helped 49,022 fighters of all stripes demobilize and reenter society, including 6,466 women.
Demobilized female fighters, particularly if they are mothers, are often more successful than their male counterparts when it comes to making use of government programs and funds, said Joshua Mitroti, the agency’s director.
But when it comes to interacting with society at large, their reality can be harsher.
“In a machista society like ours, women have roles that are less valued, and they’re stigmatized,” he said. “They face greater barriers [than the men] when it comes to finding employment, education and accessing healthcare.”
Part of the stigma comes from perceptions about women’s lives in the guerrillas.
According to a 2010 report by the non-profit Mesa de Trabajo, women in the ranks reported being sexually exploited and forced to have abortions. Dozens of news stories and human rights reports over the years have reinforced that dark picture.
Hernández said those stories were overblown, but she’s also an example of the tough decisions female fighters have to make.
When she was 8 years old, Hernández said she ran away from home fleeing an abusive stepmother and an untenable family life. When she joined the FARC at 14, they provided the nurturing environment she’d never experienced.
Two years later, however, she was pregnant. Hernández said her commanders gave her a stark choice. “They said the decision was mine, but that I couldn’t be a mother and a fighter.”
She decided to give birth and give the infant to her partner’s parents to raise.
“There are two things that are important to me,” she said, “my revolutionary commitment and my son.”
When her son was just 12, she had to cut off all ties with him because he was being monitored by military intelligence, she said. He’s now 38 and she has no idea where he might be.
“These painful and sad situations are the price you have to pay to be a revolutionary,” she explained.
History of Battle
Women haven’t always been so prominent in the organization. When the FARC was founded in 1964 by Manuel “Sure Shot” Marulanda, it was largely a peasant army with rural attitudes. Women were often relegated to stereotypical roles such as cooking and washing clothes. But by the 1980s, women were joining the FARC in droves, according to the group’s website, and taking on more responsibilities.
Hernández enlisted in 1982 and within two years she was participating in ambushes and firefights, she said. (By comparison, the U.S. military didn’t open all combat roles to women until 2015).
“The life of a revolutionary is very hard,” Hernández said. “Twenty-four hours a day, a guerrilla has be ready for anything: if they tell you to fight you fight, if they tell you to haul you haul, and if they tell you to set up camp you set up camp, and there’s no difference at all between women and men.”
Despite her lack of formal education, she rose through the ranks to be part of the security detail around FARC leader Alfonso Cano, who was killed in 2011. When peace talks started, she was tapped to be part of the delegation.
If a final deal is signed, Hernández said she hopes to become a political organizer and leader in the FARC’s new political party. But she also has one other priority: finding her son.
“I know he’ll have a lot of questions to ask me, and I do too,” she said. “I hope it’s a happy reunion, and we can rebuild everything we lost because of the war.”