Friday, June 22, 2012

Fighting Women

Earlier this month, Foreign Affairs published Fighting Mad: Why Women Turn to the FARC -- and How the FARC Turns on Them, an article that offers a stark image of life for women who serve as combatants in Colombian armed groups. Journalist Anne Phillips (who writes under a pseudonym for protective purposes) profiles “Athena,” who was recruited into the FARC, which offered her both an escape from her abusive childhood as well as the promise of gender equality.
Athena recalls the sense of familial belonging she developed as she grew accustomed to the routine of the training camp: attending classes on FARC ideology, learning to use weapons, eating rice and beans three times daily, and singing patriotic folk songs with her comrades. Yet along with these daily activities, women were also expected to provide sexual services to the men in the camp; it was considered part of a woman combatant’s duty to maintain morale among the troops. As a result, Athena became pregnant and underwent the trauma of a forced abortion.
Later, when another female combatant requested Athena’s assistance in escaping the FARC—she, too, was pregnant, and wanted to save her unborn child—Athena left. Through a series of lucky breaks, Athena found herself in a demobilization program where she received counseling, a stipend, and job training. Today she is married with a son, and is pursuing a technical degree. She recalls her experiences in the FARC with palpable disillusionment.
Athena’s experiences are common among women combatants globally who transition from the traditionally woman’s private sphere of home life, to the public sphere when they adopt roles in armed group such as the FARC. These women tend to experience conflicting emotions regarding their involvement. Some sense pride in contributing to society, while others feel betrayal that their sacrifice to the movement may be somehow mitigated by their gender, resulting in their being relegated to an inferior social status. This status becomes especially apparent in considering women’s sexuality; throughout the day, Athena was treated like any other soldier, yet when it came to choices such as whom to sleep with or whether to have a child, these decisions were dictated by her male superiors in the movement.
The topic of female combatants is one that I’ve written on, having blogged on my article False Dichotomies of Transitional Justice last year. I find it striking that Phillips’ portrayal of a female combatant offers the simple and yet, somehow still remarkable takeaway that women can and do adopt the role of combatants in conflict. The emphasis on Athena’s experience as out-of-the-ordinary may underscore the unsaid assumption that in the minds of many readers, women in conflict are typically conceived of as victims of conflict, rather than as perpetrators of violence like Athena.
There is also a great deal we don’t know about Athena’s experience that might reveal more about the intersection of gender and conflict in Colombia. How did she experience the demobilization process? Although 30-40% of the FARC’s forces are female, Colombia has no specific programs aimed at reintegrating female combatants, a failure that will become particularly salient if and when a peace agreement is ever signed with the FARC. According to Colombian government statistics, nearly 6000 women have already gone through the demobilization process, yet no special services have been provided for them when they confront concerns such as taking care of children, fleeing from abusive partners, or navigating a society in which they have not only transgressed societal expectations regarding combat against the state, but in which they have also transgressed gender norms. Has she experienced any stigma or prejudice from community members who know she is a former combatant? Has she been able to open up to anyone about her former life? And, although her hopes for gender equality within the FARC were dashed, how does she now understand her own prospects for gender equality as a Colombian woman? As Colombia and other nations grapple with recovery from armed conflict, awareness of the impact that gender roles have within conflict will be a crucial element of that transitional process.

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