On the 11th December, the Colombian Constitutional Court ruled that a woman who was forcibly recruited by the FARC at 14 years old is to be included in the Victims’ Registry (RUV). Helena (a pseudonym) was forced to use contraception and to undergo an abortion while she was in the ranks of the rebel group and continues to suffer physical and psychological problems. Her inclusion in the RUV means that she will have access to the public health system, and to the comprehensive reparations included in the 2011 Victims’ Law.
Her case was brought before the Court by Women’s Link Worldwide, a strategic litigation organization. In October, the same organisation brought a report including 35 similar stories before the JEP, Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace.
This month’s ruling goes beyond this individual case, however. In practice, it means that the Court recognises that the sexual and reproductive rights of women and girls inside the ranks of the FARC were systematically violated, and that this is a serious human rights violation. These women, even though they belonged to an armed rebel group, can now also be considered victims of the conflict.
It is worth noting that in Colombia, the word “victim” does not necessarily imply a lack of agency, or a state of constant vulnerability. Rather, it is a term that reflects a political identity around which victims have mobilised to denounce violence and demand their rights to truth, justice, and reparations.
Sexual violence within the ranks of the FARC
The officially registered number of civilian victims of sexual violence during the Colombian conflict is 25,295.
The question of sexual and reproductive violence within the ranks of the FARC is an open secret within Colombia, which is largely still hidden. Many women -- some of whom were forcibly recruited as minors -- were subjects of regular sexual abuse. Some of them are starting to speak out.
Many of the women who fell pregnant were forced to abort. In 2017, El Enfermero (‘The Nurse’) was extradited from Colombia, where he continues to await trial. He is alleged to have committed over five hundred forced abortions on women within the guerrilla.
In recent years, the Corporation ‘Rosa Blanca’ has given an important push to the debate about sexual violence within the ranks of the FARC. This corporation, formed by women who were forcibly recruited as minors and suffered sexual violence within the group, has been outspoken in denouncing these abuses.
Most women who are still part of the FARC political party, however, vehemently deny such allegations. FARC senator Victoria Sandino has repeatedly denied that sexual violence among the ranks was systematic, while both men and women who are currently incorporating themselves into civilian life at the local level frequently ask: how could women have been sexually victimised if they were carrying guns?
Many women -- some of whom were forcibly recruited as minors -- were subjects of regular sexual abuse
International experience, however, shows that it often takes a long time for women in armed groups to come forward to talk about victimising experiences. Admitting such experiences would not only damage the image of their peers, who are often already stigmatised, but also affect their self-image of emancipated women who showed agency by joining a revolutionary struggle they often still identify with.
Another controversial question is whether women were allowed to have children within the FARC. Although Rosa Blanca denounces systematic contraception and abortions, FARC women like Victoria Sandino claim that abortion was optional. In fact, many FARC women did have children during the conflict. Their children were raised by family members or FARC sympathisers; many couples have started looking for their children and are in different stages of reunification – unaccompanied by FARC or government.
The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. While some FARC women have admitted they chose to have abortions (considering it was not the right time to have children), it is also unclear how much space the military hierarchy and discipline allowed for making personal decisions freely.
Breaking the Victim-Perpetrator Binary
The ruling to recognise that women and girls within the FARC must be included in the RUV holds enormous symbolic meaning; effectively, it recognises the universality of sexual and reproductive rights as fundamental human rights.
Moreover, it makes the controversial decision to break with a victim-perpetrator binary that has largely precluded FARC women from having their multiple experiences of conflict recognised.
This binary is not unique to the Colombian case; instead it reflects a long tendency within international approaches to justice and reconciliation to consider victims and perpetrators in black and white scales. This ignores the grey area of individuals who might have joined armed groups after having suffered violence, who were forcibly recruited, or who suffered violence while being part of armed groups. These complex dynamics mean that in reality victims and perpetrators cannot always be neatly distinguished, a situation that the present judgment recognises.
If we adopt a gender lens, we can see that women are almost exclusively considered victims of conflict. They are seen as peaceful by nature, based on their roles as mothers. In fact, Colombian women’s organisations’ slogans often refer to the fact that ‘women don’t give birth to children for war’. Yet such claims entrench simplified and gendered notions about victim-perpetrator dynamics, obscuring the fact that women are in fact also part of armed groups.
The importance of the present judgment lies in recognising that membership in a rebel group that committed acts of war does not negate that women within the ranks can also have been victims of sexual and reproductive violence.
Over the last decades, academic research on gender and conflict has sought to break with the narrative that women are peaceful by nature, demonstrating women’s diverse forms of participation in non-state armed groups in El Salvador, Ukraine, the Middle East, and Colombia, and more recently pointing out the roles of women in ISIS or Boko Haram. Some academics even look into women as perpetrators of sexual violence.
This research is quick to highlight that we cannot understand women as only victims or perpetrators. Conflict is gendered and both men and women have diverse experiences and roles in armed conflict that go beyond simplified notions of good or bad.
The importance of the present judgment lies in recognising that membership in a rebel group that committed acts of war does not negate that women within the ranks can also have been victims of sexual and reproductive violence. Even though women might need more time to come forward with stories about such victimising experiences, the judgment sets an important precedent that guarantees them access to support and reparations if they decide to do so.