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The Colombian illusion

People often choose to support a movement or political group that reflects their ideals. Similarly, they may decide to reject the manner in which a political faction exercises power. This has been the case for many women who joined the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, best known by its FARC acronym, as adolescents escaping rural poverty and lack of opportunity.

The organization was established in the 1960s to challenge democracy and capitalism in Colombia. Its core ideology supports communism, a political and economic system that regulates the production and distribution of goods. The group claims to represent poor and marginalized people who, in contrast to the region's elite, labour extensively but suffer continuous deprivation. When recruiting members, FARC is known to promise an environment uncompromised by gender inequality.

FARC is financially autonomous, with income reportedly derived from illicit activities, such as hijackings, kidnapping, extortion, murder and cocaine trafficking. Several countries including the United States have cited FARC as a terrorist organization.

At FARC encampments combatant members subside on a basic diet and learn Marxist theory alongside people supposedly joined by the common cause of economic justice. According to some reports, however, revolution for its female members can veer toward nocturnal indignity. A reporter using the pseudonym Anne Phillips tells the story of a woman—whom she calls Athena—who was obliged to service FARC men sexually for the first three years of her membership, when she was a minor. Phillips writes that FARC eventually elevated the girl to a commanding position, but the promotion did not protect her from undergoing a forced abortion. In later years when a pregnant woman sought Athena's help to escape FARC, she fled with her and joined a demobilization program run by the Colombian government, says Phillips.

Research on women's involvement with FARC suggests that most join at an early age, often compelled by the desire to abandon impoverished conditions or chronic abuse at home. As outlined in the Phillips story, many of these impressionable young girls are seduced by the idea of a safe environment where they will receive food regularly, be treated as equals to men, and learn to fight for an honourable cause—changing the inequalities of Colombian society to benefit the poor working classes. Contrarily, disturbing tales seem to suggest that the promise of equality within FARC applies only to physical labour and combat duties, during which female combatants lift heavy loads and shoot adversaries with riffles. The disappointing reality, female members discover, is that women seldom become top FARC leaders, and most are prisoners of gender when night falls.

Insofar as public image goes, Tanja Nijmeijer appears to be the one significant exception to this predicament. She joined FARC in 2002 and has since become one of its top leaders, joining other FARC commanders in 2012 peace talks held in Cuba. The fact that Nijmeijer relinquished a life of privilege in her native Holland to ascend to top leadership in Colombia's guerilla forces raises the question: Was she allotted high rank because of her primary nationality, or did her stable upbringing equip her with the communication skills required to represent FARC interests in diplomatic negotiations? Perhaps the answer lies far and between, but even Nijmeijer has experienced moments of discontent within FARC. This was widely publicized in 2007 when segments of a diary she had kept surfaced publicly. After all is considered, one cannot discount the fact that Nijmeijer's romance with the late Jorge Briceno—a high ranking FARC commander—preceded her ascension in the organizational hierarchy.

Like women across society, guerilla women have a wide range of capabilities, but their involvement in rebel groups seems to accentuate their gender. In this sense the Colombian revolution may hold more disappointment than advancement for the women who seek equality beyond sex.

Luke Orban prepared this text with assistance from e-feminist staff.