US Marines Shame Women Soldiers While Marxist Rebel Army Treats Women Fighters with Respect
March 8, 2017 Barbara Starr / CNN & Anastasia Moloney / Thomson Reuters Foundation & Associated Press
While a US Marine Corp sex scandal involving nude photos of female Marines has put the Pentagon into a defensive posture of "damage-control," female soldiers in Colombia's Marxist rebel force insist they are treated equally and with dignity by their male compatriots. But with a peace agreement now in place, the demobilised women guerrillas may face a new struggle as they return to the cities and encounter a society known for its patriarchal and macho culture.
Explicit Photos of Female Marines Posted Barbara Starr / CNN
(March 6, 2017) -- Hundreds of explicit photos of former and current female Marines were posted online without consent. US Marine Corps officers are investigating the site where the pictures were posted. Equals in the Jungle, Colombia's Women Guerrillas
Brace for New, Macho World Anastasia Moloney / Thomson Reuters Foundation
Guerrillas of the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) march
SAN JOSE DE ORIENTE, Colombia (March 6, 2017) -- Armed with an AK-47, Gladis was expected to fight on the frontline alongside her FARC guerrilla comrades, hoist heavy loads and stand guard, just as the men in rebel ranks did.
That's real gender equality, said 42-year-old Gladis who has fought with the Marxist rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), for more than two decades.
"We are all equal here. Everyone is treated the same," said Gladis, at a mountaintop demobilization zone in northern Colombia where around 160 FARC fighters have gathered to disarm. "Men respect us here. There's no machismo," she said.
Ending half a century of war, the FARC are handing in their weapons after signing a peace deal with the government last year. Women make up about a third of the 7,000 FARC fighters set to demobilise over the coming months.
The government, former rebels who deserted and rights groups have said gender inequality played out in the jungle as it did elsewhere, and women suffered abuse in FARC ranks, including forced abortions and being commanders' sex slaves.
But guerrilla life as told by six FARC women and two commanders interviewed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Colombia's northern mountains offers a different view, and the chance, rebels say, to counter false propaganda spread by their enemies.
DEFYING GENDER ROLES
Women rebels say they are not victims or sex objects and were not discriminated against because of their gender or race. "I think taking up arms was the best decision I ever made," said Gladis, wearing a sparkly silver top. "I'm proud to be a guerrilla."
The FARC says its women fighters were treated as equals. Women held important jobs, were appointed as commanders, and the FARC brought several women to the negotiating table during four-year long peace talks with the government.
Women were particularly sought after for intelligence gathering and radio communications, forming the backbone of guerrilla operations.
"The participation of women has been indispensable," said Solis Almeyda, a veteran FARC commander, who still uses his nom de guerre. "Women could go undetected when carrying out intelligence gathering."
Yet demobilised women guerrillas may struggle to enjoy such equality once they reintegrate into civilian life in a society known for its patriarchal and macho culture.
In parts of mainly rural Colombia, women are often viewed as child-bearers and are expected to stay at home.
"We hear women are paid less than men and that it's difficult for women to hold top positions," said 37-year-old Sara Narvaez, who has spent two decades in the FARC.
Women rebels point out that camp chores were equally shared. "The men cook, too. Everyone washes their own clothes here," said rebel fighter Adriana.
Women say they were given opportunities to learn skills, such as nursing and dentistry, which would have been off-limits to them in the rural communities they came from.
"I've learnt things I would never have had the opportunity to do," said Kelly Martinez, a 42-year-old FARC nurse, who performed first aid and amputations on wounded rebels.
"I feel valued and useful here," she said, wearing silver hooped earrings.
But the perception of gender equality among the rebels is just a veneer, the government and rights groups have said.
In 2015, Colombia's attorney general said it was investigating 150 cases of former women guerrillas who had given testimonies saying they were forced to end their pregnancies.
The FARC deny forcing women and girls to undergo abortions and using women as sex slaves for commanders. "Commanders don't choose women. Women are free to choose (their partners)," said Almeyda.
Still couples had to get prior approval from their commander before starting a relationship and be allowed to share a tent.
The government and rights groups have collected scores of testimonies from women, mostly from civilians living in areas once controlled by the FARC, that they were victims of sexual violence at the hands of rebel fighters - crimes FARC commander Almeyda denied.
As part of the peace accord, truth tribunals will begin later this year to uncover abuses committed by all sides in the war - likely to shed light on the extent to which rape was used as a weapon of war in Colombia.
Under the accord, women who have been raped by military forces or rebel fighters can expect to have the crimes against them investigated and the perpetrators punished.
"Rape was part of the propaganda used against us," Almeyda said. "Sexual violence was a crime (in the FARC)." None of the women interviewed said they had heard of cases of sexual violence in rebel ranks.
With the fighting over, peace is allowing new freedoms and more women rebels are having children. During the war, women had to use birth control, often contraceptive implants placed in the upper arm. Those who became pregnant, and who decided to go through with their pregnancy, had to leave their newborns with relatives.
Rebel fighter Margot became pregnant four years ago and gave birth to a son, Andres, in a guerrilla jungle camp.
"To hand over your child is very difficult. You cry for your child," said Margot, who left her son with her mother-in-law to look after when he was a month old. Last month, she was reunited with her child, now aged three, and who lives in the demobilization zone with his parents.
"The commander sent for him a month ago and he's been here ever since. I'm teaching him how to read and write."
Camila Norma, who is four months pregnant, is also looking forward to raising her child in a new era of peace. "My dream for my child is that he will have all the guarantees to an education," said Norma, 26, sporting red painted fingernails. "My dream is that he can become someone in his life."
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Ros Russell.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
LA CARMELITA, Colombia (March 8, 2017) -- Amid the makeshift tents and communal kitchens where Colombia's largest rebel army is preparing to lay down its weapons, a new sound is emerging: the cries of babies.
Playpens and strollers rest on the bare dirt ground next to assault rifles. Young mothers change diapers while their guerrilla comrades carry wood planks across fields of mud. Fathers still dressed in fatigues shake rattles and lift their giggling infants playfully into the air.
For decades, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia kept such strict control over its fighters' reproductive rights that female guerrillas who became pregnant were forced to leave newborns with relatives or even abort.
The practice flew in the face of the rebels' claim that by enrolling female warriors they were freeing women from traditional gender roles that restricted their choices, and it angered many in this devoutly Roman Catholic country.
But in the last year, as the FARC and government reached an agreement to end Latin America's longest-running armed conflict, those stringent battlefield rules have loosened. The result is a veritable baby boom, which has struck a chord even among urban Colombians far removed from the conflict, a few of whom have mobilized to transport diapers and creams to the new mothers after seeing images of sweltering infants on cots in the rural encampments.
"It wasn't seen as viable for us to have children, because why is someone going to have them when there are bullets flying around?" said Jerly Suarez, 29. She gave birth shortly before the FARC began its march to one of the 26 demobilization zones.
Among the 7,000 guerrillas gathered at the demobilization zones across the country, 114 women are pregnant and 77 babies have been born recently, according to the government. Dozens of other older children who had been left with relatives during the conflict have also arrived. That has injected a sense of optimism into camps where war-hardened rebels are beginning their transition to civilian life.
Many are referring to the babies as the "children of peace."
"I think in some ways these children symbolize the hope of a country that needs peace and reconciliation," said Carlos Antonio Lozada, a member of the FARC's ruling secretariat who is awaiting a child of his own with a fellow combatant.
During times of war, FARC guerrillas trekked for miles through jungle terrain, often carrying heavy loads. Constant confrontation with government soldiers and endless guard duties in jungle camps made raising children during the conflict difficult, if not impossible. Women were given steady supplies of contraceptives, and those who did get pregnant were presented with two options: leave the baby with the family members or end the pregnancy.
The exact number of forced abortions is unknown, though it is likely in the hundreds. Colombia's chief prosecutor said in 2015 his office had documented more than 150 forced abortions, which he identified as "a policy of the FARC."
Within the rebel ranks, maternity was always a hot topic of discussion.
"Everyone wanted to have their children," said Tobias Diaz, a guerrilla-trained medic with the FARC's southern bloc.
Conditions in the demobilization zones are nonetheless challenging: Even in La Carmelita, one of the more built-up camps, rebels sleep under plastic tarps. There are no proper showers or clinics and a road to the main highway is so muddy it is hard to traverse except in all-terrain vehicles.
In Bogota, Diana Rodriguez and a group of wealthy young women moved by the tales of guerrilla moms struggling to provide for their children got together to send backpacks filled with basic products for newborns like soap, diapers and moisturizing creams.
"If being a new mom is difficult for me, imagine what it's like for these women," said Rodriguez, who gave birth to her daughter three months ago. "If we want to build peace, we have to all contribute in one way or another."
Some of the guerrilla mothers are giving birth in camps, but most at nearby hospitals.
In La Carmelita, where 500 guerrillas are expected to turn over their weapons by June 1, women speak of both the arduous conditions in which they have begun their new lives as mothers and their hopes for raising children in a time of peace.
Suarez recalled how her young son, Dainer, hot and hungry, cried throughout the long march to the demobilization zone. Rebel mothers carried their weapon on one shoulder, their baby on the other.
Marlin Velazquez remembers following the peace dialogues for four years as a sort of countdown to motherhood.
"Being a guerrilla and having the desire to have a child, you say, 'When will the conflict end, so that I can create my home, have my children?" said Velazquez, 20, who gave birth in February. "What do you want and what are your plans for the future?"
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