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Environment

Colombia using former women rebels in fight against FARC

Colombia has found a new weapon to use in the fight against FARC rebels in the country: former FARC guerrillas themselves. One group of former women rebels is trying to convince female fighters to come out of the jungle.

Colombian military

Colombian military forces have stepped up their fight against the FARC guerilla

Yennifer Guerrero is ushered into the small radio station on a Colombian military base in a rural area of the country abutted by mountains. She waits nervously as a host introduces her. Then she speaks into the microphone.

"This message is an invitation for all the girls who are out there to demobilize and make your dream a reality," she says. "There's nothing better than to live a life in freedom."

Guerrero is one of the former rebels who has agreed to broadcast messages to her former sisters-in-arms, telling them to leave the group, known as the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. It has been waging a guerrilla war against the Colombian government for over 50 years. But over the last nine of those, their ranks have been cut in half.

While intense military offensives are part of the reason, thousands of guerrillas have deserted the rebel group, lured by a government program that offers them entry into civilian life, monthly subsidies and in many cases, immunity from prosecution, in exchange for putting down their arms.

Several men in military gear standing with their faces covered in a black scarfs

Thousands of fighters have deserted the guerilla in recent years

'Women to women'

But there are still an estimated 8,000 armed guerrilla fighters, and thousands more unarmed collaborators. Women are believed to make up about 30 percent of FARC fighters.

This is where Guerrero and the program "Operation Women to Woman" come in, since the government believes female rebels will listen to another woman more than they would a man. And women like Guerrero have first-hand knowledge of what life for a woman can be like inside the FARC.

The program flies former rebels to military radio stations that can transmit to isolated areas where there are often no other radio signals.

Seventeen-year-old Guerrero and another former rebel, Tatiana Sinisterra, 19, had flown to the station from the city of Cali in a military plane. It is not where Guerrero grew up, but she is happy with her new life there, and tells other women who might be listening out there.

"Yes, it's hard to arrive from the country to a city that you don't know, it's hard to integrate into city life, but one can do it, that’s what I'm proposing," she says.

FARC rebels

It is estimated that 30 percent of FARC rebels are women

In the town where Guerrero grew up in, FARC guerrillas often roamed the streets, and some of her family members where in the organization. One evening four years ago when she was 13 years old, FARC rebels came to her home to take her, and three of her friends, away.

"They threatened us that they could kill our families or us. So I had to go. They told us nothing more but that it wouldn't be for the rest of our lives, only for a month while we helped them out and then we'd return. But those were lies," she says.

It took her two years to escape. During that time she learned how difficult life as a rebel can be, especially for a woman.

Sex and abuse

Women in the FARC do everything their male colleagues do, but they rarely move up the rebel ranks to gain the easier life of a commander. Sexual abuse is rampant and while rebels who commit rape face the FARC's death penalty, commanders can do as they please. Many commanders take young FARC girls as their lovers.

That happened to Guerrero, who got pregnant with a squadron commander. But since pregnancy is banned, she was forced to have an abortion.

Most of the women and men who are recruited by the FARC are from poor, rural areas where opportunities for education and work are few. Young victims of domestic violence are particularly vulnerable to offers from the FARC to care for them, pay them and give them a better life.

Sinisterra ran away from home when she was 14 years old because she was being physically and sexually abuse by her stepfather. With few options to survive, she turned to prostitution. One evening, she was picked up by the FARC and forced to join.

Woman staning in front of miliatary helicopter

Former FARC fighter Tatiana Sinisterra now tries to convince women to put down their arms

For the next two years, Sinisterra served in mobile brigades in the FARC. She is still trying to come to terms with her time with the rebels.

"While I was a victim of theirs, there were people who victims of mine. So you become both - a victim and a victimizer," she says.

Vulnerable targets

Liduine Zumpolle, a Dutch human rights activist working in Colombia, is the brain behind Operation women to women. She says the FARC is desperate to replace guerrillas whom they’re losing to combat or desertion and is targeting girls because they’re a vulnerable group.

"They just need to fill the ranks. Because of the increased military pressure of the last two governments of Uribe, they lost a lot of people," she says. "So what they do is rob – which I call rob – young women from the countryside.

Zumpolle works with guerrillas who want to demobilize. She believes most women don’t want to be in the FARC and if more female fighters managed to demobilize, it would severely weaken the insurgency.

"They need women to fight, to be around, to care them, to be their lovers, to admire them. They need women," she says.

The military is now putting ads on the radio and dropping millions of pamphlets from the air while flying over guerrilla zones to advertise the demobilization program.

As Sinisterra speaks into the microphone, several military officers listening carefully to her words, perhaps seeing how they might better connect with the women they encounter in the jungle.

"I'm demobilized from the FARC and today I want to tell you that it’s possible," she says. "It's not fair that others order us and dominate us. It’s not fair that we are used as sexual objects. It’s important that we women make the decision to demobilize."

Author: Nadja Drost (jam)

Editor: Anke Rasper

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