When Victoria Sandino, a long-time fighter in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), joined the guerrilla organisation’s peace talks with her country’s government in 2014, she never imagined that she and her comrades would end up launching a new women’s movement.
Between 2014 and 2016, dozens of female FARC combatants travelled to Cuba’s capital Havana to participate in a gender subcommittee created to ensure that the peace accords would reflect women’s perspectives and needs. Sandino stayed in Havana, becoming an emblematic figure of the demilitarising Marxist insurgency.
Having completely disarmed as of June 26, the FARC will reconstitute itself as a political party in the next few months. Insurgent feminism is part of its platform.
Betting on change
Gender roles remain rather traditional in Colombia, where women are largely relegated to the domestic sphere, especially in rural areas. The country ranks 95th in the UN’s gender equality index, below neighbouring Brazil (79th), Peru (87th) and Ecuador (89th).
Since its founding in 1964 as the armed wing of the Communist Party, the FARC has sought to abolish hierarchies. For many Colombian women – particularly those from the countryside – joining the guerrillas offered an escape from poverty and sexual oppression.
Patricia, who joined the insurgent group when she was 17 years old, says that feminism wasn’t a theoretical debate within the FARC; it was a practice. “We always performed equality,” she told me. “Men and women have the same rights and the same duties, and we undertake the same missions.”
Combatant life necessarily induced a change in gender relations. Men and women shared quotidian tasks, such as cooking and cleaning, and fought shoulder-to-shoulder. And though the FARC’s forced abortions and contraception remain controversial, female fighters have long enjoyed access to sexual and reproductive rights that were – and many cases still are – legally denied to other Colombian women.
Still, the FARC was no gender paradise. Women never reached its highest ranks, and the nine-member leadership team remains all male – and all white.
Women “weren’t protagonists” in the group, Sandino would assert when explaining why the FARC was due for a feminist awakening.
The unconventional women of the FARC have spent part of their lives on the front lines in the jungle, and they are now returning to civilian life with great expectations.
After more than 50 years, the FARC became the world’s first Marxist insurgency to declare itself an “anti-patriarchal” organisation.
Walking the talk
In February, FARC female combatants from the gender subcommittee, including Patricia, participated in a feminism workshop at a demobilisation camp in La Elvira, in the Cauca Valley. The event, organised with international support and participation, gathered guerrilleras from different camps across the country.
Afterwards, Patricia acknowledged that “there are concepts that we do not yet have a grasp of” but reaffirmed the FARC’s plans to continue building awareness about feminism within its rank-and-file soldiers.
“We’ll need them to build our arguments,” she said.
Since January, several such workshops have been held in other places across the country. According to Laura Cardoza, a 31-year-old Colombian helping to facilitate the program, the aim is to instil feminism within all the FARC’s troops.
Earlier this year, Patricia took her turn at leadership, too, coordinating a gender session with the men and women of the centralisation zone where she lives, in remote Arauca, near the Venezuelan border.
What is insurgent feminism?
In post-conflict countries, female combatants’ lack of visibility and exclusion during the reconstruction phase tends to make them vulnerable when they reintegrate. Colombia’s recent experience, for instance, has shown that women returning to civilian life experience high rates of violence and social discrimination.
This was one of the issues that the gender subcommittee of the Havana peace talks was intended to tackle. But it soon became something more, a kind of feminism workshop in which FARC delegates, Colombian government representatives, international actors and women’s organisations shared their knowledge and experiences.
“For the first time in 24 years,” Sandino told El Espectador newspaper in September 2016, “I’m seeing that women feel the need to rise to positions of power.”
Women began pushing the leadership to include feminism in its future political platform. They weren’t talking about traditional third-wave feminism (sometimes dubbed White Women’s Feminism), nor had they exactly adopted the language of intersectional feminism, with its focus on race and privilege.
Insurgent feminism draws on the FARC’s anti-capitalist ideology, linking women’s emancipation to the class struggle. For these Leninist-inspired fighters, Colombia’s political and economic system can never fundamentally change if patriarchal culture continues to be reproduced in everyday life.
Insurgent feminism exhorts all people, including men, to seek a transformation of gender relations among people of all identities and sexual orientations, and promotes a non-hegemonic concept of masculinity that breaks with traditional Colombian machismo.
All of this together could end the social and political exclusion of minority groups, say Sandino and her comrades. In this way, the philosophy establishes continuity between a revolutionary past of armed struggle and a future of political fights.
From paper into practice
There was resistance to making this philosophy part of the FARC’s political agenda. The insurgent group may have practiced gender equality, but it never talked much about feminism.
Sandino and her cohort kept up the pressure and, eventually, their higher-ups agreed. The FARC has now declared its commitment to feminism and, in its party literature, is explicitly linking women’s empowerment with the fight against capitalism.
FARC feminists are trying to build bridges with other women’s movements, both at home and abroad – a critical step if insurgent feminism is to gain traction.
On June 23 2017, Sandino and other FARC feminists presented their policy proposals, which included preventing violence against women, reconptualising parental roles and deconstructing the social construct of gender, to a group of Colombian feminists from various sectors.
A seven-member panel of women – representatives of Colombian women’s organisations – will be in charge of supporting the implementation of gender-based components of the peace accords, which offers FARC women some useful networking opportunities.
But many feminists are likely to be reluctant about get involved with a group that many Colombians still revile.
Collaboration with pacifist organisations, such as the Pacific Route of Women, which is avowedly anti-violence, is difficult to envision.
Nor is it yet clear how high on the party’s agenda central insurgent feminism will be. According to FARC documents, the new party will have a “gender department”. What is its mandate? Who will run the office, and how well funded will it be?
Some veteran Colombian feminists, such as Catalina Ruiz-Navarro, are coming around to the FARC’s new vision. Their rhetoric “shows that the FARC understand that feminism is a decisive, critical issue in contemporaneous politics,” she told the news site Pacifista.
The coming months and years will determine whether the men in power are also true believers.