All of Colombia's irregular armed groups recruit women and girls to serve as combatants. Indeed, more than a quarter of the 112 former child combatants that Human Rights Watch interviewed were girls, most of them former members of the FARC-EP. According to the testimony of former guerrillas, FARC-EP units are usually from one-quarter to nearly one-half female, and may include girls as young as eight or nine years old.
Human Rights Watch interviewed a twelve-year-old girl named Juana who joined the FARC-EP at age seven, after her stepfather threw her out of the house. Like Juana, most girls join the guerrilla forces when they are under fifteen years old, the official recruitment age of both the FARC-EP and the UC-ELN.160
Juana was the youngest girl in her unit, but she was not the only pre-adolescent. She told us about another young girl, age nine, who was always crying because she missed her family. Juana was unhappy, too. She said that the worst part of belonging to the FARC-EP was having to participate in combat, as she desperately feared being killed. She tried to escape the FARC-EP when she was eleven years old, but was caught and tied up.161
Eight of the girls we interviewed were former members of the UC-ELN. While Human Rights Watch did not find any former girl members of the UC-ELN who had entered the group when younger than twelve years old, we learned of several girls who joined at age twelve or thirteen. Overall, the UC-ELN appears to have similar proportions of women and girls as the FARC-EP.
Paramilitary forces tend to have much lower relative numbers of women than do the guerrillas, and very few young girls. Human Rights Watch interviewed only one girl who had belonged to the paramilitaries; she joined when she was age twelve. In her group, there were only seven females, including her, among 100 men and boys.162
Girls' reasons for joining illegal armed groups are remarkably similar to those of boys, except that several of the girls Human Rights Watch interviewed said that they left home because of sexual abuse or harassment. Jessica, who joined the FARC-EP when she was fifteen, told us:
Another former guerrilla explained, "When I was twelve, a cousin raped me. I was so mad, I wanted vengeance. I wanted to hurt everyone who had hurt me."
Notwithstanding stereotypes, many girls told us that they were attracted by the thought of carrying a weapon and wearing a uniform. A former paramilitary said that she joined because she wanted to learn to defend herself. The power signified by the groups' military trappings tempt many girls. As one girl told us, in explaining her reasons for entering the FARC-EP, "I joined the guerrilla to escape. . . . I thought I'd get some money and could be independent."165
Girls are spared none of the hardships of guerrilla or paramilitary life. Their role is the same as that of boys: to fight and to kill. Like their male counterparts, they are taught to handle weapons, to collect intelligence, and to take part in military operations. Like all combatants, they frequently end up getting injured or killed.
Many girls emphasized to Human Rights Watch that, compared to the civilian world, guerrilla life is egalitarian. Women and men receive the same training and are responsible for the same tasks. Although the top ranks of both the FARC-EP and the UC-ELN are male, women have roughly the same opportunity as men to become field commanders. Human Rights Watch interviewed several girls who had earned command positions in the guerrilla forces, with the power to give orders to men and boys much older than themselves.
"I was the best during training, so they gave me a command quickly," said María Claudia, a quick, intelligent girl who joined the UC-ELN when she was twelve. "First I was given a 'triad,' of three people, then a squad of ten." By the time she left the UC-ELN, at age fourteen, she was in charge of a group of thirty combatants.166
Despite this relative egalitarianism, girls in the guerrilla forces still face gender-related pressures. Although Human Rights Watch's interviewees generally agreed rape and overt sexual harassment were not tolerated, they described how male commanders used their power to form sexual liaisons with under-age girls. (In Colombia, a girl is legally permitted to have sexual relations at age fourteen.)167
"They take the prettiest girls," one girl noted, "and give them gifts and privileges." These relationships may not be forced, but they take place in a context in which the girls are distinctly powerless, and the commanders may have life-or-death authority.168
Andrea, a sixteen-year-old, told us that her relationship with an older commander saved her from being killed when she was suspected of collaborating with the army. The commander, a high-level official in the FARC-EP's 71st front, had started a relationship with Andrea when he was thirty-five and she was twelve. "I liked him," Andrea told Human Rights Watch. "He protected me."169
When she and another girl were implicated in a scheme to provide information to the army, her older boyfriend stood up for her. While the other girl was put to death for the offense of "robbing the movement," Andrea was sentenced to three months of digging trenches.
The combination of protection and privileges provides a powerful incentive for girls to accede to, or even seek out, sexual relationships with male commanders. Carolina, an assertive young woman from Puerto Guzmán, Putumayo, who joined the FARC-EP when she was thirteen, told us:
Carolina's boyfriend was a much older, high-level commander who managed to keep her away from combat for more than a year, a rare privilege.
"The commanders are in charge of the money, of deciding who does guard duty, of making decisions," noted Marilín, who entered the FARC-EP when she was twelve. Given the possible advantages, she insisted, young girls have sexual relations with them "out of self-interest."171
Another former member of the FARC-EP explained:
While this type of subtle or restrained sexual pressure is fairly common, in some instances more blatant forms of sexual abuse occur. Soria, who entered the UC-ELN when she was sixteen, was raped by a commander not long after joining. A small, timid girl, she clutched a doll as she spoke to a Human Rights Watch representative.
From the very beginning, Soria said she had a difficult time adjusting to life as a fighter. "I cried and cried and cried. . . . I was undisciplined," she explained. "I was very disobedient." Fifteen days after she arrived at the UC-ELN camp, a thirty-year-old commander raped her.173
"He raped me as punishment," Soria said. As described:
Soria managed to escape the camp one night while on guard duty. She walked for three days, took a bus to another city, and reached the home of an aunt. When the aunt took her to a doctor, she discovered she was pregnant. "I'm planning to keep the baby," she told Human Rights Watch. "Because having a child makes you choose the right path. It makes you work and be responsible."175
Girls in the guerrilla forces have little chance of choosing to have children. Even guerrillas as young as twelve are required to use contraception, often by having an intrauterine device (IUD) inserted by guerrilla nurses. FARC-EP girls, moreover, are almost invariably made to have abortions if they get pregnant. While the UC-ELN seems more willing to tolerate pregnancies, it is clear that the possibility is, at the very least, strongly discouraged.
Ángela, an ex-member of the FARC-EP, joined the group when she was twelve:
Marta entered the FARC-EP at fourteen. "You have to use birth control, even if you're young and not part of a couple," she told Human Rights Watch. "The nurse inserts an IUD. It's painful. Every eight days, they check it. Eight days after I arrived, they inserted one in me."177Autopsies performed on eleven female FARC-EP members killed in the army-led Operation Berlin in December 2000 provided macabre confirmation of this practice. According to press accounts, nine of the eleven were girls whose bodies were found with IUDs.178
Besides IUDs, many girls described to Human Rights Watch being made to use Norplant contraceptive implants or contraceptive injections. Several mentioned getting birth control pills or condoms.
One of the girls we interviewed, who belonged to the FARC-EP, says she was forced to have an abortion when she got pregnant at age fifteen. Another girl tried to escape the FARC-EP when she realized she was pregnant. "I wanted to save the life of the baby," she told Human Rights Watch. "I went home to my mother, but I had a miscarriage on my way there. Then the FARC came to my house and captured me."179
A third girl, also a former FARC-EP member, told us:
Two ex-members of the UC-ELN told us that pregnant UC-ELN members were also made to have abortions. Other girls, however, said that the UC-ELN was more flexible than the FARC-EP on this issue. According to them, when a woman becomes pregnant, the group will send her home to give birth. In some cases, she will return to the UC-ELN after six months, but she may be allowed to return permanently to civilian life.
159Human Rights Watch interview with "Carolina," Bucaramanga, June 7, 2002.
160Human Rights Watch interview with "Juana," Bogotá, June 10, 2002. For another informative account of the situation of girl combatants, see Erika Páez, Las Niñas en el Conflicto Armado en Colombia: Un Diagnóstico (Bogotá: Terre des hommes, 2001). The book is based on information collected from eight former child combatants and six professionals that have worked closely with them.
161Human Rights Watch interview with "Juana," Bogotá, June 10, 2002.
162This chapter will, accordingly, focus on guerrillas. Human Rights Watch interview with "Laidy," Bogotá, May 31, 2002.
163Human Rights Watch interview with "Jessica," Bogotá, May 31, 2002.
164Human Rights Watch interview with "Carolina," Bucaramanga, June 7, 2002.
165Human Rights Watch interview with "Ángela," Bogotá, June 2, 2002.
166Human Rights Watch interview with "María Claudia," Bucaramanga, June 8, 2002.
167 Colombia's Law 599 de 2000 states that anyone who engages in a sexual act with a child younger than fourteen is punishable with between three to five years in prison. Nuevo Código Penal, Article 209. The law is available at http://www.derechos.org/nizkor/colombia/doc/penal.html (retrieved on May 27, 2003).
168For another account of an older commander successfully pressuring a thirteen-year-old girl to have sexual relations with him, see Human Rights Watch, "Beyond Negotiation," pp. 16-17. A compelling first-hand description of the problem is found in Guillermo González Uribe's book Los niños de la guerra. Made up of eleven long testimonies from former child combatants, the book includes the story of a young girl who joined the FARC-EP at age thirteen, and quickly become involved with a forty-year-old commander. After that relationship ended, she was pressured by another commander for sex. When she refused, she was given hardship duty. When she realized that she was pregnant, in addition, she decided to escape so that she could keep the baby. She fell and hurt herself during the escape, however, and ended up having a miscarriage. Guillermo González Uribe, Los niños de la guerra (Bogotá: Planeta, 2002), pp. 35-42.
169Human Rights Watch interview with "Andrea," Bucaramanga, June 8, 2002.
170Human Rights Watch interview with "Carolina," Bucaramanga, June 7, 2002.
171Human Rights Watch interview with "Marilín," Medellín, June 5, 2002.
172Human Rights Watch interview with "Ángela," Bogotá, June 2, 2002.
173Human Rights Watch interview with "Soria," Bogotá, May 30, 2002.
176Human Rights Watch interview with "Ángela," Bogotá, June 2, 2002.
177Human Rights Watch interview with "Marta," Bogotá, June 1, 2002.
178"'Censuramos la explotación sexual': Defensor," El Tiempo, December 15, 2000.
179Human Rights Watch interview with "Carolina," Bucaramanga, June 7, 2002.
180Human Rights Watch interview with "Andrea," Bucaramanga, June 8, 2002.