From war to economic reintegration: The challenges for women ex-combatants in Colombia
Colombia’s 2016 peace agreement was expected to help FARC’s ex-guerrillas reintegrate into society. However, with poor financial prioritisation, stigma, and gendered cultural norms women ex-combatants are struggling to socially and economically reintegrate into civilian life, perpetuating structural and gender inequalities.
For the last 60 years, Colombia has been mired in one of the longest internal conflicts. What started as a war by Marxist revolutionaries against a restrictive political system has transformed into a ferocious fight with bloodshed as guerrillas, domestic elites, the military, paramilitary, and multinational actors competing for control over the resource-rich nation. Established in 1964, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is the country’s oldest and largest guerrilla group. Over 11,000 women participated in the guerrilla efforts between 1985 and 2012, and approximately 40% of the FARC combatants were women.
Women FARC guerrilla fighters
While many women joined the FARC willingly, others were forced to join with threats to their families, offers of protection from the war, education, or money. Minors were often recruited and separated from their families, sometimes by force. The FARC provided them with new identities, uniforms, and a two-month training on warfare and communist ideology. The group regulated their behaviour, even controlling their sexual and reproductive freedom. There were reports of physical and psychological abuse as well as widespread sexual and physical violence against women in the FARC, and those who reported sexual violence were frequently stigmatised and punished, while their perpetrators were rarely held accountable.
Initially, women in the FARC were primarily assigned traditionally 'feminine' duties such as cooking, nursing, and cleaning. Following, a two-month training, they were entrusted with more 'masculine' tasks such as woodcutting; standing guard; marching long distances with heavy loads; trench and latrine digging; camp assembly and disassembly; mastering camouflage and firearms; as well as preparing ambushes and carrying out assault missions. This shift in responsibility allowed women to contribute significantly to the FARC's military effectiveness and long-term viability as a political-military entity.
Post-war societal integration
Following the peace agreement signed with the Colombian government in 2016, the responsibility for reintegrating former FARC members into civilian life fell to the Agency for Reincorporation and Normalisation (ARN). Unfortunately, this agency has struggled to maintain accurate data on the demobilised population and has been unable to persuade women to pursue the formal demobilisation process. In 2018 the ANR published a census of 10,015 former FARC members, with 77% men and 23% women although this data was disputed. More recently, a May 2022 report from the National Council of Economic Policy and Social Republic of Colombia showed 14,024 demobilised FARC combatants, of which 75% are men and 24% are women. Another report by opposition congress members in 2022 identified 12,826 demobilised FARC ex-combatants, with 76% men and 23% women.
Regardless of the data discrepancies it's clear that despite representing 40% of the guerrilla forces at some point in the war, only about 20% of demobilised FARC combatants being reintegrated through government programmes were women. This is because the government demobilisation policies remain unable to tackle the numerous challenges faced by women as they reintegrate into civilian life such as social stigma, gender stereotypes, and limited opportunities for formal employment.
Gendered reintegration gap
The ARN approved a Social and Economic Reincorporation Policy in 2018 (CONPES 3139) for former members of the FARC, which aimed to promote sustainable and equal income sources to men and women. However, critics argue that these efforts have been inadequate. Six years after the disarmament of the FARC, women ex-combatants are experiencing different outcomes in their reincorporation process compared to their male counterparts. A report from June 2022 found that 7,000 people in the process of reincorporation have been linked to academic training programmes (only 25% women and 75% men). Similarly, 6,135 people were linked to processes of training for work of which only 28% are women and 72% are men. The psychosocial accompaniment programme with a gender approach has not yet been implemented due to preliminary approvals and budgetary definitions. Despite being given equal access to the ‘single normalisation allowance’ of COP 2 million (US$ 413); basic monthly income; and support for productive projects, the stigma associated with being a former guerrilla member in Colombia remains. Women face greater rejection and social disapproval than men and various gender stereotypes have contributed to their different experiences in affective, social, political, educational, and economic reintegration.
Weak prioritisation for women ex-combatants
One key barrier to their economic integration is the lack of prioritisation and technical reincorporation of women combatants. In 2021, it was verified that, of the General Budget of the Nation, the government had appropriated COP 5.2 trillion for the post-conflict (US$ 1.1 million) reintegration process. Colombia also received funding from the EU and UN totalling €109 million and US$ 88 million, respectively. However, the COP 209 million allocated to gender constitutes only 3.99% of the General Budget.
While some women ex-combatants find economic security through entering the labour market or setting up productive projects, they often face barriers to formal employment due to low training, lack of certification, stigmatisation, and the prevalence of informal employment. Despite 75% of people in the reintegration process obtaining jobs, only 25% do so formally due to factors such as lack of certification and stigmatisation by employers. In the absence of other opportunities, many women ex-combatants end up in informal employment or women-dominated professions (such as domestic and care work, tailoring, secretarial work, and hairdressing).
Although the FARC and the Colombian Government justified their war to create a more equal society, neither fully supported women's aspirations in pursuit of this. Upon reintegration into civil society, women face patriarchal structures that limit their role in the economy to informal or unpaid domestic work, despite the Colombian peace agreement and its demobilisation policy being praised for inclusivity. These policies have not yielded significant results, partially due to the lack of accurate data, stigma, structural inequalities, and lack of prioritisation. This not only undermines the development of clear public policy avenues but also impedes rigorous policy implementation. The fact that the ARN missed the opportunity to reintegrate 11,000 women ex-combatants into the country's economic force is indicative of the public policy domain's unpreparedness to achieve inclusive growth in the aftermath of conflict.