For FARC soldiers deep in the Colombian jungle, membership of the country's biggest armed group came with surprisingly progressive sexual education—but little reproductive choice.
Image via To End a War by Marc Silver, courtesy of Miracol Media
As a 13-year-old girl growing in Riosucio, a town located deep inside the Darién forest in the Colombian municipality of Chocó, Sofía Reyes was used to seeing the 34th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) standing in formation outside her house. "I would stare from a distance," Reyes recalls. "There was something about those people, their uniforms. I had never seen women dressed like that before."
A couple of years later, Reyes found herself wearing one of those uniforms and sitting in a jungle camp, listening to a group of university students teach sex ed to the young men and women of the Marxist guerrilla group.
In their five decade-long war against the Colombian government, FARC rebels created a support network that managed to keep an army of almost 11,000 people almost completely literate and relatively healthy—even as they remained isolated in the Colombian jungle.
As the conflict comes to a close and former guerrilleros transition into civilian life, the world has learned more about the services that kept the FARC alive and fighting all these years. When it comes to reproductive health, the guerrillas conceived of a sex education policy that had little room for motherhood, choice, or the sexual prudishness of their devoutly Catholic country.
"Up until then, I didn't know anything about sex," says the 40-year-old Reyes. She was 15 when she first received sex ed lessons in the FARC back in 1992. "We went to the common room of the camp, and [the students] told us all about contraceptive methods." That's when Reyes started using Yadel, a local brand of subdermal implants, as her contraceptive of choice. She says that contraception was mandatory for all sexually active soldiers.
During her early years in the FARC, university students held regular classes on subjects as varied as sexual education, accounting, and Spanish language. In the latter days of her 26-year stint in the militia, her generation of soldiers were tasked with educating its younger members.
During the conflict fought by two—sometimes three—generations of guerrilleros, the FARC also created its own blend of gender equality within the traditional "macho" values of rural Colombian society: In their army, women fought alongside their male counterparts and could ascend to the rank of commander, like Elda Neyis Mosquera (a.k.a "Karina"), the one-time commander of FARC's 47th Front.
In the 34th Front, Reyes said, men and women received sex ed lessons together, though only men had the privilege of having sexual partners outside of the FARC. Women were only provided with various forms of birth control, while men received contraceptive devices like condoms for STD prevention.
Inside the FARC, however, men and women were more or less free to choose or change partners as they pleased. "Even though we were free to form couples, most of us chose to remain single," Reyes says. "[Military] operations meant that guerrilleros could be apart for months [at a time], and people—especially young people—wouldn't hold off for that long."
Jorge Enrique Botero, a local journalist known for his in-depth reporting on the FARC, recalls: "In the dark world of the guerrilla camps at night, it wasn't strange to hear the sounds of couples sharing moments of intimacy." On his numerous expeditions to guerrilla camps, Botero witnessed a community in which sex "was a perfectly normal subject."
But sex among guerrilleros was far from what the New York Times once called "free love." Firsthand accounts from female soldiers (often recruited before turning 15 years old) revealed an implicit pressure inside the FARC to couple up with their commanders, who were typically much older.
"When girls join the FARC, the commanders choose among them. The women have the final say, but they want to be with a commander to be protected. They give a girl money and presents. When you're with a commander, you don't have to do the hard work. So most of the prettiest girls are with commanders," former soldier Carolina told Human Rights Watch in 2003. She joined the FARC when she was only 13.
In July 2016, Colombian Attorney General Even in a military regime where contraception is mandatory, a said the FARC would have to answer to the country's transitional justice system for 232 ongoing investigations into sexual violence within their ranks. The charges include forced abortion, forced sterilization, and rape. The attorney general's office stated that these were not isolated incidents, but rather "guerrilla policy handed down by top officials," according to Human Rights Watch.
Although Human Rights Watch and Universidad Sergio Arboleda have published firsthand accounts of women who allege rape and other forms of sexual violence by higher ranking male officers, the FARC has denied charges of sexual violence inside their ranks. An official statement put out by the group reads: "Sexual violence is seriously punished by our internal rules. These crimes are handled in a war council which in most cases sanctions them with the strongest punishment in our rules."
And accidents can still happen—even in a military regime where contraception is mandatory. In 2007, Reyes discovered that she was four months pregnant. It wasn't the first time this had happened to a FARC soldier.
In 2006, Jorge Briceño a.k.a. "Mono Jojoy," one of the FARC's highest ranking officers, sent an email out to all his commanders. "Birth control is mandatory and in case of pregnancy a curettage must be practiced." According to a sworn statement from Marco Fidel "Garganta" Giraldo, the commander of the FARC's 47th front, the group first adopted the practice of forced abortion in 1993.
In January 2017, the Colombian authorities accused a man named Hector Arboleda of FARC membership; he was extradited from Spain. In July, Arboleda (a.k.a. "the Nurse") was formally accused by the Colombian attorney general of performing forced abortions on women in the FARC from 1997 to 2004.
"Hospital areas must be kept secret, and patients must be kept from seeing all the equipment we have there. Only in extremely serious cases do we recommend they should be taken into the city," Briceño adds in his email. According to the testimonies of the 22 former guerrilleros included in the indictment, most of these procedures were conducted in unsanitary conditions.
"In case of pregnancy, we would have to decide between having an abortion or giving birth to a child," high-ranking FARC officer Olga Marín said in a 2016 press conference. "Choosing to give birth meant assuming the responsibility of looking after the child and the risk of exposing it to enemy actions."
"For me, it was [either] having an abortion or being punished with hard labor for not having one," says Reyes. Had she chosen to disobey her superior and continue her pregnancy, Reyes says the child would have been handed over to a civilian family 40 days after it was born. Parents rarely got to see their children again, and women would be sentenced to a period of manual labor for insubordination.
According to a press statement released by the Office of the Attorney General of Colombia in December 2015, the FARC was being investigated for performing forced abortions on "over 150 women." Oxfam claims that 1,810 women in the FARC were subjected to forced abortions by 2011.
"Women of the guerrilla were fully aware of their reproductive rights to the extent that they were aware they had no reproductive rights."
The FARC has also denied the practice of forced abortions and their involvement with "the Nurse" on several occasions. "Abortion wasn't forceful inside the FARC, it was voluntary," Erika Montero, the only female member of Estado Mayor Central (Central High Command), claimed in a September 2016 interview. Spokespeople for the FARC and Mujer Fariana, their women's organization, did not respond to request for comment.
Was Sofía Reyes' abortion voluntary? "No," she says. "I didn't want to have an abortion."
According to a report by Colombian police, 80 percent of women who defected from the FARC in 2011 had been victims of forced abortions. Reyes, who continued as an active guerrilla until the moment the group collectively gave up their arms, says her abortion had no long-term impact on her commitment to the FARC.
"Women of the guerrilla were fully aware of their reproductive rights to the extent that they were aware they had no reproductive rights," says Jorge Enrique Botero. "The idea of being a mother was simply not [synonymous with what it meant] to be in the guerrilla."
Or was it? In 2009, when Elda Neyis Mosquera surrendered to the Colombian authorities, her only request was to be allowed to see her 17-year-old daughter. According to police authorities, her daughter, who lived a normal civilian life in Medellín, kept regular contact with her mother until age 12, when pressure from the military put a halt to their periodic meetings.
"The women of the commanders do get to have children and look after them. Many send them to live in the cities with all the commodities and visit them as they please. Normal women don't get these privileges," Marcela, a woman who defected after 13 years in the FARC, said during an interview with the Colombian Army Radio Station.
For Sofía Reyes, motherhood is out of the picture—at least for the moment. "Sometimes I think having a kid could be nice," says Reyes, who is still in a relationship with her companion from her FARC days. "But I really don't think it would be smart to have a kid without having a stable job or a home."
Reyes and her partner are currently living with her family in Quibdó, Chocó. She receives a monthly $200 stipend (roughly 90 percent of the minimum wage), which the government pays to former guerrilleros during their first 24 months as civilians. She hopes that she'll be able to complete her studies in nursing—it was a subject she studied under the university students who visited her camp.
"They taught me all I know about contraception and I was always free to choose who I wanted to be with," Reyes recalls. "It's just that we couldn't give birth for obvious reasons; I mean, who could love a child in the middle of war fought in the jungle?"