In email interview, Colombian FARC Commander Victoria Sandino Palmera discusses the role of women in the FARC and the ongoing peace talks between the guerrillas and the Colombian government

Victoria Sandino Palmera is a commander in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) and part of the delegation engaged in peace talks with the Colombian government in Cuba since 2012. Throughout her 23 years of armed struggle, she has carried out various tasks, from leading cultural, political and ideological workshops for her fellow guerrillas, to political work with black and indigenous communities. One particular focus has been working with women from areas where development plans and norms for community coexistence are drawn up.

Sandino has been a political activist since her youth, when she was active in the Patriotic Union, a leftwing party formed in the 1980s following peace talks between the FARC and then-President Belisario Betancur. The Patriotic Union was subject to intense political repression as around 5,000 party activists and supporters were killed by Colombian state forces and rightwing paramilitaries closely allied to the state. Amnesty International charged that members of the Colombian military and government had collaborated in a ‘deliberate policy of political murder’.

At present, as well as being on the FARC negotiating team in Cuba, Sandino coordinates the negotiations’ gender Subcommittee.

Pablo Navarrete: I’d like to begin by asking if you could you tell us about the participation of women in the FARC?

Victoria Sandino Palmera: Women have been present in the FARC since the first years of resistance. We participate in all organisational activities shoulder-to-shoulder with the men. During this time we have been building our role as women fighting for the social change our country needs; work that has been rightly recognised by our brothers, who share our dreams and hopes. Our work is also recognised by the communities where we operate and for whom we are references of resistance and dignity.

It’s important to highlight the huge numbers of women who have joined in the last 15 years – around 40 per cent of the FARC are women. Our role in the organisation doesn’t differ from that of our brothers. It includes the same daily guerrilla tasks relating to military life, such as participating in combat and directing operations. We are also involved in political work and debate, and in ideological and political education. We are active in relationship-building and organising with the communities, where the women in particular appreciate our presence because they share the same aims of achieving wellbeing and good living conditions for all.

Our presence in the peace delegation reflects this. Of 40 FARC members, 17 of us are women. We are responsible for various tasks: we participate at the negotiating table; we are involved in writing agreements and agenda items with our government counterparts; we take part in the different commissions, such as the Subcommittee on Gender; and we hold a permanent dialogue with representatives of social organisations and different people who come to meet us in Havana.

PN: Who comprises the gender Subcommittee and what role does it play?

VSP: The gender Subcommittee is an initiative of the women members of the FARC peace delegation who wanted to create a platform for the direct participation of Colombian women and their organisations in the talks. For some time we have been developing an important movement across the country in support of peace. The Subcommittee was created on 7 September, 2014, with a mandate to provide a gender-based approach to partial agreements at the negotiations.

Our work focuses on exchanging views with representatives of women’s organisations and the LGBTI [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersexual] community, discussing their concerns and proposals for the general agenda at the negotiations. We have also had discussions with national and international experts over their experiences in the various peace processes. The women in the [FARC] delegation have a very serious commitment to ensuring peace brings about a special impact for women, and that it ensures their real and effective political participation, as subjects with rights who have much to contribute to the construction of peace with social justice in Colombia.

PN: What has been the Colombian media’s response to the women guerrillas of the FARC?

VSP: Initially, the mainstream media ran a campaign to discredit us, smear us and make our role invisible. They have run personal attacks against members of the peace delegation, presented us as victims of our own comrades, tried to minimise our role as revolutionaries and ignored our contribution.

Despite this, during these three long years of the peace process we have shown our competence, capacity, education and commitment, which we have maintained throughout our struggle, whether in the mountains of Colombia or here in Havana. Some media, especially alternative outlets, have shown an interest in what we think, feel and do; they have asked who we are, our history in the organisation, the role we play; they have aimed to present who we really are; political women, revolutionaries, who dream of peace with social justice.

The website also contributes, showing us as we are; humble men and women, educated and dedicated to the creation of a democratic country. The website is designed and maintained by a committee of women from the delegation. The women guerrillas in particular, but also some of the men, write from our perspective, about our experiences from a different angle, with a gender-based perspective and with feminist and class analysis.

PN: What is your response to accusations that all the armed actors in the conflict have committed acts of sexual violence?

VSP: Here it is necessary to first clarify that Colombian women suffer permanent victimisation, although this is not specifically in the context of the conflict. The majority of sexual violence actually occurs in the private and public spheres of society, in family, in schools, at work, where effective measures needed to stop the violence have not been put in place.

But the victimisation and sexual violence that women have suffered in the context of the conflict has also been awful, and has been committed primarily by paramilitaries, by state forces and, yes, some statistics mention the guerrillas.

Regarding this last point, I can tell you several things: firstly, the FARC has a policy of absolute respect for the civilian population and especially for women. It is the same within the guerrilla rank and file, where sexual violence is completely forbidden. All this is firmly stated in our rules and principles, and in our daily practice.

Like other crimes such as the murder of civilians or fellow guerrillas, sexual crimes are severely punished and there is zero tolerance of them in our ranks. Our new system of truth and justice offers guarantees so that victims, particularly women, can have access to truth, justice, reparations, and above all, the guarantee that sexual violence will not be repeated.

PN: Finally, how would you summarise the participation and demands of women in Colombian civil society in the peace process?

VSP: The role of women has been active and ongoing, such as in participating in debates in various parts of the country. Often this participation has been invisible in that the mass media have not reported it, but it has been effective, with analysis of problems and proposals and denouncement of the violence they have suffered. There are several organisations and women’s NGOs which have played an important role in bringing about the peace talks.

We have collected proposals aimed at implementing affirmative measures to gain legal ownership of land, access to credit, technical assistance and other basic rights that have so far been denied to them. The other main demand is to ensure political participation of working class and rural women in decision-making spaces by applying effective quota laws. Finally, the implementation of the peace agreements should reflect all the work being done by women to achieve peace and social justice in Colombia.

This article originally appeared in issue two of Alborada magazine (Winter 2015)