Colombia’s macho society asks former combatants to return to gender stereotypes

About 40 percent of the hundreds of thousands of child soldiers scattered across the world’s conflicts today are thought to be girls, but the numbers of girls enrolling in child disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programs (DDR) dwindles to five percent or less, according to a report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

DDR — Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration — is the industry term for government and NGO programs that help resettle former combatants after a life in illegal armed groups.

Girls are less willing to want to go through a DDR program because since girls in armed groups are associated with acting as sex slaves, the girls feel they would lose ‘value’ in societies, like Colombia’s, where a girl is defined in terms of her purity and marriageability.

In Colombia, girls also may not want to leave armed groups because in the FARC and the ELN  (unlike the paramilitaries) girls are given the chance to live and fight as equals to their male counterparts, and returning to regular life would be to lose power and control in a relatively conservative, ‘machista’ [chauvinist] society, according to Overcoming Lost Childhoods, a Care International report about rehabilitating Colombian child soldiers.

A staff member from a leading family planning NGO in Colombia, Profamilia, said, “When the girls first demobilize, they feel strong, good about themselves. They feel pretty. But after some time in the program – in the city – they don’t feel so pretty. Their self-image, which reflected the values of the armed group, begins to erode in the face of billboards and ads that promote a very different ideal of femininity than what they are used to.”

The skills and vocational training offered to demobilized girls seem to confirm gender stereotypes, suggesting that for a successful transition to civilian life they should become a hairdresser, beautician, dressmaker or caterer, and a mother.


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