Eliana Gonzalez was married at 14 and gave birth to her daughter a year later. Her husband, a landless peasant, would disappear on drunken binges for days at time, she says, "But he was the kind of man who believed a woman should always stay at home. I had to get his permission just to visit my parents.
"I wanted to do something with my life. I wanted things to change," says Ms. Gonzalez, explaining why 26 years ago she left her family, chose a new name, and became a guerrilla fighter in what is now Colombia's largest - and most feared - rebel army.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, are best known in the wider world for their reliance on kidnapping and extortion, close ties with the illegal narcotics trade, and casual use of extreme violence.
So why are increasing numbers of Colombian women choosing to join them? When Gonzalez became a guerrilla in 1974, the FARC had fewer than 900 members, of whom only a handful were women. Now the group fields some 15,000 fighters, including more than 5,000 women.
The figures alone illustrate the escalation of Colombia's bloody 34-year conflict, which pits leftist rebels against state security forces and their de facto allies, illegal right-wing paramilitaries.
And as the US prepares to send nearly $1 billion worth of aid to Colombia's military, the fighting is likely to get worse, observers say. According to military analyst Alfredo Rangel, the FARC are stepping up their recruiting drives throughout the country. "A growing army needs whoever it can get, and women are an important source of new recruits," he says.
But while the numbers indicate the scale of the violence, they also reflect the social conditions that helped trigger Colombia's war.
"Young people in rural areas have no alternatives. Their families don't have money for education and there are no jobs," says Mariluz Rubio, human rights ombudsman in San Vicente del Caguan, the largest town in a southern region ceded to the rebels to enable peace talks that began in January, 1999.
In much of rural Colombia, there has never been a consistent state presence, or investment in any kind of infrastructure or legal economy. A nationwide recession has pushed urban unemployment above 20 percent, so rural youngsters have little hope of escape to the cities. "And this is still a very macho country. For women, the possibilities are even fewer," says Ms. Rubio, adding that many families still see educating daughters as a waste of time. In rural communities, girls are married and start childbearing when they are as young as 12 years old. For many, the only job opportunities are in the drug trade, or with the armed factions.
East of San Vicente, a two-hour drive down a rutted track leads to a rebel camp deep in the jungle. At the sound of a whistle blast, 24 guerrillas in drab green uniforms line up on a makeshift parade ground. Each one bears an assault rifle, a harness with spare ammunition, and a stubby machete. None is older than 25, and almost half are women.
The drill commander is Sandra. The guerrilla in her 20s, who didn't want to give a last name, takes roll call in a school composition book, then assigns cookhouse and sentry details. "We all have the same duties and responsibilities, man or woman," she says later, sitting on her rough wooden cot while she and two friends paint their fingernails with red and pink nail polish.
Like Gonzalez, Sandra grew up in a remote farming town, where she scraped through one year of primary school before the money ran out. She started working when she was 10, keeping house and looking after her five younger brothers and sisters.
"Lots of women are here because their parents beat them, or just to get away from the poverty. I got on well with my parents, but I had to work harder at home than I do here."
"It's tough, but at least you don't have to worry about where you'll get food and clothes from," agrees Ana Maria, also in her early 20s. Now Sandra has three sets of clothes - identical camouflage uniforms - and a pair of rubber boots, as well as an AK-47 that rests against her bed while her fingernails dry.
"In Colombia, money and weapons are the only things that confer power. In a country where women are usually ignored, [women guerrillas] are surrounded by symbols that give them an identity," says anthropologist Maria Eugenia Vasquez, who is writing a book on female rebels.
"The first time you pick up a weapon you feel proud, you feel more important. When you're a civilian, you don't belong anywhere, but when you're a guerrilla, people treat you better," says 16-year-old Lusia, who also declined to give her last name. She worked as a maid in the capital, Bogota, before joining the rebels.
THE guerrilla bands offer women equality and freedom from the expectations of a macho culture, they say, but charge a high price in return. "Once you're a soldier, you're always a soldier," says Gonzalez. In her mid-40s, she is one of the oldest and longest-serving women in the FARC. "But if you're a mother, you're always a mother," she adds in a soft tone. After she joined the rebels, she didn't see her daughter for nine years. "I got used to this life very quickly, but you can never adapt to leaving your child," she remembers. Guerrillas are not allowed to keep their children with them, explains Commandante Mariana Paez, a member of the FARC's negotiation team. "You can't be a guerrilla and a mother. You either neglect one or the other - and usually it's the children," she says.
Female fighters are given obligatory birth-control advice. If they become pregnant, they are told to leave the babies with their families.
In the camp, Sandra admits that she sometimes finds the rule a little harsh. "Most of us would like to have children, but you can't. Well ... you shouldn't," she says.
Lusia disagrees. "If you have a husband, it's worse. They just cheat and fill you up with children. It's much better here," she says, remembering her best friend, who became a mother at 14. "We used to play hide and seek together, but I haven't seen her for years now," Lusia says. "I chose a different path. I think it was the right one."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society