Women Warriors of America Latina


From 1970 to 1999 leftist guerrilla groups proliferated throughout America Latina engaging in “New Wars” of decentralised violence that differed from traditional forms of warfare. This essay seeks to investigate how, if at all, traditional gender roles have been disrupted during and after these conflicts. Using Standpoint Feminist theory to track the experiences of women in the recruitment, duration and aftermath of the conflict, attention will be brought to how gender is and has been constructed within these contexts, specifically in El Salvador where high rates of female participation translated into the greatest opportunity for significant disruption. The findings suggest that while guerrillas present a significant disruption to traditional gender roles, this disruption is largely forgotten post-conflict, yet there is the potential for greater female political representation to be integrated into post-conflict governance.

Guerrilla warfare in America Latina is unique in its longevity. It has been ongoing since the 1952 coup in Cuba (Lobao, 1990, p. 219) through to current day conflicts still unresolved in Colombia (UN News Centre, 2016). The effect of this is that social relations within war have evolved along with other changes in broader Latin American Culture.

This essay seeks to understand how, if at all, have the guerrilla conflicts of America Latina disrupt gender roles. It contends that gender was an important construct prior to and during the conflicts. However, disruptions created during guerrilla movements are almost immediately rendered problematic once conflict is done, and the best course of action to carry over the progress made within guerrilla gender politics is to maintain high political leadership by women post-conflict.

After defining terms and theory, this analysis will be conducted by outlining the conditions that lead to the recruitment of guerrilleras (female guerrillas) throughout America Latina and El Salvador specifically to analyse the construction of gender during the conflict and finally the trends that occurred during the post-conflict stages of the guerrilla warfare and onwards.

Standpoint Feminism will be used to achieve an understanding of how gender was constructed within these conflicts. Standpoint Feminism begins with the existence of the state as a patriarchal super-structure which supports yet silences the structural disadvantages women face (Hansen, 2010, p. 21). In this sense, Standpoint Feminists identify a structure and culture of discrimination that creates unequal power relationships between men and women. Second, these power relations are reinforced in the separation between the “public and private sphere” which positions men predominate in the former and women in the latter (Hansen, 2010, p. 21). This public/private split will be crucial to understanding Latin American Machismo and Marianismo. Third, Standpoint Feminism posits that women exist as a category of analysis. Rather than assuming that humans are ‘universal actors’, Standpoint Feminists seek to centre women are a unique analytical unit whose experiences shape and are shaped by the practices of international relations. Finally, Standpoint Feminists seek to build a new knowledge of international relationships by understanding physical and lived experiences of women critically examining the structures of power present in international relations from the standpoint of those who have been systematically excluded from power (Keohane, 1989, p. 245).

Guerrillas are a form of “New War” as understood by Mary Kaldor (Organised Violence in a Global Era, 1999). Guerrilla means “little war” in Spanish and the term was originally coined for small rebel groups which opposed France during the Napoleonic invasion and their methods of warfare (Gonzalez-Perez, 2006, p. 314). During the 1980s and 1990s there was a revolution in the social relations of warfare (Kaldor, 1999, p. 3). These conflicts are characterised by their occurrence within states and not between them (Kaldor, 1999, p. 2); they are fought on a basis of labels, which Kaldor identifies generally spring from political, religious or racial identities or labels (Kaldor, 1999, p. 6). In America Latina, in particular, race is of less importance to identities and group identities as is political identity (Rochlin, 2011, p. 240). This is immediately obvious in conflicts such as Colombia, where communal tensions have existed since 1880 between Conservatives and Liberals over differing political philosophies of economic management (Rochlin, 2011, p. 240).

These “New Wars”/guerrillas are disruptive in that they blur the lines between organised crime and large-scale violations of human rights (Kaldor, 1999, p. 2). They are often funded by kidnappings and narco-trafficking (Donny & Segura-Escobar, 1996, p. 168) which can protract conflicts over several decades. Their strategic interests differ in that traditional wars battle to capture territory, whereas guerrilleros prefer to avoid battles, instead skirmishing in an attempt to win territory through the political control of the population (Kaldor, 1999, p. 8) (Lobao, 1990, p. 211). Importantly, these conflicts tend to be successful and appear in areas with weak state control, where entire governance can be supplanted by competing guerrilla forces (Kaldor, 1999, p. 4) (Donny & Segura-Escobar, 1996, p. 170).

In particular, this essay will focus on the period of 1970-1999 as this was the period of greatest female participation within conflicts. Colombia has been in a state of conflict since 1930 to the present day (Rochlin, 2011, p. 240), with las Fuerzas Armadas Revoluciónarias de Colombia (FARC) waging the most prominent guerrilla in the period since 1945 to the present day (Rochlin, 2011, p. 242). As such it is relevant to enquire why women were recruited after 1980 but not extensively during the 50s and 60s. This will be covered in the following section. From 1970 onwards was the period of greatest concentration of guerrilleros, with the Tupamaros of Uruguay (Gonzalez-Perez, 2006, p. 318), the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) of El Salvador (Gonzalez-Perez, 2006, p. 319) the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) of Nicaragua (Gonzalez-Perez, 2006, p. 319), and the Sendero Luminoso (SL) of Peru (Gonzalez-Perez, 2006, p. 320), all of which had significant numbers of female participants.


Prior to the proliferation of guerrilla resistance throughout America Latina, gender was constructed in relation to ideal Catholic values focusing highly on women’s roles as mothers and housekeepers (Lobao, 1990, p. 214) (Gonzalez-Perez, 2006, p. 317). While the political domain or public sphere is a male space, women are often positioned as the heads of households; this division is understood in America Latina as ‘Machismo y Marianismo’. Machismo is the role that men take on in dominating the public sphere, however Marianismo is the inverse role of women’s assumed leadership in the private sphere, a separation heavily influenced by Catholic values upholding the Virgin Mary as an example of a good woman (Gonzalez-Perez, 2006, p. 317). Levels of women’s formal education were exceptionally low, reinforcing the structure that denied women’s participation in the public sphere (Lobao, 1990, p. 212).

During the early decades of guerrilla warfare, that of Cuba, the Tri-Border area of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay and of course of the early Colombian guerrillas, these guerrillas were all functioning under the ‘foquista’ model developed by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara (Lobao, 1990, p. 213). It was based on small groups of armed combatants, which relied on military action. All of these movements, except for those in Colombia, were primarily internationally oriented against interferences from the United States (US) in domestic affairs (Gonzalez-Perez, 2006, p. 316), and aside from Cuba this was largely ineffective after Che Guevara’s death in Bolivia with the Brazilian movement being decimated between 1969 and 1971 (Lobao, 1990, p. 213).

It was during the 1960s that knowledge of feminism was beginning to penetrate the Latin American political culture (Lobao, 1990, p. 214). Feminism was originally almost unequivocally denounced by the Latin left as a counter revolutionary “distraction” (Lobao, 1990, p. 214) and while during the ‘70s onward issues of gender oppression were admitted into revolutionary struggles (Lobao, 1990, p. 214) insurgent women and thus the guerrilla movements held – even after 1970 – a conscious rejection of “feminism” in theory and practice as a bourgeois distraction from the central causes of struggle (Ortega, 2012, p. 494).

Guerrillas from the ‘70s onward, however, shifted their focus from revolutions in opposition to US interference to domestic agendas. These movements include those in Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Peru and Colombia, all of which have had significant numbers of female participation. In Uruguay the Tupamaros by 1972 were boasting a 25% female membership (Gonzalez-Perez, 2006, p. 319), in El Salvador FMLN boasted a high mark of 40% (Gonzalez-Perez, 2006, p. 319) female membership, Nicaragua claimed 30% (Gonzalez-Perez, 2006, p. 320) and interestingly in Colombia, where la FARC in 1974 had only a handful of female members, female representation ballooned by the year 2000 to 30% of their 15 000 strong military, which grew further in 2002 to 18 000 members with between 40%-45% female membership.

Where previously the foquista-modelled guerrillas of Cuba and the Tri-Border Area had relatively little to no female participation during the conflict (Gonzalez-Perez, 2006, p. 324), later movements would all boast significant percentages of female participation. At a macro-level it is theorised that domestically oriented revolutions like those post 1970 did not favour women’s issues as much as women chose to become active in these conflicts because domestic class struggles incorporated gendered issues relevant to them, such as family sustenance and political repression (Lobao, 1990, p. 226). Thus women joined the guerrilla movements with primarily inward agendas not because they were necessarily more open to women’s issues, but because women chose to become active because they anticipated greater potential to change from their traditional hierarchical status (Gonzalez-Perez, 2006, p. 314).

At an individual level however recruitment becomes less about the international vs domestic split and instead about class and biography. While most macro-level understandings emphasise the above, that women join movements which accord with their maternal responsibilities as the heads of households (Viterna, 2006, p. 8) a study by Jocelyn S. Viterna on the recruitment of women into El Salvador’s FMLN guerrilla movement highlights three prevalent modes of recruitment, which further illuminate and problematize this traditional and highly accepted model of recruitment. They are “politicised guerrilleras”, “reluctant guerrilleras” and “recruited guerrilleras” (Viterna, 2006, p. 10).

Politicised guerrilleras were the women who joined the movement with a salient identity of being part of the revolution (Viterna, 2006, p. 20). These guerrilleras made up 7 of the 38 individuals who took part in the study. They were “pulled” into the guerrilla in what most closely reflects the macro level understanding. Politicised guerrilleras were all found to have been embedded within family networks that supported guerrilla activism (Viterna, 2006, p. 21). The qualitative data from the study suggests that the depth of political activism by their family networks is exceptional, with them all having the consistent biography of a completely ideology-driven family (Viterna, 2006, p. 21), a characteristic which one guerrillera highlighted, saying that “she wants her children to learn the necessity of social struggle” (Viterna, 2006, p. 21).

Reluctant guerrilleras formed 14 of the 38 women in the study. They were “pushed” into the guerrilla camps because of crises which left them with no other options, most commonly joining once generalised violence reached entire villages, forcing people into refugee camps near the Honduran border (Viterna, 2006, p. 24). While half of these women had previous organisational activities with the guerrilla movements, none of them invoked it as a reason for their decision to join the guerrilla camps (Viterna, 2006, p. 24). While biographically they are diverse, the qualitative data suggests that reluctant guerrilleras were young, childless and had greater difficulty escaping guerrilla camps because of attitudes towards them entering Honduran refugee camps. There were strongly held rumours, which could not be substantiated in the study, that Honduran refugee guards were raping young women whom they accused of being guerrilleras, thus the FMLN would prevent young women from joining those camps (Viterna, 2006, p. 27). This complicated the traditional model as older women and mothers did indeed actually find safe passage into refugee camps, problematizing the notion that women joined out of maternal responsibilities. In fact, it was women who were young and childless and who fitted the external expectation of who “should” be a guerrillera that were denied entry to refuge and thus were left with no option but to join the guerrilla (Viterna, 2006, p. 28).

Recruited guerrilleras made up the last 17 of the study and were those who were living within a refugee camp or repopulated community that were “persuaded” to join the movement by FMLN recruiters (Viterna, 2006, p. 28). These guerrilleras differ from politicised guerrilleras in that their motivations stress personal instead of political motivations, sometimes as mundane as curiosity about the guerrilla life (Viterna, 2006, p. 28). These guerrilleras were young, all but one was childless and most had incomplete families. Recruiters specifically targeted those with incomplete families as they perceived family as a barrier to entry (Viterna, 2006, p. 30), meaning that just like reluctant guerrilleras, recruited guerrilleras are highly affected by the external role expectations placed upon them.

Finally, of course it is necessary to highlight that there were women who collaborated with the guerrilla movement/s but did not join. These women would perform tasks such as preparing food and hiking to deliver it; 75% of the women interviewed claimed they helped because it was just, with the remaining 25% reporting they did so as a means of survival to ensure they were given aid by the FMLN (Viterna, 2006, pp. 31-32). Biographically collaborators could be split into two groups, the first were mothers with dependents, with some suggesting that had they not had children they would have joined the guerrilla (Viterna, 2006, p. 32) and the second group were young women with complete families who did not flee to refugee camps. Often these young women wanted to join but were prevented by mothers and fathers by sending them to neighbouring towns during the conflict or collaborated as a bargaining chip to have the guerrilla movement abstain from recruiting their daughters (Viterna, 2006, p. 32), sometimes going so far as to remind the guerrilleros that their already had their sons in their effort and that “two is enough” (Viterna, 2006, p. 34)

A divide is obvious between the commonly accepted mode of recruitment, in which women join and legitimise their involvement through appeals to motherly responsibilities and one in which women instead are “pushed, pulled and persuaded” to join guerrillas based on complex biographies as well as the external expectations placed on them by refugee guards and guerrilla recruiters. Importantly, those young women whose lives have been disrupted by the violence, the reluctant and recruited guerrilleras, likely have not the same level of formal education due to the disruption as those who stayed back and collaborated or became politicised guerrilleras. Here the disruption is evident that women are being actively sought out to play a part in guerrillas. There is no distinction that a guerrilla is not a “place for a lady” or familiar gendered constructions, instead women are actively sought and recruited for roles that often differ from the traditional.

Roles in Conflict

A commonly used typology for women in guerrilla movements is to distinguish between Sympathisers, Spies, Warriors and Dominant Forces (Gonzalez-Perez, 2006, p. 316). Sympathisers are often there to perform domestic duties such as cook, clean and sometimes have sex with guerrilleros for morale. Spies are a more active group who act as decoys and messengers. Warriors are combatants and fight alongside their male counterparts, whereas Dominant Forces are involved in the leadership of the guerrilla (Viterna, 2006, p. 317).

Women were actively encouraged to become combatants in all of the domestically oriented guerrilla movements (Gonzalez-Perez, 2006, p. 315). In El Salvador, the FMLN indicated that of its female membership between 50% were armed combatants with fewer than 30% performing domestic duties and only 15% engaged in health care (Gonzalez-Perez, 2006, p. 319). The FMLN boasted that 40% of the revolutionary council was made up of women, indicating that women were present at all levels of the guerrilla’s organisation. (Gonzalez-Perez, 2006, p. 319). Of all of these roles the most disruptive is perhaps those of women in the Dominant Forces with studies suggesting that female leaders engender more fear than men in similar positions because the violent and powerful status of the position is so unlike traditional female roles in America Latina (Gonzalez-Perez, 2006, p. 317). Female leadership was easily accepted within El Salvador and elsewhere (Ortega, 2012, p. 497) with some guerrilleras in Colombia noting that once men serve alongside women it “breaks their Machismo,” (Ortega, 2012, p. 496).

Once within and part of a guerrilla movement, guerrillas invest considerable effort to construct gender in a way that disrupts the traditional (Ortega, 2012, p. 289). Not only is femininity revised but masculinity as well. Ibero-American cultures have struggled since at least the Spanish Civil War with problematic masculinities, or “machismo” which denotes the character of archetypical Hispanic masculinity as misogynistic, overly sexual and aggressive (Aresti, 2007, p. 606). Thus revolutionary movements often take into account these issues and try to present themselves as a new alternative which is intimately bound with the construction of new masculinities and narratives (Ortega, 2012, p. 489), the clinching point however being that guerrillas like all insurgent movements are made to be dismantled once revolutionary goals have been achieved, perhaps foreshadowing the likelihood of these constructions being preserved post-conflict.

Che Guevara stressed his concept of the “New Man” and Nicaraguan FSLN commander Omar Cabezas incorporated various emotions which may be considered feminine into the ideal guerrillero (Ortega, 2012, p. 490). Importantly the new constructions of masculinity and femininities were not built upon a devaluation of women or femininities but the search for alternative ways to identify and categorise weakness based on class instead of femininity. This is done in an attempt to silence gendered differences and to create singular comrade or compañero/compañera identity (Ortega, 2012, p. 493).

Female compañeras are a “new species of woman” who is characterised by her “political motivation and ideological conviction as an agent of change” (Ortega, 2012, p. 494). This compañera is a model of insurgent femininity which is necessarily overruled by her being a compañero or member of the guerrilla movement, she was a guerrilla fighter before a woman. It was an attempt to “silence gender” and outright reject feminism as a bourgeois construction (Ortega, 2012, p. 494). Women would regularly note that the “armed struggle allows for more equality” (Ortega, 2012, p. 494) in that strong performance in the field would lead to promotion on the basis of merit, gender being rather irrelevant. The M-19 Guerrilla of Colombia referenced itself as being a more feminine than masculine organisation, “more connected to pleasure”, playing with “subtlety and intelligence” to balance the asymmetry of power it faced against state forces (Ortega, 2012, p. 496). This is an active appropriation of feminine coded adjectives to self-identify as subversive and different to the traditional.

Not only did they at times identify with the “feminine” elements of their strategy, but in practice these guerrilla movements attempted to detach femininity from weakness, encouraging guerrilleras to take on masculine coded behaviours such as armed combat and rough voices when issuing commands. Guerrillas attempted to have men take part in feminine coded characteristics without threat of emasculation (Ortega, 2012, p. 496). Men were encouraged to publicly cry and mourn fallen comrades, with such behaviours coded as being done out of respect for the fallen and a commitment to continue the struggle as opposed to a sign of weakness (Ortega, 2012, p. 497). The performance of feminine coded duties such as caring for the wounded and cooking was taken on in a collective effort (Ortega, 2012, p. 492) and when men did act in ways considered “weak”, such as not coping with the hard lifestyle of jungle/mountain guerrillas, this was criticised on a basis of class and not gender. “Bourgeois Weaknesses” was used to articulate the struggles that urban men had in adapting to daily life in the mountainous jungles (Ortega, 2012, p. 501). It was understood that being used to fine restaurants and parties were the reasons why they suffered from loss of orientation and not knowing how to tie hammocks.

Importantly the most famous guerrilleros such as Che Guevara and Camillo Torres were not hyper-masculine men, but indeed a medical professional and a priest respectively. Neither of them was revered for his physicality or even combat prowess; Guevara was an asthmatic and Torres died in his first battle with government forces. However, both were revered as ideal men because of their educated and articulate dedication to the cause (Ortega, 2012, p. 499). Importantly this construction of ideal masculinity of the compañero is that “men perceive themselves as giving something up to the larger objective of the revolution” (Ortega, 2012, p. 502); theirs is a selfless dedication to the revolution. Thus, disruption to traditional gender roles are highly prevalent during conflict in guerrillas. Women are encouraged to perform masculine coded behaviours and men to perform feminine coded behaviours, all the while attempting to “silence” gender and create an identity of compañero first and foremost.


Gender remains a highly relevant category of analysis post-conflict as it did during and before. Although disruptions in gender had occurred during the conflict, with the guerrilla’s attempts to “silence” gendered difference and disassociate weakness from femininity and instead link it to “bourgeois weakness”, it remained to be seen whether this disruption would translate to a significant difference in the structure of society.

Salvadoran reintegration programs following the end of the war in 1992 were criticised for not having a gender perspective in their design (Luciak, 1999, p. 49). According to Lorena Peña, a high ranking female commander in the FMLN, during the conflict she had not identified as a feminist, but had nevertheless by 1995 changed to identify as a committed feminist (Luciak, 1999, p. 49). She recognised that women’s emancipation had not been an issue during the war and that there had been no theory of gender during demobilisation, a position previously not afforded to compañeras. Peña was re-elected to parliament in 1997 and was heavily critical of reintegration programs claiming that 70 to 80 per cent of female combatants did not receive the benefits that should have been allocated to them during the reintegration program (Luciak, 1999, p. 49). The official data suggests that while at the moment of destabilisation women made 29.1% of the combatants, after the reintegration program women were 26.2% of the beneficiary population. This ‘official’ position is thus conflicts with the perception of prominent female leaders’ conviction that there was extensive gender based discrimination in reintegration.

The application of lands and reintegration programs were conducted at a local government level and local officials had little oversight from FMLN officials (Luciak, 1999, p. 50). Common issues which arose were discrimination from these officials which took various forms ranging from subtle to blatant. In cases where a husband and wife were both applicants to the program, frequently it was only husbands who were registered as beneficiaries, a direct violation of FMLN guidelines (Luciak, 1999, p. 50).  Other local officials would take advantage of the public/private split of the gender roles prior to conflict and institute other requisites such as being able to read and write or possessing birth certificates (Luciak, 1999, p. 52) which were passively discriminatory against women as they have had lower levels of education than men (Lobao, 1990, p. 212), and of the 75 000 Salvadorans who failed to obtain their voter registration cards 75% were female (Luciak, 1999, p. 52). Other less subtle forms of discrimination came from poorer quality lands being assigned to women, often leading to women excluding themselves from the reintegration programs because of the fear that they were incapable of being able to make use of farmlands (Luciak, 1999, p. 52).

In line with constructions of gender during the conflict, while men were seen as having sacrificed for the sake of the revolution, for something greater than themselves, women attempting to return to their families were often ostracised for having chosen the revolution over their families (Luciak, 1999, p. 54). While returning fathers often felt little guilt, this feeling was prevalent amongst mothers and childless women who were made to feel as having betrayed their families (Luciak, 1999, p. 54). Women in interviews following the guerrilla disruption expressed deep irritation over the double standard regarding returning combatants. Women were allowed this “counter traditional role” when it was within the interest of the struggle, however later when their new identities threatened traditional gender structures, attempts were made to relegate them back into the domestic sphere. Where prior to the war, 57% of female combatants were engaged in domestic work, just one year after the peace accords, 95% of female combatants were engaged primarily in unpaid domestic work (Luciak, 1999, p. 54).

In 1992 literacy rates for women were 32%, but by 1994 they had fallen to 25% (CEDAW, 2001, p. 4) and this by 2004 had further descended to 17.7% (CEDAW, 2007, p. 31). In terms of discriminatory labour practices in 2001 it was found that women were earning 72% of the salary of their male counter parts (CEDAW, 2001, p. 4) and since 2005 the gap has continued to widen (Enamorado, Izaguirre, & Ñopo, 2009, p. 3). One area of improvement however is where in the mid-1990s El Salvador compared to its Central American neighbours ranked poorly in the wage gap for female educators with a gap 24.7% for women educators, this compared to -1.9%, 11.4% and 5.1% for Costa Rica, Honduras and Nicaragua respectively. By the mid-2000s this had improved to 14.3%, still poor compared to -2.9%, 2.6% and 2.6% to Costa Rica, Honduras and Nicaragua but an improvement nevertheless (Enamorado, Izaguirre, & Ñopo, 2009, p. 15). Such conflicting areas of improvement and regress show that there is no simple narrative that women’s position has improved or regress post-conflict, the truth resists such simple categorisation.

Political representation was the area of most change for women post-conflict. The FMLN took seriously the issue of female leadership representation, with a favourable record of representation compared to other domestic parties. Women from the FMLN made up five of the nine women in Salvadoran parliament, meaning that while the FMLN held just 24% of the Legislative Assembly, it represented over half of the women elected to power. FMLN representation of women was favourable comparatively, the average throughout America Latina being just 10%, with Cuba an outlier having 23% (Luciak, 1999, p. 57).

Regardless, gender boundaries still remained for women seeking to join the political cadres of the FMLN post conflict. Overall it has been noted that while the FMLN appropriated issues directly relevant to women, they were largely treated with indifference, taken on because of their political ability to mobilise women and largely still a distraction to the central class war (Luciak, 1999, p. 55). Thus when it came time to seek office, women in rural areas stressed that the prohibitive nature of the labour distribution made it difficult to assume office as they were still expected to continue with household duties (Luciak, 1999, p. 57).

Since then women have since risen to occupy 28.76% of cabinet positions (CEDAW, 2007, p. 62) and 8.3% of local city mayoral positions (CEDAW, 2007, p. 65). Further the Salvadoran government in 1996 created the Commission of the Salvadoran Institute for the Advancement of Women (ISDEMU) (ISDEMU, n.d.) and has since been praised by the UN for its creation, albeit with some criticism that it lacks sufficient funding to define, implement and oversee the changes it was created to make (CEDAW, 2007, p. 7).

The point of it all is not to say that El Salvador has regressed to something worse or the same as it was prior to its insurgency or that it has improved dramatically either; things are more or less the same at the level of gender analysis. It has improved in some areas such as political representation, yet in other areas such as labour discrimination and literacy it has regressed. The disruption caused by the guerrillas is thus rendered mute in all but areas of political representation of women.

Discussion & Conclusion

The guerrillas of America Latina during 1970-1999 were “New Wars” as understood by Mary Kaldor. Their highly dislocated forces which fight on many fronts disrupt the traditional social relations within the states where they occur. As such they have a greater potential for lasting change than “traditional wars” which occur within the structures that propagate them, failing to actually challenge the structure. This disruptive potential is fought on the basis of political labels within America Latina and the leaders of guerrillas were conscious from the 1970s onwards of the potential to appropriate women’s issues to mobilise women into the struggles. Indeed, a correlation was found that domestically oriented guerrillas have greater success in recruiting guerrilleras than internationally oriented guerrillas at a macro level. At a micro level issues of biography become much more relevant, such as the social expectations placed on young, childless women to be guerrilleras challenging the macro level’s theory of causation.

As such the ideologically communist push within these insurgencies leads to attempts at utopian constructions, implicit in this attempt was the disassociation of weakness from femininity, instead constructing “bourgeois weakness”. Women were actively encouraged to take on masculine coded behaviours and the construction of the “new man” advocated for intellectual men of devotion to the revolution over ‘machista’ constructions centred on combat prowess. This served to “silence gender” (Ortega, 2012, p. 494) and instead create new identities of the compañero/compañera which were revolutionaries first, gendered individuals second.

However, at the time of disarmament and reintegration, women were ostracised for their new identities as guerrilleras and compañeras, whereas men were held up as heroic, as having sacrificed much for their involvement in the guerrillas. This manifested not only in being shunned by families upon return but also in reintegration programs being discriminatory against women by requiring literacy, voter registration cards and more forwardly discriminatory practices such as assigning poor lands to women.

Since then, El Salvador has regressed in literacy rates across the board for girls and the wage gap has continued to widen albeit not in education. While political representation of women has risen and special government bodies to counter women’s issues have been created, this is not the utopian construction that existed during the insurgency.

As a form of “New War” the hope for disruption to carry over to peace time was high amongst guerrilleras, indeed it was a reason to join for both ‘Politicised Guerrilleras’ and ‘Recruited Guerrilleras’, however the evidence instead shows that guerrilla movements adopted women’s issues and constructed new identities which superseded that of gender in the interests of the insurgency. Afterwards it was unfortunately largely business as usual. The focus for future guerrilla post-conflict reintegration committees would be to ensure, like in El Salvador, that significant numbers of female guerrilla leaders carry over into formal political spaces so that through such representation issues such as literacy and wage gaps can be dealt with in time. Lorena Peña of El Salvador is a prime example of how during a conflict the identity of guerrilla/compañera can supersede that of “woman”, however once in power the person can identify as a feminist and take on and use gender theories in the analysis of the issues her/his nation faces regarding women.

While the guerrillas may not have created a significant long lasting disruption to gender roles within El Salvador and other nations, the potential lies in the ability to safeguard positions of power for women post-conflict. While issues that existed prior to conflicts tend to carry over, this new representation of women presents the best possible way forward, given the evidence.



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About Saúl A. Zavarce

Venezuelan-Australian journalist and international relations academic.

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