06/11/2013 06:33 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

Can FARC's New Website on Female Rebel Fighters Improve Its Image?


FARC negotiator Jesus Santrich speaks to the media before the start of negotiations with the Colombian government in Havana August 28, 2013. REUTERS/Enrique De La Osa

Girl soldiers learn how to use assault rifles when they are just 11 years old. Women and girls undergo forced abortions and are used by commanders as sex slaves in the rebel ranks.

That's what women who have deserted Colombia's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), have told me, and that's what reports by human rights groups say too.

But the FARC says female rebel fighters are not victims, they are women who are proud to fight in Latin America's longest-running Marxist insurgency to defend the rights of poor and landless peasants against the rich elite.

That's the message that Farianas , a website recently launched by the leftist guerrilla group, wants to spread, as the rebels and the Colombian government press on with peace talks in Havana, Cuba, in a bid to end nearly 50 years of war.

Farianas is run by and dedicated to its female members and has posts from leading rebel fighters.

It aims to give an insight into why women join the FARC, life in the rebel ranks and the social, economic, and political inequality women face in Colombia today.

There are some 7,000 FARC rebels, and women and girls are thought to make up about 30 percent of FARC ranks, according to government estimates.

Victoria Sandino, one of the rebel peace negotiators in Havana, says Farianas aims to destroy "the myth that female members were victims" of their male counterparts.

"We had the courage to take up arms to defend the dispossessed and ourselves," Sandino says on the website.

Female guerrillas also talk about abortion on the website. "Abortion is one of the methods we have had to adopt ... but we are also educating men and women all the time about contraception so that we can avoid pregnancies and not have to resort to abortions," one rebel fighter says.

While female rebels fight alongside men during combat, carry out first aid and know how to use computers and radios, they can also be normal women and caring mothers, the website says.

"We fall in love, we fall out of love, we laugh, we dance and we also put on make-up during events we consider to be special," one female rebel is quoted as saying on the website.

But this is an image of female fighters that few Colombians share.

The FARC enjoys little support among Colombians, especially those living in the cities. Many accuse the guerrillas of kidnapping and killing tens of thousands of innocent civilians and sowing terror over the decades.

The FARC started out as a Marxist agrarian movement back in 1964, but later turned to the cocaine trade, kidnapping and extortion to fill its war coffers. It is considered a terrorist organisation by the United States and the European Union.

While most Colombians welcome the peace talks with the FARC, optimism that a peace deal will be reached this year is waning and local polls show people are tiring of the slow talks.

The negotiations have dragged on for 11 months with only a partial accord on agrarian reform so far, the first point of a six-point agenda.

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