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No room for reproductive choices: forced contraception within the FARC in Colombia

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Image courtesy of Sputnik Mundo, featuring Olga.

A few years ago, Colombia made the headlines after the government signed a peace accord with the FARC (in Spanish, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), ending the country’s most famous conflict, which lasted decades. President Juan Manuel Santos even won a Nobel Peace Prize for this. But it was not a smooth process. In a referendum, the people (or rather, the voters, considering that less than 40% of Colombians actually voted) rejected the deal, though it was an extremely tight result, with 50.2% against it and 49.8% in favor. Then, a couple of months later, Congress overwhelmingly approved a revised accord. The New York Times defined it as “a vote that was most likely the final hurdle in ratifying the troubled agreement”.

However, that was only the beginning of the complicated process of implementation, which brought some of the country’s most renowned jurists together in the Special Jurisdiction for Peace. They are responsible for analyzing a number of interesting —and often controversial— issues, among which the acts of sexual violence committed within armed groups. Last month, Women’s Link Worldwide won a case in the Constitutional Court of Colombia. They filed it on behalf of Helena*, a woman who was forcibly recruited by the FARC when she was 14, then forced to use contraceptives and to have an abortion while she was a member of the group. The Court entitled her to reparations under the Victims Law, which she had been previously denied. Helena’s story is not a one-off event, as documented by Women’s Link Worldwide.

These practices were established since the Eighth National Conference of the Guerrilla (in Spanish, Octava Conferencia Nacional de Guerrilleros), in 1993. This meeting defined their policy regarding contraception, by stating that family planning is mandatory and recommending the use of Norplan, a hormone-releasing device implanted in women’s arms. In a press release in December 2017, the political committee of the FARC acknowledged that “due to the rigor of war, pregnancies were not admitted and… the use of contraception was promoted and accompanied by education for a healthy and responsible sexual life.” It goes on to say that ”[p]regnant women had to make the decision to assume their motherhood and leave the group or terminate their pregnancy. It was the woman who made the decision and it was respected by the organization.”

This press release is quite interesting. After all, the expression “not admitted” seems to be incompatible with the word “promoted”. While “promoted” does not per se suggest interference with the autonomy of women, “not admitted” seems to close the room for choices. In short, by reading between the lines, one can see a contradiction where others might see a justification for forced contraception. Both men and women are able to use contraceptive methods. However, only women were forced to do so in the FARC because this was their expected role; it is what they were “supposed to do” to address a “woman’s business”, as Rebecca Cook, Bernard Dickens and Mahmoud Fathalla have put it when talking about contraception in the past.   

While other violations related to sexual and reproductive health —such as forced pregnancy—often receive more attention than forced contraception (perhaps even understandably), the fact is that they are two sides of the same coin. The FARC’s contraception policy echoed two stereotypes on reproductive health: that becoming pregnant is something that happens to women, almost as if men had nothing to do with it; and that therefore women are solely responsible for contraception. Ultimately, forced contraception is one more blow at women’s sexual and reproductive health. Wartime is no excuse.

* The name was changed in order to protect her privacy.

Thematic Areas: Health & Human Rights

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The views reflected in this expert column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law or Georgetown University. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.

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