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Bodies between bullets: the instrumentalisation of prostitution in the Colombian armed conflict

Throughout sixty years of internal armed conflict in Colombia, countless actors have systematically violated the sexual and reproductive rights of women and LGBTQIA+ people. Within this population, people involved in prostitution were subjected to punishments, controls and sanctions of all kinds over their bodies. These controls were aimed at reinforcing the military and territorial power of the illegal armed groups, but ultimately, at establishing a social order that conformed to their warlike interests. The following piece aims to offer a critical look at how this violence was a continuum of contempt for prostituted bodies and how it ended up being aggravated and instrumentalized in repertoires of violence.

In 2016, the FARC-EP guerrillas (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the Colombian government signed a Peace Agreement to work towards a comprehensive and sustainable resolution to the long-lasting armed conflict in the country. After decades of confrontation between leftist guerrilla groups, right-wing paramilitary groups, drug cartels, and the Colombian army, different stakeholders have made efforts to uncover the truth about what happened. Many of these groups initially formed with the goal of addressing issues such as land ownership and social inequality, but over time, they became involved in drug trafficking, kidnapping, and extortion to fund their operations. This has a devastating impact on Colombian society, in terms of widespread violence, human rights violations, and forced displacement of millions of people.

In order to achieve lasting peace, justice, and reconciliation it was necessary to address both the root causes of the armed conflict and the consequences of it. For instance, the limited or even absent State’s presence in remote rural areas was one of the main causes. Such areas have been often characterized by weak state institutions, limited services, and a lack of effective governance that allowed the consolidation of armed groups along the national territory. These groups have filled the power vacuum and exerted control over local communities through the imposition of a parallel social, political, and economic order.

In this context, the armed groups aimed to impose rules on all aspects of people's public and private lives, including norms related to the body and sexuality. Such norms reproduced gender roles and stereotypes that demanded specific behavior from men and women. Men were expected to be the breadwinners of the family and conform to specific ideals of “manhood”; and women were to fulfill their duties of “good wives, daughters, mothers and neighbors”. This also included strict dress and behavioral codes according to the standards of “morality and decency” of each armed group.

The limitation of identity and self-representation meant that those who fall outside these standards would be harassed, stigmatized and, in many cases, killed. Precisely, people involved in prostitution[1] were part of those who did not fit into these norms. This made them more prone to discrimination, violence and abuse compared to the rest of the civilians.

As stated in the final report of the Colombian Truth Commission, women involved in prostitution were disciplined on different fronts. They were forced to undergo tests for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), cytology, and other medical examinations on a regular basis or they were supposed to carry identification cards as sex workers. The main purpose of this was to ensure that combatants who paid for sex will not become ill, and therefore, would not be fit to fight as expected. Although it was men who often carried the diseases, it was prostitutes who were punished for being infected. As for LGBTQIA+ people, widespread stigma and discrimination against them led them to undergo mandatory HIV testing regardless of whether they were involved in prostitution or not. Many of those who tested positive were forcibly displaced or disappeared by armed groups during the most critical years of the conflict.

In addition to controls, the armed groups subjected their bodies to public punishments. By shaving their heads in public or by being forced to perform community chores such as street sweeping and garbage removal. Sanctions were even more severe when prostitutes were profiled as 'girlfriends' or 'collaborators' of the adversary armed group. The sexist nature of the sanctions sought to divide the 'good' women from the 'bad' women and to mark the latter in such a way that everyone could distinguish them.

Although armed groups considered prostitution undesirable and immoral, they profited from it. Women in prostitution were turned into sex slaves of the troops, spies, or as a mean to generate income. Sexual exploitation was included in the portfolio of illegal activities, that along with drug trafficking and illegal mining, allowed criminal groups to operate and to gain military advantage over others.

Targeting prostitute’s bodies had a double purpose: to terrorize the communities in order to ensure their obedience, and to reaffirm the armed groups as defenders of public health and morals. The prejudices against prostitutes and LGBTQIA+, which already existed before the conflict and continue after it, played a determining role in their victimization. They were used as a justification for the violence, but specially, for gaining approval from the locals or at least, to rely on their indifference. The multiple expressions of violence to which women in prostitution and LGBTQIA+ were subjected during the armed conflict amplified the belief that their bodies can be accessed and dominated without limits and in total impunity. Thus, the exploitation of their bodies became a new scenario of confrontation that was invisible or minimized for many years.

As we now seek to avoid future repetition, the crimes committed against women involved in prostitution and LGBTQIA+ people during the armed conflict are now coming to light. Perpetrators have been required to recognize their responsibility and provide comprehensive reparations for victims, considering special measures for gender-based violence during the conflict. For fear of retaliation many of the victims fail to report the abuses committed against them. That being said, none of this will be enough if the causes of violence against this population, such as poverty, racism, and machismo are not properly eradicated, as well as the recognition of their role in the construction of a more inclusive and democratic society.



[1] The ongoing discussion around prostitution is complex and multifaceted, with diverse perspectives and opinions within feminists. Some view this as inherently exploitative and oppressive, and considered that individuals who engage in sex work may not have true autonomy and agency due to a variety of factors, such as poverty and lack of alternatives. They considered these factors can undermine the notion of true voluntariness in sex work. In this piece we will used the term “people involved in prostitution” or “prostituted bodies” in order to take into account this important discussion.

About the author

Ana María Ríos Laverde (she/her) is a Human rights lawyer from Colombia, currently based in Germany.

She is interested in the interconnection between global crises and growing social injustice in the Global South, as well as the current proposals for the recognition of nature as a subject of rights.

@amriosl (Instagram)

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