Armed conflict and internal displacement in Colombia
Armed conflict in Colombia has a history of more than fifty years that still continues, despite the peace treaty signed by government and the biggest guerrilla group FARC (Fuerzas armadas revolucionarias de Colombia, in English: Revolutionary armed forces of Colombia). According to the Victims Record of Colombia, from 1985 to 2013 there are 2.683.335 women that are victims of the armed conflict. From those, 2.420.887 women have been forcibly displaced, 1.431 have suffered sexual violence, 2.601 have been forced to disappear, 12.624 have been killed, 592 have been hurt by an antipersonnel mine, 1.697 have been illegally recruited and 5.873 have been kidnapped .
Women have been described as the main victims of the armed conflict, especially in the Colombian cultural context that in some regions is still considered to be ‘machista’ and patriarchal one . Cadavid shows how women in Colombia are vulnerable targets of the armed conflict, a condition that requires specific policies that aim to protect them . Alzate points out how displaced women in Colombia are victims of all kinds of violations of their sexual and reproductive rights, such as the right to health, right to decide on the number of children, right to physical integrity and to live free from violence, and the right to privacy . In addition, according to the Consejo Nacional de Política Económica y Social (CONPES, in English: Politic, Economic and Social National Council), there is visible recognition of the power relationships among men and women, whereby masculinity is considered as privileged, unequal and unjust .
On the other hand, some authors in Colombia have also explicitly stressed Colombian women’s agency instead of being victims only. Osorio described them as ‘survivors’ of the war but even more, he showed their impressive resistance to these extremely painful and precarious situations, positioning them as ‘agents’ who can restart life and overcome their displacement .
In this study we were interested in how Internally Displaced Women (IDW) living in Bogotá themselves articulate their experiences of victimization and agency. To that purpose, we studied how they reconstructed their life stories and reflected on their own experiences.
Debates about victimization, survivorship and agency
Violence against women during and after armed conflict is globally recognized. United Nations reports explain how armed conflict exacerbates patterns of violence against women in different ways: increasing the incidences of everyday violence, particularly domestic violence, and increasing as communities break down during and after conflicts . Additionally, among different kinds of violence, sexual violence in particular is used against women during and after armed conflict. As Haeri explained, sexual violence is used to punish, shame, intimidate, or simply to destroy the fabric of a community. Jack et al., explain that ‘By raping women, who represent the purity and culture of the nation, invading armies are also symbolically raping the nation itself” .
Violence against displaced women has been documented worldwide . In Europe, for example, Freedman  showed how women refugees from Syria who arrived recently in Europe to find protection, are vulnerable to multiple forms of insecurity and violence. They have been forced to engage in sex to pay for their passage, among other violent acts . In Asia, experiences of armed conflict and displacement in Syria, Sri Lanka and Nepal, clearly show how women experience violence [11,12,13,14,15]. Alsaba pointed out how even new forms of violence emerged and existing patterns of violence are often amplified and intensified as sexual violence. The author said that violence against women is understood as a tactic of war that includes military sexual slavery and forced prostitution in Syria . Africa is not an exception, with examples in different countries such as Uganda and the Republic of Congo [16, 17]. Jacobsen and Dryden pointed out how refugees in these countries have been found to be at risk of sexual violence, human trafficking or labor exploitation [16, 17]. In addition, Knap pointed out how migration represents a drastic life change and gender roles and relations often shift in this process; this has been even more difficult for women .
Historically, violence is considered to be committed by men . For example, Goldstein’s historical review pointed out how it is implied in history that men fight and women do not . Women are portrayed as supportive to men when they go to war, in example providing them with entertainment and relief after battles while the ones who fight are the men. Furthermore, the author explained how the roles of women remained consistent after war, especially the responsibility for home life . As Jack argued, the construction of the identities of women in their gendered roles as mothers and guardians of the culture implies that they are vulnerable and need protection . This identity is embedded in culture as described by Elshtain in 1989. She suggested the features of women’s role in war as two opposites: the ‘beautiful soul’ or the ‘Spartan mother’. The first depicts women as better human beings, distanced from the dirt and brutality of the world, with the mission of being mothers and wives. On the other hand, the Spartan mother encourages men to fight, or wishes to fight herself, and actively supports war .
Many authors over time have agreed that in war zones, being a woman is a synonym of being a victim, just based on their gender. Some authors define ‘victim’ as any form of violence of abuse committed against women [19, 22]. This concept even initiated a specific research field in criminology, namely victimology [19, 22]. The use of the concept ‘victim’ has been controversial especially related to sexual violence and rape. Discussions about this notion reflect the tensions between the fields of feminist studies and victimology. Victimologists, working in a specific research field in criminology, prefer the use of ‘victim’ for persons who suffer a sexual assault, and feminist researchers prefer the term ‘survivor’ . As Walklate explained, the use of the term ‘victim’ has been associated with blaming and re-victimization of the person who was sexually assaulted. The author also argued that the term ‘victim’ has implicit the assumption of a specific stereotype of ‘normal’ victim. The stereotype of a victim allows men to judge if the behavior of the victim was or was not appropriate, for example, dressing in a particular way that may incite male to rape . According to Seririer, the concept of ‘survivor’ was introduced in the eighties in order to empower women to ‘speak out’. When women share their experiences, their speech permit them to recover their autonomy. They are not blamed or made to feel guilty. They become heroic activists and speakers, rather than silenced victims. It also is an inspiration for others who suffered assault to change their thinking around self-blame or isolation. They could understand that there are more survivors of this kind of assaults. It contributes to changing the social myths and victim-blaming attitudes about rape .
The use of the term victim or survivor is fundamental, because can be internalized and made part of one’s identity . For example, the label ‘victim’ could imply several things. First, it could mean that the individual was passive or accepting of their assault and may not currently be actively working to overcome the situation. Second, it can theoretically lead to self-conscious emotions such as shame, guilt, and a lack of self-compassion: feelings which impede recovery from traumatic events. . On the contrary, the term ‘survivor’ implies strength of will, resistance to the assault or self-shaming after-effects, and an active role in facing one’s traumatic experience and recovery. Survivor labels present the individual as an agent who does not experience abuse passively. In that sense, self-labelling as a survivor would result in coping better with traumatic events and experiencing positive mental health outcomes .
In addition, it might be a better strategy to frame oneself as a victim to stress innocence and vulnerability, for example, in the context of a court trial [25,26,27]. However, to recover from the experience and create a positive self-identity, adopting the term survivor might be the better strategy.
Although we found the use of the term ‘survivor’ to be very important, in this study, we focus more in the term agency, because we think that our participants expressed in their narratives not only experiences of sexual assaults (survivors), but they expressed how they passed though many other different traumatic experiences including armed conflict and internally displacement.
However, some authors have a different perspective regarding men and women roles in conflict and post conflict settings. For example, according to the Human Security Report, 2005, ‘With the critically important exception of sexual violence, there is considerable evidence to suggest that men, not women, are more vulnerable to the major impacts of armed conflict’ . In this report, it is pointed out how males are more likely to die on the battlefield, but also more likely to be victims of collateral damage . Moreover, Haeri explained how, far from being passive victims, ‘women from all walks of life including peasants and members of the educated class such as teachers, nurses, journalists and even nuns played a key role in sustaining the conflict and demonstrated their potential for inflicting extraordinary cruelty’ . Examples include the atrocities committed in the genocide of Rwanda, where women participated actively as killers from the Hutu group and other women fought in the Tutsi resistance .
Cohen points out that men and women are likely to succumb to and participate in violent behavior under certain conditions . She explains how combatants of both sexes may face enormous social pressure to commit violence and that both sexes are likely to respond to such pressures in similar ways . For example, gang rapists where pressures from a group can cause individuals to behave in ways that they would never do on their own. Women and men are subjected to similar pressures from within armed groups and, facing similar circumstances, can be expected to commit similar atrocities. Moreover, she explained that, ‘women perpetrate wartime atrocities is surprising only because of the gendered assumptions that scholars and policymakers often make about women’s capacity to commit violence’.  Inspired by these studies, some scholars discuss the conceptualization of agency and victimization in zones of war, violent conflict and displacement. Hutchinson, in her literature overview reframes women from passive victims to active agents, able to draw upon personal strengths and resilience to develop strategies, which maximize survival chances. She also points to the paradoxical character of ‘passivity’ as a potential strategy of women to survive . She observed this for instance in the case of North Uganda, where young women seek to marry or to become pregnant by high commanders due to the associated privileges such as exceptions from hard labor . Some authors described how girls can use sex and marriage consciously and voluntarily to bargain themselves into units and to gain access to food, water and other material goods [8, 31, 32]. According to Heari, women show remarkable strength in coping with the challenges of living in war and often adopt new roles and responsibilities to care of their families and take part in community life . In Sri Lanka for example, Rajasingham suggested that despite the psychosocial traumas that displacement entails, women found an opportunity for greater personal and group autonomy finding new spaces as heads of households or income generators in a post-conflict setting .
The term ‘agency’ is linked as well with resilience. Some authors define resilience as: ‘psychological attributes of an individual which may protect against negative consequences’ . It is also conceived as the maintenance of healthy/successful functioning or adaptation within the context of a significant adversity or threat and is better characterized as a dynamic process, since individuals can be resilient to specific environmental hazards or resilient at one time but not another . Nevertheless, subsequently the focus shifted towards exploring how broader systems facilitate processes of resilience. This led to an understanding that resilience processes are facilitated by culture and context-specific transactions between individuals and their social ecology .
Regarding the term ‘agency’, the debate goes further. As Hitlin notes, ‘Agency remains a slippery concept because of inconsistent definitions across theoretical projects’ . For example, Campbell  defined this debate as the ‘black box’ of ‘personal agency’. In his essay, he identified two main conceptions regarding agency. The first one, agency is defended for some authors as ‘the power that individuals possess that enables them to realize their chosen goals’. Against this position, some other authors, such as Weber  defined agency as ‘the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance’. Salzman argued that the concept of agency includes the intention, options, purposes and how people could achieve their goals, but in a context of social norms that they are not following passively, but modifying their social worlds . Hitlin also explained, that agentic behavior is influenced by the requirements of the interactions; as actors become more or less concerned with the immediate moment versus long-term life goals, they employ different social psychological processes and exhibit different forms of agency according to the self and the time .
In their book: “Beyond Mothers, Monsters, Whores: Thinking about women’s violence in Global Politics”, Laura Sjoberg and Caron Gentry, pointed out regarding agency, that people do not make choices independent of either other people or the social structures around them. They argued that people do make choices, but that those choices are both heavily and differentially constrained: “By heavily constrained, we mean that a wide variety of social structures, expectations and significations play a role in constituting conditions of possibility for choices and the choices themselves. By differentially constrained, we mean that both the level and type of constraints differ across people’s positions in social and political life – based on gender, race, class, nationality and other features of position in global politics’ .
Inspired by these scholarly discussions, this paper will explore the different tussles between agency and helplessness that internally displaced young mothers in Bogotá lived, according to their life stories and their own perspective.