Women in the FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) guerrilla movement in El Salvador

By: S.J.Smith

My Research Questions:

  • What were women’s experiences in the FMLN guerrilla movement?
  • What were the different ways in which women in El Salvador organized and supported the FMLN guerrilla movement, other than taking up arms?
  • Did women who participated as guerrilla insurgents continue on (post-war) to participate in women’s organizing efforts? If so, in what forms of organizing has this emerged?


A Brief Summary of the war in El Salvador and the rise of the FMLN movement

The Salvadoran civil war was a conflict between the military-led government of El Salvador & the formed left-wing guerrilla groups of the FMLN—a primarily campasin@ led movement (campasin@s made up 95% of the guerrilla forces). The war rose out of growing socioeconomic inequality, government repression and violence. In the 1980’s, 77% of rural residents were living in poverty. The Salvadoran civil war lasted more than 12 years before the Peace Accords were signed in 1992. More than 75,000 people were killed, thousands were disappeared, and 1.5 million people were displaced from their homes–tens of thousands of which were forced to flee and live in refugee camps. The United States contributed to the conflict through the funding and training of the Salvadoran government during the Carter and Regan administrations. The FMLN later went on to become one of the two main political parties in El Salvador.

It’s worth noting that much of the historical literature I found through my research rarely, if ever, discussed the role of women, unless it was a piece of text written specifically about women and El Salvador. Those that did, did so briefly, dedicating anywhere from a paragraph to a few short pages, or photos. However the majority of historical texts that I found, contributed very little if anything, to the role of women in El Salvador’s history-although we know that the role of women was significant to the FMLN movement

The Roles of Women in the FMLN

de8c927bec0cf97f226126c920d19139Women constituted 60% of those providing logistical support for the FMLN; 30% of the armed combatants were women

-Women’s experiences in the FMLN went through major changes in terms of: sexuality and relationships, gender roles, and motherhood

There was typically an urban/rural divide of how women came to support the FMLN movement:

Urban: students, trade union organizers
Rural: forming and joining women’s organizations & mothers/wives providing logistical support (cooking, emotional/material support)


Women performed a variety of duties that would not have been possible under the “normal” gendered division of labor during pre-war times in El Salvador….


Some of the duties that women performed to support the FMLN movement included:

  • Combatants (Guerrillas)
  • Field Nurses (Sanitarias)
  • Radio Operators (Radioistas)
  • Organizers (Brigadistas)
  • Cooking food (Cocineras)


Women have expressed mixed feelings about their roles during the war and the consequences of the war….



  • On the one hand, some women express strong feelings of self-affirmation due to working in extremely adverse conditions and accomplishing difficult tasks that they never thought they were capable of; you could argue that this was translated as empowerment

  • On the other hand, the intensive utilization of “female qualities” that proved to be necessary for waging a war, such as caring for others, sacrifice without recompensation, self negation, etc. re-informed in the collective imagination how suitable women were for carrying out the tasks they had always performed; which could be seen as a reinforcement of traditional gender roles

Salvadoran Women Organize during and after the War!


The lack of analysis around the participation of women in the Salvadoran war and its long term implications motivated Mujeres por la Dignidad y la Vida called Las Dignas, a group of Salvadorean feminists, to undertake research into the impact of the war on the women combatants and supporters of the FMLN. The consequences of the war, for women’s personal lives, or participating as leaders and as the heroines of the civil war, has practically been ignored….

“Of the 22,000 cases investigated by a truth commission, 5,293 women were either assassinated or disappeared, tortured, sequestered and injured, comprising 25% of the registered abuses by the commission. For everyone woman who has suffered personally, there are twelve women who have endured loss of kin, and witnessed horror.”


The Co-Madres are another women-led organization formed during the civil war by a committee of mothers and relatives of prisoners, the disappeared and the politically assassinated of El Salvador to discover the truth behind the missing relatives of the membership. Among their activities are the distribution of flyers to get out the message, and the occupation of government offices to elicit the help of foreign nations in pressuring the Salvadoran government.

By 1993, there were an estimated 500 or more members. The offices of the committee were subject to police raids by the government, and the members were subject to systematic rape in order to destroy the organization. A total of about 48 members were abducted by death squads and subject to torture and rape. Of these, five were assassinated.

Post-War Realities for Women



FMLN new

  • Many of the women who were active during the war express a desire to channel their energies into things other than domestic activities, a desire that has not found much support from today’s FMLN, whose current policies are characterized by the absence of attention to women’s needs
  • A good part of women’s current disenchantment with the FMLN is due to the fact that it does not acknowledge their contribution; they feel forgotten and devalued, and have expressed their resentment in a variety of ways, some of which include refusing to participate in elections. Those who do have a desire to continue to be involved in the FMLN, seem to be the ones with a particular political awareness that they cultivated prior to their involvement with the FMLN guerrilla movement during the war
  • While the literature demonstrates extensive consequences faced by women who participated in the FMLN, there are many women who express the multiple ways that they benefited from their experiences in the FMLN movement. Some of these include: transforming their wartime skills and networks into postwar jobs, educational opportunities, formal political positions, and continued activism and organizing.

Women and their Communities Continue to Seek Justice for War Crimes



My recent research has been focused on exploring the role of oral testimony as an emerging form of activism and organizing for women in El Salvador, specifically as it relates to human rights abuses committed during the civil war.

The 6th Restorative Justice Tribunal was held in Santa Marta, Cabañas, El Salvador. The tribunal brought together survivors of human rights violations committed during the country’s civil war to share their stories and call for justice. Many of the testimonies that have emerged, have been those of women to demand an investigation into the Santa Cruz massacre


“From November 11-19, 1981, a “scorched earth” military operation unfolded in the rural hamlets of San Jerónimo, San Felipe, La Pinte, Peña Blanca, Santa Marta, Celaque y Jocotillo, in the municipality of Victoria,  Cabañas, El Salvador. Residents were forced to abandon their homes and flee under heavy bombardment and machine gun fire; ground troops under the command of Colonel Sigifredo Ochoa Pérez swept through the zone, torturing and killing what survivors they found, setting fire to homes and destroying villages in their wake. After days on the run, hundreds of Salvadoran survivors—civilians, including newborn babies—found themselves encircled by the military. When they tried to escape near the schoolhouse in Santa Cruz, hundreds were cut down by grenades and machine gun fire.

The massacre of Santa Cruz took place on November 18, 1981. There has never been a formal investigation, not an exhumation nor any official tally of the dead. For years, Ochoa Pérez served as a legislator in the National Assembly.” – Unfinished Sentences/Oraciones Incompletas


Please ask Attorney General Luís Martínez to assign the investigation of the Santa Cruz massacre to the Public Prosecutor for Human Rights


Bourgois, Philippe. “The power of violence in war and peace Post-Cold War lessons from El Salvador.” Ethnography 2.1 (2001): 5-34.

Dickson-Gómez, Julia. “One Who Doesn’t Know War, Doesn’t Know Anything”: The Problem of Comprehending Suffering in Postwar El Salvador.” Anthropology and Humanism 29.2 (2004): 145-158.

Doctors for Global Health. Santa Marta. Web. http://www.dghonline.org

“God Alone With US.” Unfinished Sentences. Web. <http://unfinishedsentences.org/godalone-was-with-us/&gt;

Guardado, Ana G. “Outsiders in El Salvador: The Role of an International Truth Commission in a National Transition.” Berkeley La Raza LJ 22 (2012): 433.

Holiday, David, and William Stanley. “Building the peace: Preliminary lessons from El Salvador.” Journal of International Affairs 46.2 (1993): 415-438.

Kampwirth, Karen. Women & Guerrilla Movements: Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chiapas, Cuba. Penn State Press, 2003.

Silber, Irina Carlota. “Mothers/Fighters/Citizens: Violence and Disillusionment in Postwar El Salvador.” Gender & History 16.3 (2004): 561-587.

Vázquez, Norma. “Motherhood and sexuality times of war: The case of women militants of the FMLN in El Salvador.” Reproductive Health Matters 5.9 (1997): 139-146.

Viterna, Jocelyn. Women in war: the micro-processes of mobilization in El Salvador. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Wood, Elisabeth Jean. Insurgent collective action and civil war in El Salvador. Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Wood, Elisabeth Jean. “Challenges to political democracy in El Salvador.” The Third Wave of Democratization in Latin America: Advances and Setbacks (2005): 179-201.


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