By Laura Herrera for Infosurhoy.com / TodayColombia
Instead of playing games, they carry guns. And the dreams that would normally fill children’s imaginations are replaced with trauma and abuse.
Thousands of Colombian children and adolescents are living through nightmares as victims of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN), criminal gangs and other illegal armed groups.
In order to provide a network of protection against this criminal practice, the campaign Soñar es un Derecho (The Right to Dream) was launched nationwide on Sept. 19.
The initiative seeks to mobilize society against the crime of child recruitment, as the project empowers young facilitators to use art as a tool to resolve conflicts in their communities. Music, dance and painting are the program’s main strategies for developing creativity, communication skills and the exercising of rights by children and young people.
“We’ve provided another option for children that may save them from taking the wrong path,” said Juan David, a 24-year-old artist from Medellín who was trained by the program. “When they start singing and making graffiti, they realize it enriches their soul. If I hadn’t found hip-hop, I don’t know what would’ve happened with my life.”
After a week of training at Fundación Mi Sangre in August, Juan David traveled to Villavicencio, a city in the department of Meta, where he trained representatives of youth groups in September.
Fundación Mi Sangre and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are spearheading the initiative, which is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and has partners such as the Colombian Institute for Family Well-Being (ICBF) and World Bank.
The Right to Dream campaign gained immediate exposure through social media and the participation of Colombian singer Juanes during its launch. Juanes, a 17-time Latin Grammy Award winner, also is the founder of Fundación Mi Sangre.
By the end of the campaign, in 2014, about 720 members of youth groups will have been trained in 14 Colombian municipalities.
Later this year, the campaign will promote a fair in Medellín, which is home to the headquarters of Fundación Mi Sangre. At the event, children and young people will share their experiences and participate in activities such as theater, juggling and music.
The municipalities that directly are benefiting from the campaign were selected based on the vulnerability of their child populations to crime. They are in seven departments in need of greater investments in culture and education.
The map of vulnerability
Of Colombia’s 1,096 municipalities, 530 are considered “at-risk” for child recruitment, according to the Intersectoral Commission for the Prevention of the Recruitment and Use of Children and Adolescents.
These cities have at least six of the 12 risk factors identified by the Commission, which include high murder rates, family violence and large ethnic populations, as well as the presence of illegal armed groups and illicit crops.
About 13 million children and adolescents – 79% of Colombian minors – reside in these municipalities.
“The child recruitment problem exists in 31 of Colombia’s 32 departments. The only department that’s free from recruitment is the department of San Andrés and Providencia,” said Juan Manuel Luna García, coordinator of the IOM’s Program for Children.
Using the recruitment records of children who have been reintegrated into society, it’s possible indirectly to map the main regions of recruitment, said Adriana González, the deputy director general of the ICBF. Antioquia, Meta, Caquetá, Tolima, Cauca, Nariño, Putumayo, Arauca, Casanare and Chocó are the departments that are in need of the most attention from the ICBF.
The recruitment of at-risk children occurs forcibly or through seduction.
“They might offer you a cellphone or tell complete lies about what life is like in the guerrilla struggle. That’s why it’s necessary to protect children’s environment,” said Alma Viviana Pérez, director of the Presidential Program for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law.
Once minors have joined these illegal armed groups, they typically are used as messengers. However, it is not uncommon for them also to be used to install mines or participate in combat, according to human rights activists.
Rebuilding life projects
Once they have been rescued or demobilize voluntarily – which is what happens in most cases – the minors are helped by the ICBF to reclaim their lives.
They receive personalized attention, based on the particularities of each case. The help begins with a profile of the minor based on psychological, social, educational and nutritional evaluations.
“There are children with post-traumatic stress and others who are overstimulated. They had very strong experiences during the war,” González said.
Depending on the case, the minors are offered different forms of treatment. Minors are accompanied by an attorney and a family advocate while they meet with a team composed of a psychologist, social worker and nutritionist.
According to the ICBF, there are currently 180 children being treated by home tutors, where the children are taken in by qualified families. Other minors return to live with their biological families, while some are sent to specialized care centers.
The final stage of the process happens in juvenile homes, marking their transition to care through the Colombian Agency for Reintegration (ACR), which assists demobilized guerrilla fighters over the age of 18.
“We believe that the care being offered to children is well-established and we’re going to continue to help,” said Marcelo Pisani, who leads the IOM mission in Colombia. “But we’re more focused on the issue of preventing recruitment.”