This article has been published in Enabling Education 7
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Title: Child Soldiers in Colombia, South America
Author: Páez, E
Publisher: EENET
Date: 2003

Child Soldiers in Colombia, South America

Erika Páez

Colombia has the highest percentage of ex-combatant children in the world. It is estimated that 11-16,000 Colombian boys and girls are participating in armed groups in Colombia’s long-standing civil war. Erika Páez, Save the Children UK’s Children and Armed Conflict Coordinator, talks here about those children who have left the armed groups and who are trying to rebuild their lives.

Children who have taken up arms are either involved directly in the civil war as members of bands, urban militias, guerrilla or para-military groups, or indirectly as spies, informers and messengers. These children make up over a third of the total number of people actively involved in armed conflict. Colombia has a total population of 42 million, 17 million of whom are children, and six million children are affected in some way by the conflict.

In 1997 the Government’s Institute for the Welfare of Children and Families was set up to address the rehabilitation of child soldiers and their re-integration into society. Special centres for de-mobilised children were established in 1999 all over the country with the support of Save the Children UK. The programme today has the capacity to receive 250 children, who have either escaped or been captured, at any one time. It is made up of three reception centres, seven specialist centres and twelve safe houses.

Since 1999 nearly 700 children, some as young as nine, have received care in these special centres. As the peace negotiations have broken down, the number of children being recruited has increased, and over the past year the number of former child soldiers requiring help from this programme has doubled.

The problem, however, is not only the war. Most of the former child soldiers come from rural homes, where there is a shortage of schools and high levels of illiteracy. In the last five years education in the rural areas and small towns has been getting worse. The education budget has been cut and the number of small primary schools (catering for 40-60 students) has been reduced.

Many children, especially boys, leave school in rural areas because of the pressure to earn money, others leave because they feel too old. Parents are often reluctant to send their children to school because of the school fees and the work they need the children to do at home. A lot of ex-combatant children say they left their schools because of the teaching methods.

Only two of the 700 ex-combatant children in the centres had gained a secondary education before they joined the armed group; 40 per cent cannot read or write, and five per cent are disabled due to war-injuries. Girls represent 30 per cent of ex-combatant children.

In December 2002 new legislation made all ex-combatant children eligible for care by the government: health, education, documentation and re-integration into society. Ninety per cent of the children have no documentation to prove who they are, or where they have come from. Without an identity card, they cannot access education or health services and therefore face exclusion. This lack of documentation also affects family re-unification, since it makes family tracing more difficult. Sadly only ten per cent of boys and girls return to their extended families.

In the special centres the children are entered into an education programme after an initial assessment. The education system aims to give them both formal and vocational education, so that they are able get a job and become independent.

In each of the centres there is an educator who is in regular contact with the school. The educators aim to improve the children’s level of education, and bring new understanding to their experiences of abuse, family violence, sexual abuse and discrimination. In this way the vicious cycle of child labour and educational deprivation can be broken. At a national and international level it is important to campaign for the re-establishment of the peace process and to stop the recruitment of children into armed groups in Colombia.

‘Girls in the Colombian Armed Groups – a diagnosis: Let us Dream’ by Erika Páez was published in Spanish in October 2002 by Terre des Hommes (TDH Germany) and SC UK. It is available from: SC UK, Carrera 7 N. 32-85 of 302, Bogota, Colombia and
A summary of the book is available in English and German.