Armed groups in Colombia stealing childhood from girls and boys alike
BOGOTA, Columbia, 25 August 2008 – Juan, 15, and Gloria, 12, lived with their parents in the rural community of Antioquia, Colombia. But their family life was disrupted when both children were captured and recruited by one of the country’s illegal armed groups.
During their time as child soldiers, Juan and Gloria were separated into different groups. Each group operated as mobile column, which supported other fixed groups engaged in armed conflict on the streets of various municipalities and sub-districts, or ‘veredas’, around the country.
Sadly, the story of Juan and Gloria is not unique in Colombia, where children are perhaps the worst-affected victims of armed groups.
The recruitment of children and adolescents is a war crime – condemned and explicitly prohibited by the Geneva Convention and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that no child under the age of 15 shall take part in hostilities, and that children exposed to armed conflict shall receive special protection. Furthermore, such recruitment is considered a crime under the Colombian Criminal Code.
Despite such prohibitions, thousands of children in Colombia are actively involved in armed groups. In 2003, according to the UN Secretary General, 7,000 children in Colombia were in the ranks of armed groups, and an additional 7,000 were involved in urban militias.
There is no indication that the situation has improved. Recruiting children remains an effective strategy for illegal armed groups because children are easily controlled.
Girls also recruited
Many of the children joining illegal armed groups say they do so voluntarily. Nonetheless, the use of children in armed conflict is morally and legally indefensible. There is no distinction between voluntary and forced recruitment of children in national or international legislation.
Girls such as Gloria make up a significant proportion of the children recruited by armed groups; according Human Rights Watch, they account for 25 per cent of child combatants in Colombia.
Some girls who ‘voluntarily’ join armed groups say they are motivated by a desire to escape sexual abuse at home. But they often find no safety in such groups. Sexual violence, including rape and exploitation, continues to be perpetrated by armed groups.
After two years of living with the group that captured them, both Juan and Gloria were able to manage their own separate escapes.
Juan was the first to get away, but retribution came swiftly. When the armed group found out about Juan’s escape, they went to his parents’ rural community and forced them to abandon their house, crops, animals and other belongings.
After Gloria escaped, her wary family sent her to the Human Rights Office, which referred her to the UNICEF-supported Colombian Institute of Family Welfare (ICBF).
Support and prevention
At ICBF, Gloria was soon entered into a special programme for young people demobilized from armed conflict. The office took all the necessary steps to legalize her status and assign the certificate issued by the Operative Committee on Laying Down Arms.
She also entered an ICBF programme that provided her with a monthly economic stipend, as well as support from a psychosocial team.
UNICEF is committed to helping former child soldiers resume normal lives. But the ultimate goal is to prevent children like Juan and Gloria from being conscripted into armed groups in the first place.