Peace education: Practice is the best teacher
In the past decade alone, the estimated impact of armed conflict on children includes 2 million killed, 6 million seriously injured or permanently disabled, 12 million left homeless, more than 1 million orphaned or separated from their families, and 10 million psychologically traumatized.
In Colombia, where guerrilla war has displaced an estimated 1 million people since 1980, most of them women and children, and where children are routinely pressed into armed conflict, the Children's Movement for Peace mobilized close to 13 million people -- children and adults -- to commit themselves to ending violence in their country by actively working for peace and social justice.
The Children's Movement spent almost all of 1996 campaigning for peace in a national mobilization effort coordinated by UNICEF and Redepaz, a network of 400 non-governmental organizations (NGOs). In October of that year, close to 3 million children, aged 8 to 18, came out to vote on a special referendum, exercising their human right, as articulated in the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, to have their opinions heard on issues of importance to them.
Admittedly a unique approach to education, the mobilization effort, nonetheless, taught a country more about peace than any lecture could.
Where once it was thought that peace education meant teaching about a defined subject within a formal curriculum, UNICEF's experience increasingly supports the idea that the best way to learn about peace is by doing -- by practising the behaviours that promote peace. In Colombia, the children did not take any formal exams on peace; instead they pushed it to the top of the public's agenda, making peace, rather than violence, the expectation of the general population.
A similar approach to peace education, applied in many different settings, produces positive results around the world. In Rwanda's Solidarity Camps, the children who have survived the conflicts that devastated their countries are learning about cooperation and conflict resolution through recreational and cultural activities. In Sri Lanka, where the armed conflict of the past 15 years continues, conflict resolution strategies are integrated into the entire curriculum. Peace is the theme of art and music, travelling dance and theatre groups, folk stories and poetry, sports events and science projects in Liberia, Mozambique, Rwanda and southern Sudan. Primary school curricula have been rewritten in Burundi, and teachers have been trained in interactive teaching methods in that country and in Croatia and Yugoslavia. And Egypt is about to embark on a Values for Life programme with youth groups and clubs, focusing on children's rights and on ways of resolving differences.
In Colombia, in October 1997, one year after the children voted for peace, 10 million adults followed their lead. On a special ballot cast during local, municipal and provincial elections, they voted "to build peace and social justice, to protect life, to reject all forms of violence and to respect the Children's Peace Mandate." And, via the ballot, Colombians demanded an end to atrocities and a respect for international humanitarian law. Just three days after their vote, then President Ernesto Samper responded to the will of the children and adults of his country and announced an end to the conscription of children under 18 into the army.
However, Colombia still allows children with their parents' permission to enlist and, according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, guerrillas, paramilitaries and security forces continue to use children, some as young as eight years old, in combat areas. A 1996 report by the country's public advocate said that up to 30 per cent of some guerrilla units consist of children.
UNICEF estimates that some 300,000 children around the world are fighting the wars of adults. Clearly, it remains the urgent responsibility of the State to protect the rights of children affected by armed conflict. But at the same time, peace education is making a difference -- as the next generation teaches in some instances and learns in others -- about the wiser ways of conflict resolution.