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Circulo de Estudios

The issue: Conflict-related sexual violence against children and young people in Quibdó

Quibdó is the capital city of the Chocó department in western Colombia, which is one of the regions worst affected by Colombia's armed conflict. Years of weak state control have left room for widespread coca cultivation, drug trafficking and illegal mining. The army and illegal armed groups are locked in a constant struggle for control of the region and its resources. The region's mainly Afro-Colombian and indigenous population has faced massacres, torture, extortion and disappearances, forcing thousands to flee to Quibdó. The city now has Colombia's largest proportion of internally displaced people, and 72% of Chocó's population are registered as official victims of Colombia's conflict.

This situation has fractured community life – families have been torn apart; people live in makeshift shelters, at risk of eviction by the police; and armed groups stake out their areas of control with deadly 'invisible borders'. In this setting, it is very difficult to maintain the family and community networks which traditionally protect children. As a result, children in Quibdó are at high risk of being targeted by armed groups, and those who do not carry out the tasks requested of them risk accusations of collaborating with the 'other side' and face reprisals.

The presence of armed groups in the area puts children at increased risk of sexual violence, whether they are involved with these groups or not. This is not a new problem in Quibdó, but it remains largely invisible because victims do not speak out for fear of their abusers and there is a widespread lack of knowledge of rights or where to go to demand protection. Violence and sexual abuse against children and women, within the family or community, are also hidden. In communities where these types of violence are unacknowledged, they can also be considered normal. This means that children don't even realise they should be protected from it.

These problems are amplified by inefficient and uncoordinated state institutions. There is a severe lack of specialists to deliver care to child survivors of conflict-related sexual violence. Moreover, corruption among public officials over many years has led many citizens to lose faith in the state's ability to support their needs. This only strengthens the armed groups' control.

How Circulo de Estudios is addressing this issue

Circulo de Estudios began working in Quibdó in 2011. They work with children to strengthen their understanding of their rights and their ability to protect themselves, as well as providing psycho-social support for child survivors of sexual violence. Over the last 2 years Circulo de Estudios has worked with over 500 children and young people in Quibdó. Their work with children is centred on the principle of a 'circulo' or 'circle', a 4-hour session which combines psychosocial support and training in children's rights with dance. All of the training uses practical exercises to make sure the children understand and can apply what they have learnt.

What does the project do?

The project aims to reduce the risk of conflict-related sexual violence against children and young people in Quibdó and to increase adults' ability to protect children from it. It supports children in the following ways:

Individual and group psychotherapy. Children will learn to understand and express emotions arising from the trauma of violence, displacement, family breakdown and the daily challenge of living alongside armed groups who control public life through fear and extreme machismo.

Learning about their rights. This helps children recognise they do not have to be passive victims, but can demand protection from adults at home, school and in local government bodies. They will also learn practical ways they can keep themselves safe.

Cross-cutting all the work is a focus on dance.

In addition, local adults are trained to identify the signs that a child is experiencing violence and to share these skills with others in their communities. When a case of abuse or recruitment of children by armed groups is identified, Circulo de Estudios will refer it to local healthcare providers or police where appropriate.

Circulo de Estudios also works with local government bodies, healthcare providers and schools to encourage them to recognise their shared responsibility for protecting children and to commit to working together to improve the support they offer.

How does dance protect children?

  • It helps them retake ownership of their body and value its abilities, instead of seeing it as an object of conflict or exploitation.
  • It's a safe and creative way for them to express their experiences, when articulating them may be traumatic or difficult.
  • It's fun and it keeps them coming back. It is one of the only opportunities they have to play and behave as children, in a community where they are more likely to be valued as a means of bringing in more income for their family or for carrying out tasks for an armed group.
  • Dance culture in Chocó is very strong. Each cultural group has their own style, but for all of them it is a centuries-old tradition through which ordinary people come together to express themselves and resist the fear and despair brought by conflict and social exclusion.

Case Study: Jairo's story

Jairo is 12 years old and has been attending Circulo de Estudios for two years. When Jairo's mother Maria was 16, guerrillas attacked her remote town and she was raped by two of their men. Maria fled to the nearest city, Quibdó, with her mother. She soon realised she was pregnant but was too ashamed to denounce the abuse to the authorities or to seek medical advice about her options. Maria suffered severe psychological trauma as a result of her experience. She struggled to accept her son, so the only emotions that Jairo learned to feel were the anger and desperation he encountered at home. He dropped out of school, and with no support to help him understand why he felt this way, turned to the only people he thought could give him a purpose; he began running errands for a local armed group.

When he was 10, Jairo was invited to join Circulo de Estudios. At first, he was reluctant to take part and was aggressive towards the other children. But with support, Jairo changed his behaviour and began to make friends. He realised that he could be appreciated without having to resort to crime. Two years later he is a regular at the project and he has discovered hidden talents. He is a natural leader, his peers look up to him and he loves helping to run activities for the younger children. He is now known within the community for his work with children, not with the armed groups. He is back in school, Circulo de Estudios is providing psychosocial support to his mother, and he has even set up a band playing traditional local music.

Talking about the changes he has experienced, Jairo said: "I always used to get involved in fights, I didn't listen to anything my mum and grandma told me, and I hated going to school. Now I've got a role in Ciculo de Estudio's play and I've started a band with my new friends. Sometimes we hold raffles to raise extra money to buy the instruments we need!"

Thank you for your interest in this project

To help Circulo de Estudio's work continue, you can donate here.