The issue: Demobilised children and young people
It is impossible to know the real number of child soldiers in Colombia. A recent report estimated that between 2008 and 2012 alone, 18,000 vulnerable children and young people, some as young as 8 years old, were recruited into the illegal armed groups and guerrilla groups fighting in Colombia's ongoing armed conflict.
Approximately 5,000 children have been through formal demobilisation programmes since 1999. To date the Colombian government has struggled to find an effective way to integrate these children back into society, and help them get over the traumas they have experienced. Since the peace deal with the FARC guerrillas was signed, it is likely that many more children will be demobilised, so there is an urgent need for improved services. It is crucial that reintegration into society is effective, otherwise these children run the risk of ending up in other potentially dangerous situations, or even recruited into other armed groups.
The life experience of children who have been involved with armed groups is very different from that of other children and young people. They have held unusually adult roles, often having had the power of life and death over others and experienced traumas most of us never will. They may even have had children of their own. In other ways they are often less developed than others of their age, having dropped out of school before or after they were recruited and being accustomed to obeying orders and not thinking independently. This makes returning to society particularly difficult.
How CRAN is addressing this issue
The Colombian government recognises the importance of this issue, and ICBF (Colombian Social Services) is currently working with 8 specialist organisations across Colombia, including our partner Fundación CRAN, to run their current reintegration and rehabilitation programme for children. However, CRAN, has identified a number of weaknesses with the government programme, which they aim to address.
The current Social Services programme has very little focus on what the children and young people will do after they leave the programme at the age of 18. At 18 young people are referred to another government agency, the ACR (Colombian Agency for Reintegration). This agency is charged with providing livelihoods support for those over the age of 18; however in CRAN's experience, only 34% of the young people from the programme actually continue on to this agency. It is not known what happens to the other 66%, but it is likely that a number of them, having been unable to gain the skills necessary to survive and flourish in legal society, re-enter guerrilla groups or other illegal groups. CRAN is addressing this issue by beginning participative work on long term life plans with demobilised children and young people from the moment they join the programme. In this way they can gain the skills that will enable them to reintegrate into society, support themselves in the long term, and access the government support that is available to them once they turn 18.
A 2008 evaluation of the Colombian Government's child demobilisation programme found that stigmatisation was the "single biggest challenge to reintegration". CRAN will attempt to address this challenge by supporting foster families to use their influence in the community to de-stigmatise the children in their care and enable them to integrate into the community.
CRAN will also share their learning from this experience with Colombian Social Services and other organisations working with demobilised children and young people, to help them understand the benefits of this approach to social integration for former child soldiers.
What does the project do?
Work with children
The key activities with children include:
- The provision of intensive psycho-social support to help the children and young people to deal with the trauma they have experienced and to envision a future for themselves. This includes helping the children and young people to give new meanings to past traumatic experiences and regain their confidence in Colombian society. This is a necessary precursor to any life skills training and support.
- Individual and group sessions that encourage children and young people to develop the autonomy required to think for themselves and the life skills that will help them to make responsible decisions. The aim is that through these activities the children and young people will recognise the benefits of living legally, outside of armed groups, gain the practical skills that will enable them to restart their lives in mainstream society and take the first step towards developing the social networks that will help them to support themselves in the long term.
- A participative process of life goal planning, wherein children and young people are supported to identify what they want to do with their future, concrete steps they need to take to achieve this, and create a plan to put this into action. As mentioned above, children who have been child soldiers have usually been unable to finish their education, but returning to a classroom after months or years of being in a guerrilla group can be very difficult and often unwanted, especially where children are at an educational level much lower than their age. In these cases the provision of vocational training and support is especially important.
Work with foster families and communities
Because children who leave armed groups have experiences that do not fit in the usual life cycle of a child, it is often difficult for them to understand normal societal interactions and to act appropriately for their age and their role in the family.
This is very challenging for their foster families, so the project will also work intensively with the families themselves, giving them the tools and support to deal with the psycho-social needs of the children in their care, to define the role of the child within the family, and to help the child integrate into the community, access state support that is available to them, and to start becoming used to being a member of society.
Case study: Andres's story
“Before I joined the project my life was very different. I couldn’t always afford food and my life was in danger, I was fighting to survive every day. I couldn’t express my opinion nor make decisions about my life. The programme has not always been easy and I have had to overcome many obstacles to get where I am now, but at the same time my experience has made me grow as a person, before used to lash out but now I am in control of my emotions.
The biggest changes for me since joining the project are that now I take responsibility for my actions and am able to admit it when I make a mistake and don’t blame others. Thanks to the project I managed managed to achieve my goal and finished secondary school and now I am at university so that I can make something of myself. My plans for the future are to travel abroad and work in Italy and save money so I can have my own international cargo business.”
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