Circulo de Estudios
The issue: Conflict-related sexual violence against children and young people
Chocó is a beautiful tropical region on Colombia’s north-western coast. But 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 losers in this struggle are the local people, mainly Afro-Colombians and indigenous groups. They have faced massacres, torture, extortion and disappearances, forcing thousands to flee to the region’s capital Quibdó. The city now has Colombia’s largest proportion of internally displaced people. This high level of displacement, and the violence the local population has faced, mean that 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 3 years Circulo de Estudios has worked with around 600 children and young people in Quibdó. Their work with children is centred on the principle of a 'circulo' or 'circle', a one to one-and-a-half day workshop 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 works in three communities in Quibdó which receive the highest numbers of displaced people and have high levels of extreme poverty and armed criminality. It helps children and young people to plan healthy life goals that offer them an alternative future to the poverty, violence and social exclusion that surrounds them in their communities.
Each year, 57 children who have experienced or are at high risk of conflict-related sexual violence participate in individual and group psychotherapy and will learn practical ways they can keep themselves safe. They also learn 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.
Cross-cutting all the work is a focus on dance. The children are supported to develop dance and theatre performances to be shown in their community, the content of which will focus on raising community awareness of children’s experiences of violence and abuse, the effects of these on children, and how the community can work together to protect children’s rights.
Over the course of the project, a group of 40 children and young people are being trained to become youth leaders in their communities. Circulo de Estudios is supporting them to advocate for improvements in their schools and local government institutions that ensure children's rights are fully protected and respected. These youth leaders also help to run activities with the other children at the project.
In addition, local adults are being trained to identify the signs that a child is experiencing violence and to share these skills with others in their communities. These adults will run a series of workshops for the parents and carers of children involved in the project, sharing what they have learnt about children’s rights and how to protect them.
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.
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 his 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.
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