Defying fear and reigniting hope
The city of Buenaventura, where we have been working with our partner Fundescodes for two years, is a paradox. It is home to the country’s most important port – each year around one million containers pass through its docks, generating $5 billion US dollars of tax revenue. Yet for decades its largely Afro-Colombian inhabitants have faced the highest levels of poverty and insecurity in Colombia.
Despite government investment to modernise the port, the city itself suffers from severe under-development. Many neighbourhoods do not have access to running water or reliable electricity, poverty levels reach 80%, just one in five children receive a full secondary education, and poor healthcare provision means that the infant mortality rate is twice the national average.
This already extreme situation is compounded by the long-term presence of armed groups. The local population has been repeatedly caught in the firing line in the groups’ brutal battles for territorial control, and children are particularly at risk of being used as informants, drug traffickers, combatants or for sex. As a result, thousands of families have been uprooted, fleeing their homes to relocate to other parts of the city, only to face violence once again.
Weak public institutions, hampered by corruption, have been unable to fulfil their responsibility to prevent, and protect children from, multiple abuses. People in these communities feel abandoned and have lost hope that their situation will ever improve.
Children leading change
There is an urgent need to ensure the situation does change. The safety of thousands of children, and the future of peace in Colombia, relies on it. At Children Change Colombia, our experience convinces us that the only way to bring about effective change is to empower communities to take the lead in making it happen.
Thanks to your support for Children Change Colombia, Fundescodes is currently working in four of Buenaventura’s worst-affected neighbourhoods to support the city’s youngest generation to reignite hope and a commitment to protecting children’s rights within their communities.
Some highlights of this approach in action are:
- Fundescodes helped one community set up a ‘Chapel of Memory’. Adorned with photographs of community members who have been killed or disappeared by armed groups, it is now the site of regular vigils. These displays of unity and remembrance are also peaceful acts of defiance of the fear and hopelessness that has silenced these communities.
- During a month of city-wide demonstrations against government neglect, Fundescodes’ youth leaders met with public officials to share their ideas and opinions about developments required by the city’s youth.
- Children have led community clean-up campaigns, bringing over 600 children and adults together in one year to reclaim public football fields and playgrounds from neglect or appropriation by armed groups.
- Last September, 14-year-old Nicol travelled to Bogotá for the first time in her life to sit on the panel at our youth forum alongside a Colombian Presidential candidate. She spoke emphatically about the need for Colombia’s national government to pay attention to the constant abuses of children’s rights that occur in Buenaventura.
Artwork: "How violence has taken away our territory and identity"
Navigating new threats to peace
The surge in energy and hope within Buenaventura has been mirrored in other similarly marginalised areas of Colombia. This is due, in large part, to the commitments made within the recent Peace Accords to promote political participation within long-marginalised sections of Colombian society.
However, this surge has been counteracted with a spike in brutal reprisals by armed groups. In the 16 months since the Peace Accords were signed, over 200 local leaders have been assassinated for seeking to improve living conditions in their communities. Fundescodes has felt this backlash directly. In January a local human rights activist, Temistocles Machado, who had supported Fundescodes’ activities in his community, was killed. Since then the Director of Fundescodes has himself received threats.
With tensions high across the city and heightened fear of the repercussions for anyone who questions the status quo, we at Children Change Colombia are working more closely than ever with the team at Fundescodes to help them find a way to continue their vital peace-building work, without putting themselves, or the children and young people, in danger.
Fundescodes’ team of local people have the insight and expertise to provide support to children and their families on how to protect themselves from new risks as they arise. As an initial precaution, they have decided that this year their work with children will focus less on public displays of activism and more on the use of media – radio, social media, film and newspapers – to engage with the wider community.
This is undeniably a complicated and hazardous context for us to be working in. But this is precisely why Children Change Colombia is in Buenaventura. Children there urgently need immediate protection and safe, supportive spaces in which they can explore their talents and use them to contribute to transforming their city for good. We need your support to make this work possible.
We need your support to make this work possible. Please doante today!