Recruitment of children into armed groups and reintegration into society

Protracted violence and poverty in Colombia have led many thousands of children to be recruited into armed groups and gangs, by force or under the impression that becoming a member will offer them an escape from grinding poverty.

Armed groups forcibly brutalise the children they recruit and those who attempt to escape face paying for the decision with their life. Those young people who do manage to escape face severe stigmatisation and insufficient support from the State to build a new life.

The children we work with live in sprawling urban slums or in remote rural communities, where violence and insecurity pervade their neighbourhoods.

The current situation in Colombia

It is impossible to know the real number of children in Colombia who have been associated with armed groups because there are a lot of cases that are not documented.

According to official figures, from 1990 to 2017, 16,238 girls and boys in Colombia were forcibly recruited by armed groups and around 16,000 children were killed in the conflict.

In addition, studies show that many more children are at risk from armed groups – for use as messengers, for sex, as drugs runners and child labourers than are formally ‘recruited’ into their ranks as ‘combatants’. In other words, the number of children drawn into the violent world of armed groups is likely to be many times greater than estimates of formal recruitment. Also, during the Covid 19 pandemic children were at an even greater risk of recruitment.

Risks for children

In communities with a high presence of armed groups or gangs, children and young people have nowhere to go to be safe from the violence surrounding them or to think about their life goals and plans outside the conflict.

The threat of violence and recruitment also deters children from traveling to school, one of the reasons for high school drop-out rates in Colombia’s most underprivileged areas.

Children who are recruited by armed groups are often forced to commit atrocities as a way of proving their loyalty to the group, and those who do not carry out the tasks requested of them risk accusations of collaborating with the ‘other side’ and face violent reprisals. Child recruits also face an increased risk of sexual violence and exploitation.

Children and young people who escape or are demobilised from armed groups have had a very different life experience to that of others their age and this makes returning to society particularly difficult. They also risk facing severe stigmatisation from the community they settle in, which can further hinder their reintegration.

Children who are unable to reintegrate successfully into society run the risk of re-entering armed gangs or groups, as it is the only life they know how to live.

What is Children Change Colombia doing?

CCC is helping local partners, such as Fundación CRAN and Tiempo de Juego, to make communities safer places for children to grow up. They have developed programs that keep children off the streets and away from violence and the threat of recruitment. 

Every year our partner CRAN (Bogotá & Meta) provides foster homes and psychosocial support to 50 children formerly associated with illegal armed groups to recover from the trauma they have experienced and help them to develop the life skills necessary to reintegrate into society, to access State support, and to navigate the legal system if necessary. 

In rural areas where children face a high risk of recruitment by armed groups, CRAN educates local community organisations on how to protect around 300 children every year. It also advocates for employers, education providers and local NGOs to eradicate the stigma which these children often face, and to ensure they provide them with equal access to their services.

Our partner Tiempo de Juego tackles this issue from a different angle, by promoting positive youth leadership, understanding of rights, and protective environments within and outside the family, to prevent children and young people from becoming involved in gangs and, in circumstances where they are already part of a gang, to reduce the risks they are exposed to.

They work with 100 girls and boys in the juvenile justice system and residential care homes, as well as with their families. Families learn about the risks for children joining gangs and how to protect them.

They provide regular sport, art and therapeutic activities (such as yoga, music and drama), all with a strong emphasis on developing skills in critical thinking, empathy and managing emotions.

Cecilia's story

Cecilia attends our project with CRAN

“When I first left the guerrilla, I was placed in an institution in a city three hours from my home town. Over 100 girls lived there, with six or seven sleeping in each room and only 3 bathrooms for everyone. The people running the institution were very strict. We had to get up at 3am to clean the whole place and they wouldn’t even let us near any windows as they thought we would escape.

One day, I got on a plane to Bogotá with a person who works at Colombian Social Services. They explained that I was coming to be part of CRAN’s project and live with a foster family who wanted to take care of me. At first, I found it very difficult and I had many arguments with my foster family. I felt angry, rebellious and wanted to get back at the world for treating me so badly.

Since starting at CRAN, I have adapted and achieved a lot. I even started high school and graduated three months ago. My foster family take care of me whenever I am ill or sad or angry. I am now a lot more confident as I feel I have a strong bond with my family, who treat me with love and respect. I used to feel like I was nobody. Now, my foster mother often tells me she is proud of me.

I also enjoy CRAN’s workshops, where I meet other kids who are in the same programme and go on outings.

My dream is to study hospitality and tourism in order to be a businesswoman and have my own hotel chain. I am about to start studying an apprenticeship in services in restaurants, a big step towards this dream.

During my first year with CRAN, I often thought of escaping. I am glad I didn’t, as I wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t be on CRAN’s programme and I wouldn’t have been able to share my story.”

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