KEY NEGLECTED ISSUE
Sexual and gender based violence
Sexual violence violates children’s rights, damages their health, welfare and development, and increases their vulnerability to further violence. Despite this, it continues to be the major ‘silent’ problem that is affecting children and young people and it is not being addressed as a national priority.
The harmful effects of sexual violence can endure over generations. A child born as a result of sexual violence can experience rejection and alienation at home as a result of the severe psychological trauma experienced by their mother.
This neglect can lead to the child lacking the skills to build strong, positive relationships with others, and increases the risk of them turning to an armed group in search of a sense of belonging or protection, or in other ways propagating the cycle of abuse when they become adults themselves.
The majority of children who experience sexual violence come from the lowest income groups, living in slums on the outskirts of the cities or in isolated rural communities, and the abuse is usually either at the hands of a member of their own family, or the criminal gangs that control their neighbourhood.
As of 2019, almost 42% of Colombia’s young adults were victims of physical, sexual or psychological abuse as a child, according to the country’s first ever survey on child abuse (Health Ministry and Family Welfare Institute).
The numbers of children experiencing sexual violence have consistently increased in recent years, however, local NGOs estimate that still only 30% of cases are ever reported. A report by the Colombian Public Prosecutor supports this, estimating that the number of children being sexually abused each year is as many as 200,000.
Commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) is a significant problem in Colombia. Between 2011 and 2013 Colombian Social Services removed 2,135 children from situations where they were being sold for sex. 45% were under 11 years old.
Organisations working in this field have estimated that over 35,000 children are involved in CSEC in Colombia. It is difficult to give any more exact figures than this, as the stigma attached to CSEC means that large numbers of cases go unreported.
Bogotá has been identified as the region in Colombia with the highest incidence of CSEC, however, as children are often given identity documents with a fake date of birth so that they can hide among adult sex workers it remains difficult to know how many children are affected.
We are working with our local partners to strengthen children’s protection against sexual violence or abuse and help them to deal with the traumas they have experienced and build a positive future for themselves.
We are also working with two partners, Asociación Cristiana de Jóvenes and Círculo de Estudios in Bogotá, Quibdó and Cartagena to teach children about their sexual and reproductive rights so that they can protect themselves and their friends, families and neighbours from abuse or discrimination.
Our partners are also working with parents, schools, community groups, police, social workers, healthcare providers and others, to help to create a protective environment for children and to identify and work with at-risk children before they experience sexual abuse.
Our partner Círculo de Estudios works in in Quibdó (Chocó), Cartagena (Bolívar) with children and young people and teachers in schools in marginalised neighbourhoods to raise awareness of CSEC and how to prevent it, as well as providing psycho-social support for child survivors of sexual violence and their families.
Their work with children is centred on the principle of a ‘círculo’ or ‘circle’, a workshop which combines psychosocial support and training in children’s rights with dance, music and theatre.
Our partner, ACJ, works to improve the lives of children and adolescents who have experienced or are at high risk of CSEC, as well as supporting children and young people that have experienced conflict-related violence, including sexual violence.
ACJ has a youth centre which is a protective oasis for children and young people at risk of CSEC in the middle of the ‘tolerance zone’, in Santa Fe (Bogotá). In this area, children and young people are surrounded by legal sex workers and high levels of gangs and drugs. ACJ provides recreational workshops for children and young people, as well as their families where they learn about their rights and how to protect themselves from CSEC.
ACJ also provides psychosocial support to survivors of CSE and works with young sex workers and their children, helping them to find alternative employment and offering academic ‘catch-up’ courses that enable them to gain primary and secondary school qualifications.
Jairo is 12 years old and has been attending Círculo 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. María 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.
María 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 Círculo 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, Círculo de Estudios is providing psychosocial support to his mother, and he has even set up a band playing traditional local music.
Please help more children like Jairo transform their futures.
“My story is a hard one to tell. After my parents separated when I was 11 years old, a friend of theirs sexually abused me. I got pregnant but lost the baby after a few months. Shortly after, I ran away from home and started dealing and taking drugs. I had two children but their father left me to raise them without any money or any support. I felt there was no other option – I started working as a sex worker.
It was then that ACJ approached me and started to help me. Before I enrolled in their project, my children stayed indoors all day because I was too afraid for them to go out and play on the streets. Now, they participate in workshops which teach them how to avoid sexual exploitation and drugs. They are a lot happier and so am I as I know they will have a much better childhood and life than I did.
I have also been participating in ACJ’s project for one year. With the support, guidance and opportunities they have given me, I have finally managed to leave sex work. I am now studying and thanks to the family workshops, I am now much more committed to my children. These workshops have reassured me and helped me gain access to my rights, participate in beauty training and made me realise I want a fresh start in life. I am looking for a job to provide a better future and life for me and my children.”