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Building Trust: Protecting Children in Colombia’s War

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Children like this girl express a deep desire for peace. More than 10,000 boys and girls have been pulled into Colombia’s war between guerillas, paramilitary units and government forces. Photo by: Niousha Mission

At first, she said, they treated her “like a queen.” But shortly after recruiting then-nine-year-old Sofia from a small village in Colombia, the guerilla fighters began beating and raping her. 

“For me, I didn’t have a childhood,” Sofia told us. ”It is a childhood that I do not wish for anybody.”

Sofia, whose real name is withheld for her protection, was in the hands of the armed group for five years. She is one of more than 10,000 boys and girls who have been pulled into Colombia’s decades-old war between guerillas, paramilitary units and government forces. Children like Sofia are lured into armed groups under false promises of money, glory and a job. Now, her name has been added to a “black list,” along with the names of others to be killed. As she knows where the rebels keep their money and how they recruit people, she says that it is more convenient for them to see her dead than alive.

When we asked how to prevent child recruitment, Sofia responded: “Tell children not to trust these guys.”

But the question is: Who is there to trust? In some of the most dangerous areas where the rebel groups have established the “de facto” authority, there are no local authorities, courts, schools, hospitals or police to take victims’ complaints or defend them against potential retaliation. The government’s record on taking action against perpetrators is also far from encouraging: not a single case of recruitment of children by paramilitary groups has been convicted under the Justice and Peace Law, despite its promise to reveal the truth about the conflict. As a result, few children, parents or community leaders confide in the government to help them if threatened or attacked. In addition, some view becoming a recruit as the single best option for their sons and daughters in the context of poverty, unemployment and insecurity.

The Colombian government must regain the confidence of its citizens. It must demonstrate that it’s serious about protecting children by increasing its presence in high-risk areas, allocating funding to areas where children need most help and punishing perpetrators regardless of their political affiliations. This requires substantial investments in training local and regional staff so that children report to people deserving of their trust. 

Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict, an independent advocacy network of nongovernmental organizations, spoke with Sofia and dozens of other war-affected children in Colombia as well as government representatives, UN officials and humanitarian organizations during a four-week field mission in order to assess the protection needs of children in Colombia. The findings and recommendations of the mission will be released in Spring 2012.

Watchlist is a program of the Women's Refugee Commission.