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The issue: Recruitment into armed groups & reintegration into society

It is impossible to know the real number of child soldiers in Colombia. A recent report estimated that between 2008 and 2012 alone, 18,000 vulnerable children and young people, some as young as 8 years old, were recruited into the illegal armed groups and guerrilla groups fighting in Colombia’s ongoing armed 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.

The life experience of children who have been involved with armed groups is very different from that of other children and young people. They have held unusually adult roles, often having had the power of life and death over others and experienced traumas most of us never will. They may even have had children of their own. In other ways they are often less developed than others of their age, having dropped out of school before or after they were recruited and being accustomed to obeying orders and not thinking independently. This makes returning to society particularly difficult.

Approximately 6,000 children have been through formal demobilisation programmes since 1999. To date the Colombian government has struggled to find an effective way to integrate these children back into society, and help them get over the traumas they have experienced. But it is crucial that their reintegration into society is effective, otherwise these children run the risk of ending up in other potentially dangerous situations, or even recruited into other armed groups.

When the FARC - Colombia’s largest guerrilla group and a key actor in the recruitment of child soldiers - formally demobilised this year, instead of their child members joining the government reintegration programme, the majority of them returned directly to their families. This was too dangerous before the FARC demobilised – the group’s continued presence in the children’s communities put them at risk of re-recruitment or violent reprisals for having escaped. Although this new trend is positive in that it means that children return to people and places they are familiar with, it also carries severe risks. Families lack capacity to support their children’s complex emotional needs, and are not equipped to help them navigate reintegration into a community where memories of the brutalities perpetrated by the FARC are still raw.

How CRAN is addressing this issue

In 2015, with support from Children Change Colombia, CRAN began to operate the government programme for former child soldiers under 18. When we began working with them, CRAN already knew that the government programme had a low success rate. They put this down to the lack of autonomy the young people had whilst on the programme. So, since 2015, we have been supporting CRAN to develop and run an enhanced version of the government programme. CRAN has involved the participants in re-designing the services on offer to them, to make sure that they really do address their needs.

As the challenges for reintegrating ex-child soldiers have evolved, so has our work with CRAN. Since the demobilisation of the FARC, CRAN has expanded its work in order to provide emotional and practical support to young people in their home communities as well as in their project base in Bogotá. Here, CRAN also work with parents, community members and local employers and education providers to ensure the young people can successfully reintegrate into their communities, rebuild relationships with their families, and work towards a fulfilling future. This approach also aims to protect these children, and other children in their communities, from recruitment by others armed groups that have moved in to fill the power vacuums left when the FARC demobilised.

What does the project do?

CRAN is continuing to run their enhanced model of the government programme for demobilised children in Bogotá. Here, the children will take part in:

  • intensive psycho-social support to help them to deal with the trauma they have experienced and to envision a future for themselves.
  • individual and group sessions that encourage them to develop the autonomy required to think for themselves and the life skills that will help them to make responsible decisions. 
  • a participative process of life goal planning, wherein they are supported to identify what they want to do with their future, concrete steps they need to take to achieve this, and create a plan to put this into action.

The children in CRAN project in Bogotá live with foster families. CRAN also provides intensive support to these foster parents, giving them the tools and support to deal with the needs of the children in their care, to define the role of the child within the family, and to help the child integrate into the community.

We are also supporting CRAN to reach out into communities where demobilised children are returning to live with their biological families, where they and their peers are at high risk of recruitment or re-recruitment.

This work will take place in three areas: Soacha, near Bogotá, an area with high levels of child recruitment by illegal armed groups; and in the Putumayo and Meta regions, which used to have a very strong FARC presence. Following the model they developed in Bogotá, CRAN will design a programme of activities in collaboration with the young people themselves. It will focus on building resilience to the pressures that lead to recruitment and on planning safe and fulfilling futures.

CRAN will also work with adults to break down barriers that threaten the successful reintegration of former child combatants across the country. This will involve work at various levels:

  1. Training for parents and members of the wider community to help them protect rather than stigmatise ex-child combatants. They will be encouraged to value the young people’s opinions and include them in decision-making processes at home and in community forums.
  2. Training for community organisations in Soacha, Putumayo and Meta so that they can begin running CRAN’s programme themselves.
  3. Sharing their enhanced, youth-friendly model with other operators of the government programme nationwide, and supporting these operators to integrate CRAN’s model into their work.
  4. Creating opportunities for demobilised young people to work with employers, educational institutions and NGOS, to eradicate stigma and prejudice against the young people and to improve their access to these services.

Cecelia’s story:

“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 Bogota 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.”

Thank you for your interest in this project.

To help CRAN's work continue, you can donate here.