Partnership: Tiempo de Juego and Albergue Infantil Mamá Yolanda
The issue: Recruitment into armed groups and reintegration into society
For children who are exposed to high levels of violence within their home or community, violence can appear to be a normal response to conflict, or a legitimate way to achieve one’s goals. When, in addition, children lack positive role models within their family or community, it is hard for them to develop positive life goals and combat the feeling that they are not capable of escaping a cycle of violence and social exclusion, or that people from their area only end up in jail, or dead.
In this context, gangs take advantage of the normalisation of violence and the hopelessness felt by young people, presenting gang membership as the only possible path to money, power and a sense of belonging.
Although as many as 30% of children recruited by gangs are girls, their involvement in these groups is a hidden problem in Colombia. Girls often join gangs through a relationship with a male gang member, a boyfriend or relative, who provides them with protection and status, or are recruited by peers at school who are themselves gang members.
Colombian gangs can perceive female members as an asset, based on the belief that police are less likely to stop women, and so women are typically assigned ‘foot-soldier’ tasks, such as carrying messages, trafficking drugs or arms, or committing assault and robbery.
Colombian cultural and societal gender norms that focus on a dominant male and submissive female stereotype mean that girls rarely hold positions of power within these gangs. Instead they face a high risk of physical, sexual, and psychological violence from their own and rival gangs.
How Tiempo de Juego and AIMY are addressing this issue
Tiempo de Juego is expert in developing children’s life skills through play and promoting youth leadership within some of the most disadvantaged and violent communities in Colombia. Their work has a clear gender focus, centred around their youth-led ‘gender school’, which ensures that the unique experiences and risks faced by girls are recognised within all Tiempo de Juego’s activities.
AIMY’s expertise lies in working with families to resolve problems that cause family breakdown and put children at risk. Their model, which was adopted by Colombian Social Services in 2015, is proven to help prevent girls’ involvement in gangs by helping families to create a protective environment which provides the support their children need to disengage from gangs.
Now, the two organisations are combining their expertise and methodologies to provide a holistic approach to tackle girls’ involvement in gangs, by working with the girls themselves, their families, and building the capacity of local professionals to provide this holistic support within the community.
What does the project do?
The project provides support to 150 girls aged 12 – 25 years within residential care or the juvenile justice system as a result of their involvement in criminal or gang-related activities. It seeks to help the girls and young women gain the skills they need to protect themselves from future gang involvement.
The girls and young women participate in regular sport, art and therapeutic activities (such as yoga, music and drama), all with a strong emphasis on developing their skills in critical thinking, empathy and managing emotions. These skills will enable them to begin to understand and overcome the violence they have experienced and, in turn, increase their self-esteem.
Our 25 years of experience has shown us that it is only when children believe that they deserve to be safe and understand the violence they have faced, that they can begin to take the necessary steps to protect themselves. Once this change is underway, the participants are supported to improve their relationships with others, including their families, and learn to resolve conflicts peacefully without resorting to violence.
Alongside this therapeutic work, the girls are supported to identify their skills and interests, devise positive goals based on these, and plan practical steps towards achieving them. They also learn about positive ways in which they can challenge traditional gender stereotyping and the culture of violence in their own lives, their families and communities.
At a family level, project staff work intensively with the girls’ parents or guardians to help them better understand what they can do to help protect their daughters from gang involvement. This includes work on developing closer emotional bonds, defined roles, and assertive communication within the family, as well as learning about the state institutions responsible for providing support to families and how this can be accessed.
Additionally, Tiempo de Juego and AIMY are supporting the staff running the centres in which the project takes place to contribute to reducing the risks faced by the girls in their care. They will also identify a number of local organisatons working to support youth in some of Bogotá’s most at risk communities, and will help them to incorporate elements of this project into their own work to ensure the long-term protection of girls and young women from gangs.
This project is funded by Comic Relief, and is one of a number of projects currently taking place to address the issue of girls in gangs, with other grant recipients based in the UK, Bogota (Colombia) and Cape Town (South Africa). Over the course of the project, we will share learning with these organisations to contribute to a greater understanding of the issue of girls’ involvement in gangs on a global scale and best practice for supporting gang-involved girls and young women.