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Recruitment 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 current situation in Colombia

The children we work with live in sprawling urban slums or in remote rural communities, where violence and insecurity pervades their neighbourhoods. Although these children are full of potential they do not have positive role models to show them that a life away from gangs and violence is possible. This context puts children at high risk of recruitment into armed groups, which use them as messengers, drug traffickers, fighters, informers or for sex.

It is impossible to know the real number of child soldiers in Colombia. Before the FARC demobilisation process began, estimates showed that there were nearly 16,000 child soldiers in Colombia. Some estimates are that as many as 52% of members of all the major armed groups – FARC, ELN, paramilitaries – were recruited as children.

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. 

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 travelling to school, one of the reasons for high school drop-out rates in Colombia’s most under-privileged 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?

Children Change Colombia is helping our local partners to make communities safer places for children to grow up. Our partners have developed programmes that keep children off the streets and away from violence and the threat of recruitment.

To date the Colombian government’s reintegration programme has struggled to effectively integrate demobilised children back into society, and help them get over the traumas they have experienced. So, we are working with a partner in Bogotá to adapt the programme in a way that addresses these young people’s immediate need for psychological support and a safe place to live, but also helps them work on positive long-term life plans. We are helping them to share their model with the state authority responsible for the programme with the aim of improving the support ex-child soldiers receive nationwide.

Our partners currently working to tackle this neglected issue are:

Our recent achievements towards tackling this neglected issue:

Download our 'Recruitment and Reintegration' Impact Report for 2017 for an overview of our work on this issue last year.

• Since 2013 we’ve been supporting our partner Tiempo de Juego to train youth leaders to be inspiring examples to their peers in a community where the only other role models are involved in violence or crime. Watch a video made by them here!

• In 2016, children at our partner Fundescodes’ project in Buenaventura led their communities in taking back control of local parks and sports pitches from armed groups. These public spaces no longer pose a risk of forced recruitment for the children who use them, but provide much-needed spaces where children can play and enjoy their childhoods.

• In 2016, our partner CRAN supported 72 young people to gain practical knowledge, such as managing money and accessing libraries and sports clubs, that will support their successful reintegration into society.

• In 2016, Social Services in Bogotá endorsed CRAN’s model for supporting the reintegration of ex-child soldiers, an important step towards CRAN achieving their aim of the model being incorporated into the official state reintegration programme.