By Gabrielle Galanek
10 December 2009- For over 40 years, Colombia has been a nation not only in the throes of conflict, but a country consistently hit by natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, severe flooding and volcanic eruptions. Subjected to this vast spectrum of emergencies the country’s infrastructure has deteriorated, allowing for an illicit drug trade to flourish, endemic violence to spread, and vast social inequities to persist.
“The biggest challenge in Colombia is violence. Violence in the home, violence in the school, violence in the street. It is a country that is quite traumatized by violence,” said Paul Martin, Country Representative for UNICEF.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees the country has the second highest number of internally displaced persons in the world, close to 3 million people, second only to Sudan and more than Iraq.
The violence triggered by illegal armed groups in Colombia has created a serious humanitarian crisis, its impact sharply felt by children and young people. What this continues to mean for Colombia’s next generation is a fight for a secure future where they have access to choices and opportunities.
Medellin: Escuela Busca Niño
In the northern city of Medellin, a strong partnership has been formed around the initiative ‘Esculea Busca Nino” (EBN) or the “School Going to the Child.” Clara Serna has been involved with EBN since its inception and manages the program.
“We go to the neighborhoods, we find the children that are not in school and we evaluate them and then we start to talk to the family to find out why they are not in school and then when we find out why, then we start to resolve the problem – their own specific problems,” she said.
The program is designed to give children the support they need to transition back into a classroom setting.
“They are asking for it to be less formal. They have to understand and accept the child as he or she is, they have to adapt to the child, not the child to the school,” Serna added.
Carlos, an eight year old boy living in a Medellin slum built on top of a garbage dump, has been brought back to school through the EBN program and continues to witness violence on a daily basis.
“The other day a Barraco (paramilitary soldier) killed a guy over there and they left him there, bleeding,” he said, as he stood outside his home.
This program has successfully expanded because of strong partnerships with the government playing a key role. From this experience the municipality understands how education is integral to ensuring human rights for all children.
“We’ve passed from just providing services to focusing on rights. In that way we can ensure that all the rights of children, independently of their cultural, economic background are met,” said Lucia Hincapie, Sub-Secretary of Education in Medellin.
Here UNICEF, the government, civil society and the local university work together to provide much needed teacher training. This ensures that teachers are trained in methodologies appropriate to working with youth affected by violence and displacement. Thus the project creates institutional space for various sectors to collaborate in a sustainable way to manage the problem of the city’s out-of-school youth.
From streets to school
Not all children are able to remain with their families like Carlos. In the center of Medellin, on the streets of Nikitao, young people spend their evenings getting high by sniffing glue. Many of them are victims of the violence, had parents directly involved in the armed conflict, and are either homeless or living in cramped and dilapidated quarters with other youth.
“We need money, we don’t have parents that can take care of us,” said Monica, a teenager out at night with a group of other young women.
She takes puffs from a black plastic bag filled with glue as she stands next to Katerina, who is also visibly intoxicated.
An organization working from the Mayor’s Office in Medellin, and with the EBN programme, ventures into the streets at night seeking out street children that need help. This group, made up of social workers, psychologists and special police officers are trained to deal with children. They gently engage in conversation with Katerina and Monica to find out what kind of help they need and assist them in accessing services.
On this night Katerina and Monica agree to go with the staff. They will enter the social services program of Medellin where they will be looked after. Their cases will receive special attention and tracking from the Mayor’s Group, as they are channeled through the system.
Because of this project many children have already benefited from partnerships that position education as central to an environment where children’s rights can be better protected.
Between two problems: Natural disasters and violence
In Lorica, located in Colombia’s northern plains, the effects of conflict are keenly felt, but locals also suffer from extensive flooding which prevents children from attending school for months at a time.
According to Armondo Ribon, a local UNICEF Education in Emergencies Specialist, the compounded problem of disasters and violence in Lorica has made the provision of education even more critical.
“Education is a right that all students should have access to, in a permanent way, so that the negative impacts related to flooding and the region’s common issues such as armed conflict can be overcome,” said Ribon.
UNICEF and local partners train teachers, and involve families, by providing flexible school schedules to accommodate the flood seasons.
Education: A long-term approach to mitigating violence
Across the country young people, parents, teachers, government and non-governmental organizations have consistently pointed to education as a long-term approach to help mitigate the violence and better prepare society to cope with natural disasters.
Tangible solutions that can help heal and restore the country are deeply dependent upon an educated and strong generation of young people. These partnerships and programs provide a lifeline to Colombia’s children. That lifeline is education.