Children as leaders. Lessons from Colombia's Children's Movement for Peace

IssueSeptember - November 2001
Feature by Sara Cameron

For more than 20 years, Colombia has been caught up in a brutal conflict between political opponents. On the left, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and other groups have conducted guerilla warfare against the government since the mid-1960s. Unlike other insurgents in the region who were dependent on support from the Soviet bloc, the Colombian “revolution” has been self-financed through kidnapping for ransom, extortion, and by “taxing” coca producers and cocaine exporters.

On the right there is a confederation of paramilitary groups, covertly allied with the (ostensibly neutral) army and funded by some of the country's wealthy families. The paramilitaries are responsible for most of the worst human rights violations. Moving from village to village to drive out guerrillas, they have murdered, mutilated and rendered homeless over a million people. Both groups routinely commit massacres. Adults who try to make peace, or who are merely suspected of aiding the wrong side (such as grocers who sell them groceries) are systematically exterminated or displaced. Husbands are slaughtered in front of wives, parents in front of children, and community leaders in front of entire villages. For all these reasons, Colombia would have become a country essentially without hope—except for one thing: the desperate, loving, truth-telling of its children, and their surprising transformation into leaders. In a sense, children had no choice but to assume that role. More than 850,000 Columbian children have been forced out of their homes by violence during the past dozen years. Up to 60% of those displaced children dropped out of school. There are at least 2,000 soldiers under the age of 15; some as young as 8 years old. More than 4,000 children were murdered in 1996 alone, with the number continuing to rise each year; and impunity is widespread. Rarely, if ever, is a murderer arrested. Children who remain alive are in fear of losing their families. A recent survey showed that 70% of Colombian children are afraid when their mother leaves the house that she will never return. As one fifteen-year-old put it, “Sometimes, [the soldiers] kill only the father, but when they kill your father they kill a part of a child's life.” Living under this kind of system, many children choose to join one army or the other—where at least they will feel safe. Others spend their lives seeking revenge. “Most people here,” said a fifteen-year-old from a village that the paramilitaries captured, “think that if you are hit once, you must hit back double.” Homeless children have become so numerous that they are developing new social groups to ensure their own survival.

Children as leaders

The experience of the Children's Peace Movement in the last five years shows that children need to play an important role in any troubled community; that they possess a real power to mobilise and essentially lead their communities towards positive change. Communities in conflict benefit especially when adolescents have the option of making positive contributions that improve the quality of life of themselves and others in genuinely participatory ways. This is empowering for adolescents, but it is not easy. A violent context is always complex to work in and the emphasis on participation requires adults to work in genuine partnership with children. Many adults are uncomfortable about that role and the risk of children being manipulated is always present. Nevertheless, experience in Colombia suggests that an effective peace needs the cooperation of children because by involving young people in these activities we provide them with a critical third choice — without it their only options are to acquiesce to violence, or join in with it.

The creation of a movement

The Childrens' Movement rose up simultaneously in several places around the country, but the most prominent was probably Apartadó, a city in the Urabá; region, close to the Panama border. In April 1996, the internationally known childrens' advocate Graça Machel (former minister of education of Mozambique, who was to marry Nelson Mandela in 1997) visited the city—conducting research for her United Nations report on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children. The mayor summoned student leaders to talk about their experience; meanwhile over five thousand children in local schools became involved in a Week of Reflection which was backed by the Church, the Red Cross and UNICEF. With support from teachers, the children wrote stories, poems and letters, painted pictures, and constructed sculptures, to create a compelling exhibition for Ms Machel. Many were heartfelt, painful, even wistful messages. The children described loss, revenge, fear, pain, anger and how hard it was to concentrate on school work “when all the time I am feeling afraid.” “Here in Apartadó,” wrote one ten year old girl, “we only know how to write the word 'peace' because we know what letters to use. We do not know its real meaning, but it must be very beautiful.” While most children worked in their classrooms, more than 140 student leaders formed a special council. They divided themselves in various “commissions” to discuss different aspects of the conflict. There was a commission for peace making, a commission for human rights, another on displaced people, and so on. They met in one vast hall, with each commission supported by one of the adults. For many of the students just the idea of being asked what they thought about the war and how they could help peace was a revelation. Farlis Calle, then fifteen years old and who would later become a prominent leader in the national Children's Movement for Peace, asked why they did not teach peace education in Colombian schools. “How can we learn to be peaceful if our teachers do not help us understand what it means? No one here has ever lived in peace. We have been fighting from the time we were born.” By the end of the two day session the various commissions had come up with many suggestions: for peace education, recreation projects, cultural events and “a youth movement that works for peace”. But the children had no idea how this was really going to work. They admitted that they lacked “clear proposals because we don't know what we want, we are confused”. They asked for training, “so that children can teach other children about living in peace”. During the marathon debating session, one of Farlis's friends said to her, “We have to have something to give this Ms Machel when she comes here. We need something to show that we can deal with our own problems. We don't want her leaving here thinking we are just stupid and helpless.” And that was why the students created the Declaration of the Children of Apartadó, so that Graça Machel would understand that they had some answers to their problems, although until that Week of Reflection the children had never really considered the war or peace-making to be “their” problem. The Declaration is direct and wrenching. “We ask the warring factions for peace in our homes, for them not to make orphans of children, to allow us to play freely in the streets and for no harm to come to our small brothers and sisters. We ask for these things so our own children do not suffer as we have done.”


Things might have ended there as they so often do—a dignitary comes to town, children perform, and then everyone goes home—but the students had been fired by the deliberations of their commissions. Just prior to Machel's visit, Farlis Calle had been elected by the students as Apartadó's first Child Mayor, and they believed that this gave them a constitutional right to form a local government of children. They sent notices to schools in the municipality, because they wanted others to know they could and should participate in their government, and soon up to 200 children were pouring out to peace meetings three times a week, gathering in football fields and in parks. There was considerable chaos at first and argument about what children could and could not do to make peace. “To have peace you need to solve poverty and children cannot do that,” recalls Farlis Calle “But we found other things that children could do.” They set up “peace carnivals” that encouraged children from feuding communities to play together because they believed that children having fun was a good way to help peace. Meanwhile, a group of 27 children from around the country, aged 9 to 15 years, gathered at a May 1996 workshop organised by UNICEF. There were 30 adults in the room as well, representing peace and children's organisations, but the young people did most of the talking. They took turns describing the impact of the country's violence on the children in their communities. Some spoke of gangs roaming the streets, terrorising children on their way to school. Medellín had its own brand of violence—a mix of gangs, urban militias and drug cartels plus the cult of the sicarios, the young assassins. Many of the children were amazed to find out that they were not alone. They had not realised until then that so many other children lived under such conditions of violence. Three main realisations emerged from the workshop. First, most Colombians were unaware of the impact of the war on children. Secondly, no one would be more effective at getting that message across than children themselves. Thirdly, they needed a bigger platform to reach a wider and more influential audience. Thus, the participants—both adults and children—began planning a special election for children only. They would be asked to choose which of those rights espoused in the constitution did they want the most, for themselves and their communities: The right to education? To justice? To freedom of expression? To peace?

A mandate for peace and rights

The election became known as the Children's Mandate for Peace and Rights. The National Electoral Commission agreed to run it like a real election. Children were deeply involved in organising and planning for it. They helped to design materials explaining child-rights in language other children would understand. They devised child-rights games and taught them in schools and public meetings. They designed and starred in advertisements and ran press conferences and town meetings, talking publicly about the war, peace and their rights. In October 1996, children went to the polls. The colourful ballot listed twelve rights summarised from the Colombian constitution and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. At some locations children ran out of voting cards, but they copied the ballot onto paper napkins and still cast their votes. In Bogotá voting had to be held on two consecutive Saturdays to meet the demand. The adult organisers tended to see the mandate as mainly an educational exercise: a way to teach Colombian children lessons in citizenship and democracy. It had been hoped that perhaps 300,000 children would take part in the vote but by election day, the idea had caught on so strongly that more than 2.7 million children—about a third of all people aged 7 to 18 years—packed the polls. This was all the more remarkable because, for financial reasons, it had only been possible to run the election in about a third of the more than 1000 municipalities. In 100 of the most violent and impoverished municipalities especially targeted by the organisers of the vote, the turnout was higher than 90%. The results were educational—but for adults, even more than children. Before the children's vote, the peace movement in Colombia had been weak and fragmented. Thousands of human rights activists had been assassinated or forced to flee the country. Plans to hold a national referendum on peace had been put on hold because it seemed too difficult and dangerous. Now, the Children's Mandate provided a profound wake-up call for the nation. As one human rights activist explained, “Until the Children's Mandate came along, we really had no idea that children understood.”

A tidal wave of hope

The following year, a broad coalition of organisations, led by UNICEF, the peace network Redepaz and the anti-kidnapping group Pais Libre, put forward the Citizen's Mandate for Peace, Life and Liberty. The ballot asked adult Colombians to support the children's vote, reject the atrocities of the war and make a personal pledge to build peace. The previous presidential election had drawn only 4.5 million people to the polls— less than 25% of the electorate. But more than ten million Colombians pledged their support for the Citizen's Mandate. As a result, peace was catapulted to centre-stage and became the basis on which the presidential elections were fought and won in May 1998 by Andres Pastrana. Pastrana said later that the Mandates “gave him his agenda for the presidency. If he did nothing else during his term in office he had to make peace.” For many months Colombians rode on a tidal wave of hope that fifty years of war would be suddenly swept away but it was not that easy. A year after Pastrana's election, the government and the guerrillas lurched unsteadily towards peace talks. Massacres, kidnappings, assassinations, and unofficial emigration continued at all-time high levels. Against this backdrop of continuing violence, the Children's Movement for Peace continues to define itself. A core group of about 25 children drawn from different institutions and municipalities form the Children's Council in Bogotá;. The Council functions as an advisory body to the supporting organisations (UNICEF, Redepaz, the Scouts, the Red Cross, the Catholic Church, World Vision, among others), helps develop peace activities involving children and operates as a publicity arm. Since 1996 several Children's Assemblies, involving between one and two hundred children from across the country, have met to discuss child rights and peace-making. One of the legacies of the Childrens' Movement is the way in which it shows how children can make a difference. They cannot play the same role that, say, adult peace activists might play. They have a different relationship with their community, and in that relationship lies their potential.

Breaking the cycle of violence

Juan Elias Uribe (now aged 17 and one of the movement's most visible organisers) was almost 15 years old when he attended the May 1996 workshop where the national Children's Movement was founded. He returned home full of enthusiasm. “I really believed that if children all over the country worked together we could make a big difference.” Not long afterwards, however, everything changed, forever. In July 1996 three gunmen walked into the offices where his father had a dental practice. They shot Señor Uribe and his 19-year-old niece who was helping in the office. Within hours both died from their wounds. It was never clear why Juan Elias's father had been assassinated. Several suspects were jailed for a while and then released. The family continued receiving threats and were ultimately forced to leave Aguachica and join the swelling ranks of Colombia's internally displaced population. Revenge is the expected response of any male who suffers such a loss and for a while Juan Elias carried a gun. Yet revenge was never really an option for him. “At first, when my father was murdered, I thought that all the work I was doing for peace was worth nothing because it had not saved him,” he said later. “Yet my father had always wanted me to work for peace and I did not want other children to share the nightmare of losing someone they loved so much.” He put the gun away. Within two months of his father's murder, Juan Elias was in Bogotá recording television commercials for the Children's Mandate. “In the end, my father's death pushed me harder and gave me a more realistic attitude towards peace. I know this work can be dangerous but if they did not stop me when my father was alive, they can do nothing to stop me now.” The Children's Movement does not take on enemies, no matter what the provocation. This is a principled stand and a highly pragmatic one as well. “We never accuse any of the armed groups,” says Farlis Calle. “If we did we could become targets. We will always denounce these terrible events but we never know who is responsible. We simply do not know.” The strategy not only protects children individually, but helps the Movement to retain the neutrality which is crucial for its survival and growth.

Broadening the definition

The level on which most children “understand” this complex situation is different from that of adults. They think less about political and economic concerns, and more about justice and fairness. Perhaps as a result, their definition of peace-making is very broad—it includes any activity that improves the quality of life in a community affected by violence. The Children's Movement states that making peace in homes and on the streets is just as important as making peace in the war. After all, domestic and neighborhood violence is much more prevalent. While approximately 6,000 people die every year as a result of the war, another 25,000 are murdered in domestic, street or other criminal violence. Nearly a million Colombian children suffer serious enough abuse to warrant hospital attention. And more than 4,000 children are murdered each year by people they know.

Building a vision

“We do not want to inherit the country that adults have created for us,” said Juan Elias Uribe. “On the day of the Children's Mandate there was peace in Colombia. If there can be one day of peace, why not a week, a month, a year, fifty years—to make up for our fifty years of war? We want to live a different kind of life, and to get it we have to be involved in creating it. We will never give up.” His fellow leader, Farlis, said, “I dream that one day I will wake up and my father will go to work and I will not have the fear that he will be in danger, that he will be shot. This is the dream that we are all trying to build. If I am killed, at least it will be over something worth dying for. It is better to die for something than for nothing, isn't it?”