For some time now, I have been working on a book about child soldiers in Colombia. You can read excerpts here.
The use of child soldiers is a form of slavery. Illegal armed groups in Colombia use children as messengers, porters, spies and cooks. They train children to use assault rifles, grenades, mortars, and to plant home-made landmines.
A recent report by Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict, a network of international non-government organizations, reported the Colombian government has not done enough to protect children from violence.
While the government has implemented laws and policies to improve the rights of children affected by the armed conflict, the care provided at government-run foster homes and reintegration programs is poor, Watchlist says. It lacks funding to provide enough aid and skills training to children to provide a viable alternative to joining armed groups or criminal gangs. Since 1999, nearly 5,000 former child soldiers have been put through these state programs.
Moreover, the FARC is known to use girls as sex slaves, and the government is also failing to give adequate care to the thousands of girls who have suffered sexual abuse. Medical and psycho-social care is often unavailable in the government homes.
It is estimated there are at least 5,000 child soldiers in the FARC, and the FARC is stepping up its recruitment to make up for the losses of the last few years, including a record number of deserters. In the 1990s, the FARC were at a high of around 19,000 fighters.
The most vulnerable for recruitment are the Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities living in Colombia’s remote jungle areas.
Further, in their strongholds, the FARC hold propaganda meetings in schools and public squares. The FARC are also known to survey villages in rural areas to determine how many children are in each family and their ages in order to recruit them once they are old enough to be useful to them.
The report said Colombian Armed Forces did not recruit children as soldiers but exploited them by making them “informers or spies” to obtain information on guerrilla groups.
But with the poverty rate at around 60 percent in rural areas, joining rebel ranks can seem a no-choice. Rebels offer food and money. Children also join to escape sexual and physical violence at home.