A wave of optimism is sweeping Colombia as the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) sign their official Peace Agreement.
In spite of the polarised environment of these intense weeks, I am excited about the future. But what I am even more excited about is the future of our children.
On October 2 there will be a referendum to gauge public support for the Peace Agreement, and the outcome of this plebiscite has the potential to change their lives forever.
Colombian children affected by war
Back in June, when the ceasefire was agreed, it brought to an end what had become one of the world’s longest running conflicts. Raging for more than 50 years, it has left over 200,000 people dead and forced more than eight million from their homes – the highest number of internally displaced people in the world after Syria and Somalia.
Children have often been forgotten in the midst of all the fighting
This number had never been visible to the outside world because here in Colombia we don’t have refugee camps. Instead, our internally displaced populations have always moved from rural areas to the cities, staying either with family members, or living in urban slums.
This makes them no less vulnerable than those in other parts of the world. An internally displaced person is always vulnerable, and a child even more so.
Children have often been forgotten in the midst of all the fighting. In many ways, as a society, we adapted to living in conflict and were no longer shocked by violence in spite of the high numbers.
However, over 2 million children have been forced to flee during the five decades of this conflict – their lives disrupted in more ways than one.
Many have died: government figures show that since 1985 alone, nearly 45,000 children have been killed. On top of that, over 8,000 have ‘disappeared’ – many forcibly recruited by armed rebels to fight as child soldiers.
Among those who have survived are thousands of landmine victims, tens of thousands of victims of sexual violence and many more who have witnessed and experienced traumatic events that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.
This means there is an urgent need to address the plight of child victims of this conflict. But the focus must not be on pointing the finger of blame. What we need to do instead is build a stable and long-lasting peace.
Young people help build the peace
At Plan International, we believe that the best way to do this is by putting young people at the heart of the peace building process. They need to be supported so that they can not only overcome their trauma, but also build a future of opportunity. They must be allowed to actively participate in rebuilding the country – it is, after all, their future that’s at stake.
"we need to build a stable and long-lasting peace"
As a child rights organisation, we work with children in the most marginalised parts of society to get their voices heard. In Colombia, the most marginalised are the Afro-Colombians and our indigenous population. They are the ones who live in closest proximity to where the fighting has been and, as a result, are the ones who have most often been displaced and dispossessed.
Because they have historically lived in poverty and been excluded from society, many are unaware of the rights they are entitled to: basic rights such as protection from war, a good quality education and freedom from sexual abuse.
Youth speak truth to power
We have been working in Colombia for as long as the conflict has been going on, and with victims of internal displacement since 2003. In these communities our focus has been on child protection, education and empowering the youth to become active players in the peace building process.
In 2006, for example, we facilitated a session for child victims to tell their stories at the Constitutional Court of Colombia. This resulted in a Court Order to the government that they uphold the rights of internally displaced children, proving that – when children’s voices are heard – they can be extremely powerful.
A major emphasis of our work at the moment is on changing the way people think about violence. For so many, it is the only thing they’ve ever known. To build peace, we need to open people’s eyes to the possibility of a life without it.
Advancing equality for girls
Because girls and women have been victims of sexual violence in particular, we will be placing a strong focus on breaking down gender stereotypes, deconstructing traditional understandings of masculinity, and empowering girls to understand that sexual violence is not the norm.
We strongly believe that the Peace Accords will bring new opportunities for girls and women, particularly from rural areas, to actively be part of building a more inclusive society.
In the more immediate future, there are other ways that young people can contribute to the peace-building process.
Voice for youth in national debate
Before demobilisation of guerrilla troops can begin, all of Colombia’s citizens will have the chance to ratify the contents of the Peace Accords in a public vote. Although many of today’s youth are not yet old enough to vote, they are the ones whose lives will be most affected by the outcome, so we need to make sure their voices are heard.
"the Peace Accords will bring new opportunities for girls and women"
To achieve this, we will be helping them to fully understand the peace agreements so that they, in turn, can explain what they mean to those in their communities who are eligible to vote. In this way, they will be able to influence the outcome of this important referendum.
We are also working with a longer term view to help young people learn how to engage in dialogue and debate, and respect the opinions of others. This is critical in a country where conflict has traditionally been resolved through violence.
So there is a lot to do. The signing of the Peace Agreements won’t lead to changes overnight, but if we listen to the voices of those who have been most affected by the fighting, and if we truly take into account what they’ve been through, then I see nothing but a very positive future for the next generation of Colombians.