Kerlin Paola is one of thousands of Colombian children who face severe hardship to attend school. Despite ongoing peace talks between the government and several armed groups, Colombia continues to be plagued by one of the world’s most dramatic humanitarian crises.
Like Kerlin, many children – some as young as 6 – are subject to forced recruitment as child soldiers, sexual violence, forced displacement by illegal armed actors, as well as the danger posed by landmines.
Thanks to the support of the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO), the Norwegian Refugee Council has provided Colombian children living in conflict zones with access to safe schools, where they can learn in a safe environment, receive help to overcome psychological trauma, and acquire critical survival skills to endure their forced displacement.
“For me, it is important to be here, learning and moving forward. It is dangerous for children to be out there,” – Kerlin.
She picks her words carefully as she flicks through her book in one of the classrooms run by the Norwegian Refugee Council in Tumaco, on Colombia´s Pacific coast. And yet, Kerlin is one of the lucky ones. The conflict in Colombia has forced over 6 million people out of their homes, making it tremendously difficult for children in hard-hit areas to make their way to school.
Colombia’s conflict has taken a heavy toll on the most vulnerable segments of the population. In some neighbourhoods, armed groups draw invisible borders, and residents cannot walk around freely. “If they do, they risk being murdered,” says Antonia Isabel Cortez, a teacher who works at the school for internally displaced children in Tumaco.
Tumaco is the second largest city on the Pacific coast, a territory constantly disputed among illegal armed groups. Currently, forced displacement of civilians by armed actors (who are competing for land, smuggling routes, or economic assets) takes place more frequently in urban areas, where most of the population is Afro-Colombian. Rampant criminal violence and widespread abuses – including the recruitment of minors as child soldiers, sexual violence, extortion and the targeting of community leaders have forced many families to leave their neighbourhoods and flee from their homes in the city.
“Most of our students are children from families with limited means, and they witness the armed conflict first-hand on a daily basis,” says Jorge Washinton Yepes, another teacher from Tumaco.
“They live in the middle of a conflict. It is essential that they receive an education because this allows them to become better people and have better lives” – teacher Antonia.
With the support of the European Commission, the Norwegian Refugee Council has built schools for displaced children and has provided them with uniforms and stationery.
“Educating these children is vital," says Olga Samira Hinestrosa, another teacher in Tumaco. “Education is not only a fundamental right, but it is also the only way we will build peace in Colombia”.