As predicted, today was a total whirlwind of a day. It was made even more crazy by torrential rain which poured down almost all the time. As we walked to the office with Gina Ortiz, Children of the Andes’ field officer, we passed plenty of stylish business men and women attempting to keep themselves dry under rather small umbrellas. Sitting in the COTA field office with Gina talking about plans for the week, we were looking forward to our first project visit.
Landmines and Games
Landmines are a big problem in Colombia – particularly in rural areas. The mines are there as the result of the ongoing internal conflict. No-one knows how many landmines there are hidden in Colombia, but there could be as many as 80,000. Some of the mines are planted deliberately, others are unexploded devices left after a conflict occurs.
Children are extremely vulnerable to having an accident with a landmine, especially as some mines are deliberately disguised as balls or radios. Children come across them, go to pick them up, and are injured or killed. So far this year, 2 girls and 13 boys have been injured by landmines, according to official statistics published in August.
Restrepo Barco has been working to educate children about the dangers of landmines for many years. In order to reach communties the project uses groups of women called Community Mothers, who form hubs of information for parents and carers of children.
Until recently the project’s educational materials have focussed on children over 8 years. Now however, they have started to develop an amazing new approach which is reaching children aged 0-7.
In order to do this, the Community Mothers pooled their knowledge. Together, they designed some games that could be used to educate very young children about the dangers of landmines – games like hopscotch and bingo. They then tested the games on a group of young children who voted for their favourite using a smiley face. In this way the children were involved too.
The game is now being developed into a professional resource that can be used by families in the high risk areas. It teaches children about things like:
- Be wary of trees that are covered with fruit and flowers – there is a reason why no-one has picked those goodies – because there could be landmines around the base of the tree
- Don’t pick up balls that don’t belong to you
- Don’t take short cuts across fields – stick to main roads
- If you find a strange looking object, don’t pick it up – go to the police
It is a sad fact that rural parents must instruct their children to be
cautious when they are simply playing, learning and being children. But using a child friendly approach and local people’s knowledge, lives can be saved.
Overcoming the Unimaginable
The commercial sexual exploitation of children is a crime that is so awful it is hard to comprehend, and yet it is common across the world, with an estimated 35,000 children affected in Colombia.
COTA is supporting an Colombian charity called Renacer, which we went to visit this afternoon. Renacer’s work is extremely important because it is helping children who have been damaged by sexual exploitation and abuse to overcome their experiences and rebuild their lives.
Our guide to Renacer was Viviana – a small fireball of a woman who talks at a hundred miles an hour and is so passionate about her work that you could happily listen to her for a hundred years. As we sat in a taxi which was bouncing through potholes and giant puddles she told us about how Renacer is working to identify and assist children affected by this crime, and how they raise awareness to prevent it happening in the first place.
Our first stop off was one of the homes, where 14 children aged 12 to 18 live. Wherever possible, Renacer works to keep children living with their families, as it is the best way for children to grow up . Sometimes however, the abuse is so bad that it simply isn’t possible. The children we met today have been so badly exploited or abused that they cannot stay in the family home. Meeting all these children and young people, you would never guess what they had been through – and yet, as we talked to them, we did notice a certain sadness in some of their eyes, or an erratic way of behaving, that betrayed their experience.
Viviana told us that the government in Colombia are recognising the seriousness of this issue and have started to introduce laws that are designed to protect children. In the tourist town of Cartagena, the “La Muralla Soy Yo”(I’m the brick wall) programme is encouraging people involved in the tourism industry to take responsibility for protecting children. The “Brick Wall” refers to a wall that was built around Cartagena to keep out invaders during the time of the conquistadors. The idea is that local people working in tourism – hotel owners, taxi drivers and bar tenders – will speak out against any child sexual exploitation they become aware of, and in this way they will protect Colombia’s children, just as the brick wall protected the city from outsiders in the old days.
There isn’t really any easy way of summing up what we heard about and saw today, except to say that these projects really are making a difference to childrens’ lives, and that by supporting Children of the Andes you can help them to do even more. Please do whatever you can to keep this work alive.
Thanks for reading
Hannah and Emily