Jennifer, our Project Development Coordinator, recently made her first visit to Colombia to meet our partners. Here she writes about her experiences and lasting impressions from the trip.
I had so many wonderful experiences during my two weeks visiting our partners in Colombia that it has been incredibly difficult to choose just one to tell you about! One of the things that struck me most was how positive our partners, and the children that they work with, are under incredibly challenging circumstances. Working against an almost constant backdrop of concerns over funding, prejudice against the children they support, the increasing presence of gangs and organised crime, and the struggle for support from Colombian Social Services – the passion and dedication of our partners to their work, and the determination of the children to take advantage of what they see as a great opportunity to turn their lives around and build a future for themselves and their families, is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
One of the visits I found most moving was to our partner Renacer. As we drove towards their project base in Cartagena, leaving behind the beauty and relative tranquillity of the walled city, I was shocked by the seemingly never ending shanty town that we entered – house after house after house cobbled together out of corrugated iron, tarpaulin or plastic sheets, as far as the eye could see. It really made me appreciate the stark conditions that many of the children we work with live in.
Our taxi dropped us off outside the project base, and as we walked in we were greeted by the sounds of children laughing and singing. After a quick introduction to the staff, we joined in the circle of children and were soon swept up in the laughter and cheeriness as we were welcomed and introduced to Renacer’s ‘Espacios para Crecer’ (Spaces to Grow) workshop by taking part in a song and dance. We sat down and the children introduced themselves to us, telling us their names, ages and what they wanted to be when they grew up – ranging from teachers and doctors, to footballers and soldiers. Surrounded by these shy, energetic, mischievous children I found it difficult to remind myself that Renacer works with children who are victims of or at risk of commercial sexual exploitation (CSE), and that almost all of these children had either been exposed to CSE or had been sexually abused (something which increases their risk of CSE).
This was soon brought home to me though, as some of the children stood up to read out letters they had prepared describing how much the project has changed their lives. 12 year old Maria* broke down in tears as she told us that before she came to Renacer she thought her problems had no solution; how she didn’t have anyone to rely on and didn’t see a future for herself beyond the gangs and violence that dominate her neighbourhood. Similar stories came from the mothers and grandmothers who joined us later, many of whom struggled to hold back tears as they told us their experiences. One mother in particular, Patricia, told us about how devastated she had felt when she found out that her 11 year old son, who she knew had been working selling chewing gum in the tourist areas, was being coerced by male tourists to perform sexual acts in return for money that he knew his family desperately needed.
Although it was distressing to hear such stories, what was amazing was that everyone we spoke to had turned their trauma into opportunities: Patricia is now one of Renacer’s community leaders – working with other members of the community to raise awareness of CSE and prevent other mothers and children going through what she and her son went through, and Maria is in school, supported by Renacer and her family, and working towards her dream of graduating school and becoming a teacher.
For me, what shone through all of this from children, mothers and staff, was this feeling of opportunity and of hope; hope for a positive future, hope for a community in which children are protected from sexual exploitation, hope that, with the right support, these children could overcome the barriers they face to achieve their dreams.
If you would like to support Renacer’s work to improve opportunities for children who are victims of or at risk of commercial sexual exploitation in Colombia, please make an online donation.
* All names have been changed to protect identities