When the Colombian government and Farc rebel group signed a peace deal exactly one year ago today, it was hoped Colombia’s children would not know the violence their parents and grandparents suffered through.

Fifty years of conflict between guerrillas, paramilitary forces and the army have had devastating consequences for the country. A quarter of a million people perished in the last half century – the vast majority of them civilians – with almost seven million driven out of their homes.

Last year’s peace treaty hopefully marks a new, peaceful dawn for everyone in Colombia, including its children. But many obstacles must be navigated to make this a reality – especially in the port city of Buenaventura.

Buenaventura has long been at the centre of a tug-of-war between different Colombian armed factions, its status as the country’s biggest port making it an important strategic prize. As a result, its children have consistently found themselves in the crossfire of conflicts they had no part in starting, the effects of which are still being felt despite this renewed push for a better future.

Buenaventura is still gripped by violence

Terre des Hommes’ new report, Colombia: A Long Road to Peace, exposes how the brutality and violence of Colombia’s past is still very much part of Buenaventura’s present – and how children, young people and ordinary citizens are standing up to reclaim their rights in the face of this brutality.
Almost 3 in 5 people in Buenaventura are under 25, meaning children and young people bear the brunt of Buenaventura’s devastating violence.

Vacunas, a tax extorted from ordinary people by criminal gangs for entering certain areas of the city, stop children from attending school in specific districts. They can also be blocked from crossing the ‘invisible borders’ between different groups territory, rendering them unable to attend school if it’s in another part of the city.

These limits on children’s freedom of movement also stop them playing outside – the most basic childhood activity banned by armed groups controlling specific areas.

Women and girls face a constant threat of sexual violence. Sixteen women an hour are sexually abused in Colombia, with Buenaventura being one of the worst three cities in the country for these crimes.

Armed groups impose rules on how girls as young as 13 should behave in their territories, and victims of sexual violence do not report such incidents due to a lack of trust in the police, a culture of impunity for offenders and the fact they cannot leave gang-controlled areas.

One 12-year-old girl in Buenaventura told Terre des Hommes: “The biggest danger for young girls is teenage pregnancy. They get pregnant because they are sexually abused… The parents say that it’s their fault because they aroused men.”

Children are reclaiming their rights

But despite facing such terrifying obstacles, children and young people in Buenaventura are reclaiming their rights. With the help of Terre des Hommes and local partner Taller Abierto, children, women and young people are being encouraged to report murders and sexual violence – learning about their rights and demanding that those rights be respected.

Young people are also taking a stand against violence and promoting peace within Buenaventura. They are using art, music, theatre and dance to take back the space in their communities lost to armed groups, and are getting involved and influencing decision-making processes which will affect their future.

But they cannot do this alone. Children and young people in Buenaventura need the help of the international community, particularly the European Union, to push the Colombian government into guaranteeing a dignified, peaceful life for the people in the city and beyond.

World governments can do this by ensuring funds are used transparently to support peacebuilding initiatives in Colombia, and making sure the peace agreement between the Colombian government and Farc is being properly honoured – especially the dismantling of paramilitary forces.

Colombian civil society also need to be supported in their peacebuilding efforts, enabling them to protect the rights of people most effected by the conflict – particularly women, children and young people. Any companies wishing to work in Buenaventura, and Colombia in general, must also be made to respect human rights in line with existing UN guidelines.

After generations of Colombians knowing nothing but armed conflict, today’s young Colombians have the chance to enjoy peace. But this bright future must shine on all of Colombia’s young people – in Buenaventura and beyond.