A Return to Joy in a Place of Violence: Protecting the Most Vulnerable Children and Youth in Colombia

Water is flooding the streets of Palo de Agua, a town located an hour away from the provincial capital of Córdoba, Montería. Miguel Ángel just turned 18 years old, and has a ready smile. Walking through the village where crop fences are submerged deep in water, mud piles up in the few patches that are dry, while canoes wait at the doors of homes. Gathering on the patio of a local residence, Miguel Ángel speaks and plays with the group of children who have followed him, acting as a friend and confidante to many throughout the area. The rainy season has left the local school flooded, with classes disrupted. Local school children do not have activities to occupy themselves.  Yet Miguel Ángel is part of the Retorno a la Alegría programme carried out by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and supported by the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) which is bringing new hope to the children and youth of Córdoba.

Living in fear

Córdoba has not only been the recent site of floods and storms, but is the locus of armed conflict. Violence erupted in the region more than two decades ago as paramilitary forces sought to defend the interest of local landowners. Many of these groups became involved in drug-trafficking, killing thousands of civilians during the course of two decades. Humanitarian partners have expressed serious concerns about the increased violence in Córdoba and its impact on youth. Non-state armed groups recruit young people as couriers, arm them and frequently turn them into information sources for reconnaissance.  In addition to violence, the lack of employment is a common theme among local youth.  Access to basic services, jobs and protection remains elusive, and psycho-social support is almost non-existent. Targeted killings and death threats are also frequent.  The physical and psychological impact of the armed conflict on children and their families across generations cannot be underestimated. Life goes on, but more often, silence is the norm when it comes to violence and crime in Córdoba.

A sense of purpose

But for Miguel Ángel, the Return to Joy programme gives local children a sense of purpose. The programme provides psycho-social support to youth to help them recover from the devastating effects of armed conflict and deal with the aftermath of the floods. Youth who are trained in the Return to Joy methodology provide community-based psychosocial recreational therapy to help prevent the sexual exploitation and recruitment of children and adolescents by illegal armed groups.

Miguel Ángel considers the programme to be a “lifesaver.” “I feel that I am a useful and important person,” says Miguel Ángel.  My neighbors recognize and respect me and I help when I can.  If I didn’t, I wouldn’t know what to do with all the problems here…”

While parents in the town work hard to re-establish local activities, Miguel Ángel spends at least 3 days a week with their children, who also receive counseling to manage the trauma of violence and the affects the flooding. Helping people cope with loss is an important part of the programme.  For Miguel Ángel, to be part of this CERF-funded project is also a means of being involved in his community.

“This programme has given my life and the lives of other children, direction.  As a leader, I try to help everyone succeed.”

Stories such as Miguel Ángel’s have encouraged local authorities to expand the programme to other areas and create mobile youth teams to provide psycho-social support within local communities.  

CERF supports underfunded emergencies

The Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) finances projects of United Nations agencies in underfunded emergency situations such as Colombia. In 2011, the CERF has provided more than US$5.9 million to six United Nations agencies in the country. UNICEF projects supported by CERF in Colombia aim to ensure the survival and protection of more than 11,000 children and adolescents and 400 pregnant and breastfeeding women in the eight municipalities most affected by armed conflict.

Eduaordo Gallardo, Child Protection Officer for UNICEF Colombia said, “We are grateful for CERF resources.” He continued, “CERF support has helped UNICEF provide critical psychosocial support for children and adolescents affected by floods and armed conflict in the department of Cordoba.”

The flooded streets of Palo de Agua in the Córdoba region of Colombia.  © Julián Arango/UNCERF/UNOCHA