Indigenous children from the Embera people , displaced in Colombia. Photo: UN Photo/Mark Garten 2006, Creative Common License.
Four decades of armed conflict between the government and drug-trafficking militias paved the way for a humanitarian crisis that constantly threatens the rights of Colombia’s women and children. In rural areas there is little access to medical care, education and other social services.
There are growing gaps in the standard of living and an increasing number of children live in poverty or extreme poverty, with a high percentage of the population in urban areas lacking access to basic services, such as sewage systems coverage and the supply of clean, running water, compared to rural areas. The inequalities in the standard of living present a serious obstacle to the equal enjoyment of the rights under the Convention.1
According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Colombia has the largest internally displaced population in the world, estimated in 2005 at 1.7 million people according to official figures and at more than 3 million according to non-official sources. Seventy-five per cent of the displaced population are women and children. In 2004 alone, more than a quarter million people were forced from their homes. Displaced populations have little access to safe water and to basic health and educational services.2
One third of all children are anaemic. Malnutrition continues to affect vulnerable groups such as displaced people and the Afro-Colombian and indigenous populations. Stunting affects 14 per cent of children under age five; 7 per cent of newborns have low birth weight; 40 per cent of the population remains uninsured in the public health system, amongst them many young children. At the same time, the rate of teenage pregnancies is increasing which, aside from putting girls' health at risk, also has a detrimental effect on young women’s ability to sustain themselves financially, creating a poverty trap with overall negative effects for society.3
Despite a law prohibiting the use of children under age 18 in the National Army, there are still an estimated 6, 000 to 7, 000 child soldiers in urban militias and other armed forces. Landmine use is increasing, posing significant risks to women and children. Landmines kill at least three people in Colombia each day. Native American and Afro-Colombian populations suffer the highest rates of poverty, and are twice as likely to have been affected by violent armed conflict. Sexual abuse of children under age 18 increased 56 per cent between 2000 and 2004.4 There is a high incidence of extrajudicial killings, homicides and massacres of children as a consequence of the armed conflict. Children continue to be victims of disappearances and social cleansing, and there are concerns over the ongoing killing of hundreds of children in the areas of Ciudad Bolivar and Soacha, on the outskirts of Bogotá.5
Torture and other cruel and degrading treatment of children continue to be practised, both at the hands of illegal armed groups and the military, and an increasing number of girls are vulnerable to being subjected to sexual violence. In the regular justice system a rapidly rising number of children are being prosecuted, deprived of liberty and sent to detention facilities which often fail to comply with international standards. The practice of individual and mass arbitrary detentions, which escalated in 2003 and 2004, has affected the privacy and integrity of children as they have been stigmatised as a consequence of the detention of their family members.6
Legislation prohibiting all recruitment of children under the age of eighteen was adopted in December 1999, but the government has failed to energetically enforce the law and there are huge challenges facing the reintegration of former child soldiers who have been enlisted by illegal armed factions for combat and intelligence purposes, and to be used as sex slaves. A general lack of adequate transparency in the negotiations with illegal armed groups has resulted in ongoing impunity for those responsible of recruiting child soldiers.7
The minimum age for marriage is set at 12 years for girls and 14 years for boys. Child marriages and early pregnancies have a serious detrimental effect on the health, education and development of the girl child. Widespread discrimination exists towards certain vulnerable groups, such as displaced children, Afro-Colombian and indigenous children and children living in rural and remote areas. Their ability to access education and health facilities is severely reduced by the disproportionate allocation of resources. Such vulnerable groups are at greater risk of recruitment by the armed forces and of becoming the victims of commercial and sexual exploitation, internal displacement and trafficking. The UN Commitee of the Rights of the Child is concerned that the rights of girls and women continue to be violated.8
The quality of education remains low in the public system and disadvantages vulnerable groups in society, due to hidden costs for administrative fees and costs for uniforms, materials and transport. This is demonstrated by the high and increasing dropout rate among vulnerable groups in society, particularly in rural areas. The policy of etnoeducación (bilingual education) for indigenous communities lacks coverage and is often carried out without sufficient consultation with the communities. Female students suffer discrimination and termination of their schooling as a consequence of early pregnancies and marriages. An average of three teachers are killed each month in the areas affected by the internal armed conflict, a serious impediment to the realisation of the right to education. The recurrent use of schools by State armed forces and the establishment of military bases near schools, have increasingly converted them into military targets for illegal armed groups, making in nearly impossible for children to get an education.9
According to 2001 figures, more than 10,000 children live in the streets in Bogotá, primarily owing to socio-economic factors, internal armed conflict, and abuse and violence within the family. Children are not only vulnerable to youth gang recruitments but also to threats posed in the name of social cleansing. Alcohol and drug abuse is on the rise, especially among street children and there are reports of a rising number of children, victims of sexual exploitation and trafficking, who risk being criminalised. There is also concern about the illegal drug industry using children as coca-leaf pickers (raspachines), or as “mulas”, forcing or luring them into trafficking drugs hidden inside their bodies. 10