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Beginnings

In 1995, the mayor of the war-torn municipality of Aguachica in eastern Colombia announced that a referendum would be held asking residents to choose, quite simply, whether they wanted war or peace. Aguachica had become a microcosm of Colombia’s decades-long civil war. Guerillas and paramilitaries fought each other by attacking anyone they suspected of supporting the other side. Husbands were slaughtered in front of wives, parents in front of children, community leaders in front of entire villages. Many families had been forced out of their homes by violence.

Shortly after the referendum had been announced, a group of children went to the mayor and asked if they could also take part in the election. With the mayor’s blessing they set off on a campaign urging children to come out and vote for peace. Many children took part but their votes were not counted. Their participation was seen as purely symbolic.

The following year, on the other side of the country, children in Apartado set about establishing their own government, dedicated to peace making. Apartado lies in the Uraba region, close to the Panama border. It had been a virtual fiefdom of the guerillas for decades. They dominated the banana worker’s unions. The families of disaffected labourers were a fertile source of recruits for the struggle. The nearby Gulf of Uraba, in the Caribbean sea, gave shelter for the illegal trade in drugs and weapons. Along with kidnapping for ransom and extortion this generated millions of dollars to keep the revolution alive.

In the 1990s, right wing paramilitaries started taking on the guerillas in Uraba. They worked systematically through farms and villages, murdering, mutilating and driving out guerrilla support. Thousands of displaced families poured into Apartado and nearby towns seeking shelter - yet Apartado itself was suffering under a wave of massacres caused by both sides in the struggle. Children spoke of walking around bodies on the way to school. Sometimes schools became battlegrounds between the armed groups, trapping children in their classrooms.

Graca Machel comes to Apartado

In April 1996, Graca Machel visited Apartado to conduct research for her global report on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children (United Nations, 1996). The mayor summoned student leaders to ask what they wanted to say to Machel. Eventually, 5,000 children from more than a dozen townships became involved in a Week of Reflection, backed by UNICEF, the Colombian Red Cross and the Catholic Church.  They wrote stories, poems, letter, painted pictures and constructed sculptures to create a compelling exhibition for machel. The combined student council of Apartado also drew up the Decrlaration of the Children of Apartado - which is direct and wrenching:

We ask the warring factions for peace in our homes, for them not to make orphans of children, to allow us to play freely in the streets and for no harm to come to our small brothers and sisters….we ask for these things so that our own children do not suffer as we have done…”

Things might have ended there as they often do - a dignitary comes to town, children perform and then everyone goes home - but the student council of Apartado did not give up. They researched their country’s constitution. This had been written in 1991 and provided extensive rights to children and many guarantees of democratic freedom, most have which had remained dormant. The students decided that they had a constitutional right to form a ‘local government of children.’ They sent notices to schoolsin the municipality and soon up to 200 children were pouring out to peace meetings three times a week, gathering on football pitches and in parks.

Some children set up peace carnivals that encouraged children from fueding communities to come together. Others worked with the Colombian Red cross and the municipality on health and dental campaigns. Later, hundreds of children in Apartado trained as counsellors in play therapy and helped other children who had been displaced by the violence.

The Children’s Mandate

Young people from Apartado and Aguachica were not alone in feeling they had something to offer Colombia’s failing peace process. In May 1996, a workshop supported by UNICEF brought together 27 children aged 9 to 15 years and 30 adults from organizations working for peace in some of the most violent municipalities in the country. The young people, including Juan Elias from Aguachica and Farlis from Apartado (whose stories appear in Out of War) talked about the impact of the war on children in their communities. Others talked about inner city and gang violence in Medellin and Bogota.

Over the three days of the workshop, three main ideas emerged: (1) Most adults were not aware of the impact of violence on children; (2) No one was better at getting that message across than children themselves; and (3) To achieve this the children needed a much bigger platform. They began planning a special election, just for children, in which they would choose which of their rights was most important to them. The election became known as The Children’s Mandate for peace and Rights and was supported by UNICEF, the Colombian Red Cross, the Church and many other organizations. The National Electoral Commission agreed to run it like a real election.

Children helped to plan the materials and in campaigned in schools, churches and communities for the election. Support expanded with more municipalities and organizations joining the election. On 25 October 1996, children went to the polls. The colourful ballot paper listed 12 choices that  summarized rights expressed in the Colombian constitution and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. In the beginning, it had been hoped that perhaps 500,000 children would vote. Ultimately, more than 2.7 million children voted, about a third of all children aged  7 to 18 years. The turnout was all the more remarkable because financial constraints had limited the election to only one third of municipalities. Colombian children voted overwhelmingly for their right to survival, their right to peace and their right to love and family.

Many of the organizations had thought of the election as an exercise in citizenship and civic responsibility. The results were so powerful, however that the children effectively taught those lessons to the adults. The children had turned out to vote in far greater numbers than adults had in the last presidential elections and their demands for survival and peace could not be ignored.

Impact of the Children’s Movement

Before the Children’s Mandate, the peace movement in Colombia was fragmented and weak. Thousands of human rights activists had been assassinated or forced to flee the country. Plans to hold a national referendum on peace had been put on hold because it seemed too difficult and dangerous. The timing of the Children’s Mandate, with its strong call for peace was a vital catalyst in pulling the national peace movement together.

A year after the Children’s Mandate , UNICEF and two local organizations - Redepaz and Pais Libre - supported a Citizens Mandate. Adult Colombians were asked to vote on their support for the Children’s Mandate, to reject the atrocities of the war and make their personal pledge to build peace.

The previous presidential election had drawn only 4.5 million people to the polls - less than 25 per cent of the electorate.  More than 10 million Colombians pledged their support for the Citizen’s Mandate. As a result peace was catapulted to centre-stage, and became the basis on which the next presidential elections held in 1998 were fought and won by Andres Pastrana.

Pastrana later said that the mandate gave him his agenda for the presidency. If he did nothing else during his term in office he had to make peace.

For many months following the elections, Colombians rode on a tidal wave of hope that 50 years of war would be swept away. While the peace talks faltered, the massacres, assassinations and kidnappings continued. Against this backdrop the Children’s Movement of Peace continued to define itself.

The bulk of participants, around 100,000 children, belonged to a loose network of organizations scattered across the country. They held art classes and exhibitions, planted trees and ran community clean-up campaigns. Around 10,000 children were trained as peer educators, helping other children avoid accidents with land-mines, organizing play groups for children affected by violence and supporting health campaigns.  The children saw peace making in any action that helped to improve the quality of life in their communities. They saw peace making in their homes and communities as important as making peace in the war.

The ballot of the National Mandate of children for peace

A. The right to survival and good health




B. The right to education




C. The right to love and a family




D. The right to a clean environment



E. The right to be different and equal treatment



F. The right to special care for children with disability



G. The right to not work until the legal age




H. The right to free expression



I. The right to protection and good treatment



J. The right to come first in emergencies



K. The right to peace





L. The right to justice   

The Children’s Movement for Peace