A student waves a flag during a protest in Cali, Colombia, Wednesday. AP Photo/Juan Bautista Diaz. All rights reserved.
In 2016 Colombia’s President Juan Manual Santos received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. This award is a tribute to his government’s relentless efforts of the last few years to reach a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), an agreement that will put an end to more than five decades of armed conflict. The implementation of the agreement is a historic opportunity for the more than 8 million victims of this conflict and will bring hope to the next generation of Colombians. In particular, children, adolescents, and youth will have an opportunity to escape suffering and violence and return to school.
Two out every ten children living in rural areas in Colombia never attend school. Half of those who gain access to education do not get beyond primary level (five years of education). By the time they reach the age of 17, almost 75% have left the education system. This means that children and youth aged 12, 13 and 14 face an uncertain future, with little education and scarce or non-existent job opportunities, which makes them extremely vulnerable to recruitment by armed groups or the illegal drug economy.
Inequality in Colombia has a marked rural character. A joint report by NOREF Norwegian Centre for Conflict Resolution and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) entitled El verdadero fin del conflicto armado shows how five decades of conflict have reinforced economic inequalities and widened the divide between urban and rural areas. The rates of poverty and marginalisation, absent or dysfunctional public services, and lack of access to quality education are exceptional in the latter areas. According to the latest national statistics, more than 45% of people in rural areas live in poverty, a figure that reaches 63.8% for indigenous groups and people displaced by violence. These figures grossly surpass national averages.
Two main elements combine to explain the dire living conditions and lack of opportunities for children and youth in rural areas. Firstly, they have disproportionally suffered the effects of the conflict. There are more than 8 million victims in the Official Registry, of which one-third are less than 18 years old and half are below 28. The violations of human rights and international humanitarian law affecting children and youth have been widespread: forced displacement, recruitment by armed groups, sexual violence, kidnappings, threats, disappearances and killings. Actors that include the UN and the country’s Constitutional Court have defined the forced recruitment of children in Colombia as an extensive and systematic practice.
The second element behind these children’s precarious situation is the wide range of problems affecting rural education. Schools have been subject to attacks and to various manifestations of the conflict. Both official armed forces and non-state armed actors often use them as temporary bases; the roads to them are sown with mines and explosive devices; and schools often become sites for propaganda and recruitment by armed actors rather than protective environments. Many teachers who try to stop this are forced to flee when they are threatened.
In rural areas the educational system is unable to guarantee both quality education and access to and regular attendance in school. Children’s homes are often long distances from schools; there are few teachers; uniforms and educational materials are very expensive for poor families; and family farming requirements force many children to leave school to help with the harvest. Many never return. The physical state of school infrastructure is dire and investments have tended to focus on the most populated areas.
Colombia has made an important effort to improve education, but this has hardly reached rural regions. In recent years 4.6% of annual GDP has been invested in education, but of this, only 0.5% goes to rural areas. This has disastrous consequences. There is now a three-year difference in learning levels between children in the same grade in urban and rural areas.
Breaking the cycle of violence
These areas are historically more affected by the absence or fragility of state institutions and the presence of armed groups and violence. Around 57% of the children and youth recruited by armed groups come from poor families suffering from lack of sufficient access to food and who have on average been displaced 4.5 times by armed violence. Their levels of education are even below the median of rural areas. Eight out of ten children and youth who have left armed groups say that they have received threats from their former armed groups to rejoin them or suffer the consequences. Simultaneously, children and youth who lack education become easy prey for non-state armed groups.
Lack of education and job opportunities, when combined with poverty, has become the perfect recipe for the continuation of the armed conflict. Breaking the cycle of violence will require educational opportunities to be made available to young people. In the words of an education sector professional interviewed for the abovementioned report, “if Colombia decides to save money on education, it will have to spend it on anti-subversion activities”.
Despite the peace agreement, violence-associated risks continue to be present in the country. There are diverse threats, and other armed groups apart from the FARC remain active, including the ELN and EPL. The demobilisation of the paramilitary AUC in 2005 paved the way for a new generation of violent groups that inherited part of the AUC’s ideology and territories, routes, and business segments associated with narco-trafficking. Socioeconomic and political structures that supported the paramilitaries have persisted, especially in rural areas, and new local armed groups have emerged. All constitute a danger for civilians, as demonstrated by the continuous threats and killings that target social leaders.
In these conditions, for many children and youth, joining an armed group is still a real risk – and sometimes one of their few survival options.
Education as a key to peace
In recent decades education has been included in worldwide agreements designed to put an end to armed conflict. A study shows that 144 total or partial peace agreements were reached in the world between 1989 and 2005. Around 70% of these agreements contained initiatives related to education. But inclusion in a peace agreement is not enough without the political will and the development of real strategies to use education as a driver of peace. In many cases the predominant approach to peacebuilding has been the so-called “security-first” approach that assumes a temporal sequence progressing from conflict to security to development, and leaves education aside as a development issue that can be dealt with at a later stage.
However, access to quality education is a critical contribution to stabilisation and peacebuilding, because it can offer quick and tangible peace dividends to the people affected by violence. It demonstrates that public services improve after peace agreements and, by doing so, such agreements raise the legitimacy of institutions and create opportunities for social transformation.
Colombia has an immense task ahead of it to implement the peace agreement and build a sustainable peace, but it also has the necessary tools and an enormous opportunity to improve the lives of its youth. The first section of the General Agreement for the Termination of the Conflict (which deals with integral rural reform) includes measures and actions aimed at strengthening and improving rural education. It also has provisions to guarantee reparations and the re-establishment of the rights of children and youth affected by conflict (especially, but not only, by encouraging them to enter the schooling system).
Beyond the ethical and justice imperative and in very pragmatic terms, expanding and improving educational services can be critical for the short-term stabilisation of the areas most affected by conflict. By doing so, the Colombian state can offer a quick peace dividend, one with the potential to promote real change and offer real opportunities. A quality education system that promotes opportunities raises the costs of ongoing violence and reduces the motivation to become involved in such violence. Education will therefore be key to building sustainable peace.