BOGOTA, Colombia, 16 December 2009 - For over 40 years, Colombia has been a nation not only in the throes of conflict, but one consistently hit by natural disasters.
Subjected to earthquakes, hurricanes, severe flooding and volcanic eruptions, the country's infrastructure has deteriorated badly, allowing an illicit drug trade to flourish, violence to spread, and social inequities to persist.
"The biggest challenge in Colombia is violence," said UNICEF Representative in Colombia Paul Martin. "Violence in the home, violence in the school, violence in the street. It is a country that is quite traumatized by violence."
With two to three million displaced persons, Colombia has the highest number of internally displaced people in the western hemisphere, and the second largest displaced population in the world after Sudan.
The impact of violence triggered by illegal armed groups in Colombia has been sharply felt by children and young people struggling for a secure future full of choices and opportunities.
Focusing on rights
In the northern city of Medellín, a strong partnership has been formed around the 'Esculea Busca al Niño(a)' (EBN) ('School Going to the Child') Initiative. Clara Serna has been involved with EBN since its inception and manages the program.
"We go to the neighborhoods, we find children that are not in school and we evaluate them. Then we start to talk to the family to find out why they are not in school and then when we find out why, then we start to resolve the problem - their own specific problems," she said.
The programme is designed to give children the support they need to transition back into a classroom setting. It has successfully expanded because of strong partnerships with the government.
"We've passed from just providing services to focusing on rights," said Sub-Secretary of Education in Medellín Lucia Hincapie, "In that way, we can ensure that all the rights of children, independently of their cultural or economic background, are met."
UNICEF, the Government, civil society and the local university also are working together to ensure that teachers are trained in the methodologies appropriate for working with youth affected by violence and displacement.
From the streets to the school
In the center of Medellín, on the streets of Nikitao, many young people are homeless or living in cramped and dilapidated quarters. Many of them are victims of drugs and violence and have had parents involved in armed conflict.
An organization working from the Mayor's Office in Medellín, in concert with the EBN programme ventures into the streets at night to seek out children that need assistance.
On one particular night, they gently engage in conversation with a girl named Monica and her friend Katerina to find out what kind of help and services they need. Katerina and Monica agree to go with the staff to enter into the social services programme of Medellín where they will be looked after and where their cases will receive special attention and tracking from the Mayor's Group.
Overcoming natural disasters and violence
In Lorica, the effects of conflict are keenly felt, but locals also suffer from extensive flooding which prevents children from attending school for months at a time.
According to UNICEF Colombia Education in Emergencies Specialist Armondo Ribon, the compounded problem of disasters and violence in Lorica has made the provision of education even more critical.
"Education is a right that all students should have access to, in a permanent way, so that the negative impacts related to flooding and the region's common issues such as armed conflict can be overcome," said Mr. Ribon.
UNICEF and local partners here train teachers and involve families by providing flexible school schedules during the flood seasons.
A long-term approach to mitigating violence
Across Columbia, people, parents, teachers, government and non-governmental organizations have consistently seen education as a long-term approach to mitigating violence and better preparing for natural disasters.
Tangible solutions that can help heal and restore the country are deeply dependent upon an educated and strong generation of young people. These partnerships and programmes are providing a lifeline to Colombia's children, the lifeline of education.