For youth like Maria, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure
Protecting vulnerable children and youth from exploitation
Daneal Lightner, content writer
In the face of poverty, violence, and the growing prevalence of armed militant groups, the children and youth of Colombia face continued risk of exploitation. Throughout the country, Bethany is working on the front line to prevent harm and protect children, like Maria, who are most vulnerable to recruitment into dangerous militias.
She grew up in poverty, surrounded by the threat of violence, resulting in a tougher childhood than most might experience. As a result, at just 14 years old, Maria was recruited to join an illegal military group, believing life with them would be better than with her family.
Recruiting children and teens in rural Arauca isn’t uncommon. Most families earn a meager living through farming and ranching. Though they work long, tough hours, most don’t earn enough to provide for their families.
Illegal armed groups prey on their vulnerability, convincing impoverished children to join their ranks with promises of money, food, work, and mobility.
And Maria, whose older brother and boyfriend had already been recruited, was an easy target. Her family struggled and her relationship with her mother was strained. When she left home, she saw love, stability, and a different future for herself.
But those were not the things she found.
In camp, Maria constantly clashed with the gang leaders, who wouldn’t allow their authority to be challenged. As punishment for disobedience, she was forced to work long, hot hours in the fields, cook, clean, and tend to the soldiers’ needs.
Maria’s mother was devastated. But when Maria’s aunt passed away, her mother used the opportunity to negotiate with the group to get her daughter a temporary pass to leave the camp and attend the funeral.
While Maria was away from the group, Bethany acted quickly. Staff helped secure her in a hidden, safe place.
As expected, the armed group retaliated by threatening her family. For their safety, they were all forced to flee their home.
Creating safe communities for children
Bethany provided the family financial means to relocate, mental health support, and family counseling. Maria and her family now are reunited, safe, and thriving in their new community together.
But that isn’t always the case for children and youth who’ve been recruited into armed groups. And although conscripting children younger than 15 years of age into armed forces is a violation of international humanitarian law, in Colombia it is far too common.
Children recruited or forcefully conscripted often become the first victims in armed combat, are used for domestic labor, and forced into sexual slavery.
Bethany works diligently with our partners to protect children and families from falling prey to these dangerous groups before it’s too late. Creating safe community environments where children can grow and thrive without fear is essential to their well-being and ability to thrive, now and later in life. And prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Our teams work diligently to build stronger communities and safer environments for children in Colombia so instead of helping children heal after facing exploitation, we stop them from being exploited and harmed at all. This is accomplished through things like • Increasing access to education • Creating safe, community spaces for frequent family and community activities • Community awareness
All children deserve to be safe, loved, and connected—not exploited or exposed to danger and violence. Together, we are protecting the children and youth of Colombia, by promoting environments that provide just that—safety, love, and connection through strong families, schools, and communities.