Colombia: No Child Should be a Soldier

by MADRE, An International Women's Human Rights Org.

MADRE's sister organization, Taller de Vida, works tirelessly to provide safe spaces for young people who have been former child soldiers or are at risk for being recruited. MADRE is supporting Taller de Vida to re-open a Youth Center in Usme. The Usme Youth Center will have youth programs which will allow young people to share their experiences and speak openly against violence through art, music and performance. These forms of art therapy, guided by professional art therapists and counselors, allow youth to heal from the traumas they've faced and rebuild their lives in a culture of peace.


Taller de Vida, or “Workshop of Life,” was founded by two sisters who believed in harnessing art and self-expression as a means to combat psychological and physical trauma.

Taller de Vida provides youth affected by Colombia’s decades-long war with trauma counseling, education and a variety of after-school arts enrichment programs. From sculpting intricate bowls to engaging in spoken-word performances, child victims of the war are given platforms to express themselves creatively. They use art as a way to confront and overcome painful memories.

*Miguel is a young man from Altos de Cazuca, Colombia, who narrowly escaped forced recruitment with a group of paramilitaries. Miguel, impoverished and living on the streets, was on the verge of joining the paramilitaries when one of his friends intervened and sent him to Taller de Vida. Taller provided Miguel with a sanctuary and haven of self-expression. It changed his life. Miguel now has the opportunity to explore his identity outside the oppressive parameters of war and violence:

“I’ve been here a year and for me it’s been like salvation.  First of all, because it’s a place where you feel like you are worth something to someone.  They listen and respect you for who you are.  They help you to be a better person and to love and take care of yourself.  Thanks to your help, I am studying and playing in a capoeira group.  This has helped me so much.  I have learned to control myself.  I have learned things about myself I never knew.  You have helped me to see that there are other options for me besides war. Going to Taller de Vida means getting a chance to LIVE, to know ourselves, to realize that it doesn’t stop with us not going to war but that we must do something for our country. We have shown the adults of our neighborhood that we are capable of doing productive things.  We are beginning to gain their respect.  The armed groups have not gotten to us because we are no longer going to them desperate.”

*Miguel’s name has been changed to protect his identity


The following story is from a young woman named Marta, who was forced to join a paramilitary group in Colombia when she was only 11 years old. MADRE's partner organization in Colombia, Taller de Vida, has aided her in escaping a life of violence.

“We never experienced a childhood,” said Marta, who was kidnapped and trained to fight for a paramilitary group in Colombia when she was 11. “We exchanged our dolls for rifles, our games for combat.” Marta was eventually released onto the streets of Bogotá but she could barely read and was haunted by the killings she had been forced to commit.

Marta found MADRE’s partner organization, Taller de Vida. Today she helps other young people heal from the wounds of war and build real alternatives to lives of violence. “Taller de Vida gave me una nueva vida (a new life),” said Marta. The organization provides trauma counseling and remedial education to help children who have been displaced catch up on their schooling, adjust to life in the city, and defend their human rights.

Taller de Vida also offers after-school sports, art, and theater programs to help young people develop their artistic talents and learn to express themselves through acting, dance, writing and painting. These programs help young people who have experienced enduring trauma from the armed conflict envision—and work to create—a more peaceful world. Through art, the youth at Taller de Vida are able to share past experiences and build a network of support for their future.


December 16, 2010

Hello Friends,

Below is a profile of Stella Duque, the head of Taller de Vida, our sister organization in Colombia. I'm so pleased that we've been able to show you what our sister organizations do, and how you help them do it. In case you missed our previous profiles, see how you've made a difference in Iraq and Peru!

Thank you so very much,

Vivian Stromberg
Executive Director


Stella Duque, Taller de Vida, Colombia

In 2010, you made it possible for Stella and Taller de Vida to give women and children in war-torn Colombia an alternative to violence.

Through Taller de Vida, you supported art therapy programs for war-displaced women. With these programs, women can create crafts that earn them income at the same time as they receive group counseling and training on human rights issues.

You also made it possible for children to break the cycle of violence. Taller de Vida offers artistic and educational activities to help rehabilitate children exploited as soldiers--and children who are at risk of being recruited by armed groups. By focusing on art and community, the children learn to envision a culture of peace.

In 2010, MADRE was also able to brief the UN Human Rights Committee on the toll the Colombian conflict has taken on the women and children of Taller de Vida. Together, we won recommendations from the Committee that MADRE is going to use to push for better laws and policies in Colombia. 

Because you stood with us this year, MADRE and Taller de Vida were able to stand for peace in Colombia. We couldn't do it without you!


MADRE recently completed a shadow report of human rights abuses in Colombia, which was presented to the United Nations Human Rights Committee in July 2010 in conjunction with their review of Colombia’s human rights record. Researchers from MADRE conducted over 30 interviews with former child solders from the capital city of Bogotá and the city of Pereira. The age of recruitment ranged from 10 to 17 years of age and participation varied through most of the identified armed groups in Colombia.

Recruitment stories ranged from joining armed groups voluntarily due to abandonment, being orphaned, or fleeing domestic or sexual violence or other issues at home. Some children were lured into joining armed groups with promises of a better life only to find the promises were false and that they faced the punishment of death if they tried to escape.

Since 2006, the Attorney-General’s Office has found 109 bodies of childrenmainly victims of armed groupsin clandestine graves. According to testimonies of former child soldiers, children recruited by armed groups were frequently killed for “insubordination” ranging from stealing food from the group’s reserves to trying to escape. Here is the story of one Colombian child soldier and the trauma she endured:

“My mother was 15 when she first fell in love. She had me when she turned 16 but only took care of me for four months before leaving me with my father and my grandmother. My dad left me a month later. I lived with my grandmother and studied and worked. I spent almost all of my childhood working. I sold things like food and toilet paper in the street. We lived in a neighborhood called La Esperanza, in the southern part of Bogotá.

I was seven when my grandmother fell ill. I was already in the 5th grade but I had to work in a bakery to earn money while my grandmother was in the hospital. Later, I started begging for money because I couldn’t make ends meet.

A week after I turned eight, my grandmother died. I became homeless but I still worked and went to school. When I turned 11, I decided that I could either go on living in the street, or I could join the guerrillas. I went to where they were and did basic training for five days.

They gave me a gun and taught me how to use it. They told me that life would be hard with them and that they don’t get paid anything for what they do. I told myself, “Life here is easier than in the street. Stay.” After basic training, the big guys from the army came to the camp. My first order was to pick up a little dog and hold it. They shot at me and killed the dog. After that, I became tougher.

When it was my turn to kill someone, I always hid my face because I was afraid. I went to bed dreaming of the people I had killed.

War is something terrible you do to people who don’t want to be guerrillas. These people are stuck in the middle and they are killed by the soldiers for saying things like, “You are guerrillas, you are assholes,” or whatever.

One day they made me kill an old man but I couldn’t do it. They sentenced me to death so I had to run away.

The guerrillas were my family but because I betrayed them, they wanted to kill me. They were a family that didn’t forgive.”


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Organization Information

MADRE, An International Women's Human Rights Org.

Location: New York, NY - USA
Website: http:/​/​
Project Leader:
Yifat Susskind
New York, NY United States

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