Some facts about children forced to work as child soldiers in Colombia
By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA, May 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Colombia is the only country in the Americas where children are forced to work as child soldiers.
Thousands of boys and girls have been used as child soldiers by Colombia's largest leftist rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in its five-decade war against the government.
But it is hoped that child soldiers will soon be a scourge of the past as they will no longer be part of guerrilla ranks.
Earlier this month, FARC commanders agreed to release soldiers under 15 from their ranks as part of peace talks the rebels are holding with the Colombian government.
The two sides have been negotiating a peace deal for more than three years in a bid to end half a century of war .
A deadline for a final peace deal was missed in March, but Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said this month that his government hoped to conclude a peace deal with the FARC rebels "in the very near future".
There are currently 170 children in FARC ranks, of which 70 are girls, according to Colombia's defence minister, Luis Carlos Villegas. He said on May 19 the FARC will soon release the first of 20 child soldiers aged under 15.
Here are some facts about child soldiers in Colombia:
* All illegal armed groups, including criminal gangs, right-wing paramilitary groups and Colombia's second largest rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), have forcibly recruited teenagers or taken on under-age volunteers.
* The FARC recruited 11,556 children into its ranks between 1975 and 2014, according to latest figures from Colombia's attorney general's office.
* Since 2013, around 1,000 children have been used or recruited by illegal armed groups, including the FARC, according to the U.N. children's agency (UNICEF).
* Children as young as nine are known to have been recruited by the rebels.
* Most child soldiers join FARC ranks around the age of 12 and spend on average 14 years fighting. Some give themselves up, often after escaping. Others are rescued by government security forces, usually after clashes with rebels.
* Children are trained to fight in combat, use grenades and mortars and to plant landmines. They are also used as cooks, messengers, informants and porters. Other duties include digging trenches, collecting firewood, and clearing paths in the jungle.
* Girls are used as sex slaves and undergo forced abortions carried out by the FARC, according to human rights groups.
* The FARC have long been accused by human rights groups and the government of forcibly recruiting children, especially from indigenous groups, in remote areas where there are few job opportunities.
* Former child soldiers sometimes say they voluntarily joined the FARC and were not forcibly recruited. Many come from broken homes and join to escape abuse and poverty at home.
* Many child soldiers leave rebel ranks when they become adults. If they join a government reintegration programme, they can receive a monthly allowance of up to $140 provided that they attend school or university, undergo psychological counselling and vocational training, and do community service.
* Often illiterate and traumatised, former child soldiers find it hard to reintegrate into society and face significant obstacles as many have known only a life of war.
SOURCES: The U.N. children's agency (UNICEF), Colombia's reintegration agency (ACR), Colombia's attorney general's office.
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney, Editing by Jo Griffin.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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