BOGOTA (TrustLaw) - Girls forcibly recruited by Colombia’s illegal armed groups are being used as sexual slaves, said the country’s defence minister.
Child soldiers make up around 13 percent of the ranks of Colombia’s largest 8,000-strong rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), according to government figures.
“The majority of girls who are recruited by illegal armed groups (the FARC) are forced to become sexual slaves, in many cases the lovers of commanders, or they are simply seen as objects of desire to motivate guerrillas,” Defence Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon told reporters at a Bogota press conference earlier this week.
“All they (the FARC) care about is if boys and girls are taller than a gun,” he said, adding that children join rebel ranks at the average age of 12.
Women and girls who become pregnant are forced to have abortions in jungle camps, often with little medicine and medical care available.
One former rebel fighter, who joined the guerrilla group when she was 11, said she was forced to have an abortion while six months pregnant.
“They (the FARC) never let you keep your baby. There are thousands of girls and women who have been forced to abort. I once saw a girl who had her baby taken out at nine months and she died as a result,” the former combatant, who goes by the name of Natalia, told reporters at the government-led conference held to raise awareness about the plight of Colombia’s child solders.
She, like other boys and girls at the conference, declined to reveal their real names. Many said they joined the rebel group to escape sexual and or physical abuse at home.
“My mother abused me. I was fed up with living at home. A friend of mine recruited me,” Natalia said.
In their strongholds, rebel groups hold propaganda meetings in schools, public squares and host parties with guns to lure children into their ranks.
With the poverty rate at around 60 percent and few jobs available in rural areas, children are drawn to join rebel armies by false promises of adventure, food, and money.
But when children arrive at rebel jungle camps, they find life is very different from the one they were promised.
“I had to walk for long hours during rainy and dark nights with very heavy equipment. It was very hard,” Natalia said.
“I lost my childhood. I did it for nothing. It’s not a life being there. I got nothing in return.”
Camilo, a former child combatant, said going hungry and watching his friends get injured were among the hardest things he had to bear.
“It’s a hard life. You have to endure hunger and see friends lose their arms and legs during (government) bombing campaigns,” Camilo said.
The rebels commonly use children as messengers, porters, spies and cooks. Children are also trained to use assault rifles, grenades, mortars and to plant home-made landmines.
The FARC is on an aggressive recruitment drive to prop up their dwindling ranks - down roughly half from a high of around 18,000 in the 1990’s. This comes after a series of recent defeats by government forces, prompting record numbers of rebel fighters to desert.
Indigenous children, often living in isolated and remote jungle regions, where rebels tend to have more power because the military's presence is weak and sporadic, are particularly at risk of being forcibly recruited.
(Editing by Lisa Anderson)