Despite Current Threats and Historic Trauma, Enseña por Colombia is Working to Ensure Students in Urabá Can Fulfill Their Potential
In 2020, the UN proclaimed September 9 the International Day to Protect Education from Attack to send a clear message about the importance of schools being protected and safe places for students and teachers, understanding the urgency of education as a fundamental human right. Unfortunately, in recent years, attacks on schools and against students and teachers have increased in Colombia. Colombians have lived through more than 60 years of internal armed conflict, leaving more than 260,000 dead, according to the Observatorio de Memoria y Conflicto (Observatory of Memory and Conflict). The country has experienced all forms of violence—including kidnapping, massacres, forced disappearances, sexual violence, forced recruitment and displacement—affecting mainly the civilian population.
Between 2020 and 2021, the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack identified at least 35 reported attacks on schools in Colombia, primarily in rural areas. Many incidents involved an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) installed at or near schools. Confrontations in the vicinity of schools between armed groups, or an armed group and government forces, were also common. Schools have often been the target of violent attacks involving recruitment of minors, torture, and other types of systematized violence. It’s estimated that approximately 40% of Colombian children do not attend school either because of the violence and attacks, or because of the destruction of educational facilities as a result of the conflict.
Urabá, located in northwestern Colombia, is an area that has been severely impacted by the conflict. According to the Single Registry of Victims, more than 105,000 children and adolescents between 5 and 17 years of age in Urabá have been victims of the conflict since 1988. On April 25, 2001, the insurgent guerilla organization Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - Ejército del Pueblo (FARC-EP) entered the village of Alto de San Juan in Urabá and killed a group of people in the school of Vereda La Rula. This happened at a time when the FARC-EP was trying to retake control of northern Urabá, a region almost completely dominated by paramilitaries. This massacre marked a before and after in Urabá as dozens of families were displaced to other municipalities, leaving Vereda La Rula almost completely empty and its school ceased to be a safe learning space.
Enseña por Colombia started placing Ecos (teachers) in Urabá in 2013 who have experienced the constant war in which students and their communities are immersed. During their training, it is important for the Ecos to develop a contextualized understanding of their environment. While participating in Enseña por Colombia’s regional training and development institute, Ecos in Urabá learn about how the local community has been impacted by the conflict, and about the security protocols that the organization has established to address violent situations that may occur.
Pablo is an Enseña por Colombia alumnus who taught in Urabá. During his time teaching, he saw first hand how the reality of his students and their families was marked in a very real way by a history of violence, whether it was violence that they had been involved in directly or indirectly. Pablo often heard his students mention that they had witnessed a violent confrontation between armed groups, saw female students miss class or stop attending school because they got "married" (went to live with an older person), and learned that some male students’ reference of success were men in armed groups because that was what brought them money or women.
However, there were also lots of causes for celebration and examples of inspiring leadership to effect real change in the community, such as “4 vidas y un balón” (4 lives and a ball)—a student run project that aimed to change the violent dynamics of the communities through soccer and the promotion of socioemotional skills in younger children—and the graduation, in 2017, of the first high school class of the local school in San Pedro de Urabá. Pablo was the group director for the class and points to the 12 students who graduated as exemplary leaders for their community. They “decided to bet on education as an option to seek a better future for themselves and their families, they represented the dream of families who carried a history marked by violence and who decided to believe in education as an opportunity to break the cycle, as some of them were the first high school graduates in their families,” he said. “Surely having that first cohort of graduates as a reference has encouraged more students in the area to complete their studies and break the cycle of historical violence in which their families have been involved."
Despite continuing violence in the region, Enseña por Colombia is committed to placing teachers in Urabá. Today, there are 19 Ecos in Urabá, all of whom are committed to working with their students and the local communities they teach in to address challenges and ensure a better future. And, as an organization, Enseña por Colombia holds strong to their mission of transforming education, which prevails over time. At the moment, we have accompanied more than 27,000 students in 27 municipalities and 13 departments in 58 educational institutions over the country. More than 600 professionals have gone through our training and accompaniment program in these 10 years. Based on the results, evidence, and experiences of the different actors in this movement, the ideal of continuing to build a country through education is Enseña por Colombia's mission.