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Former child soldiers: emotional difficulties and the impact of football on their reintegration process

Related to this project:

 Video    Former guerrilla soldiers

               Football and vulnerability

               Ideology and leftist guer..

Writings Ideology and leftist guer..


Image taken from:  Diario UChile




The proposal was written with the help of a social worker, however, no organization was able to committ to the research and development of the project.

Key words:  Colombia, research, conflict, identity, society, reintegration, violence.





For about 5 decades, the Colombian government has been in conflict with different guerrilla groups. Given these circumstances, former child soldiers are currently being socially reintegrated within a territorially and politically divided society with vivid and highly-relative sentiments toward individuals directly involved in the national conflict. This means child reintegration is characterized by displacement and stigmatization in addition to further emotional problems. Ultimately, the latter makes it difficult for children to achieve full independence. This research aims to highlight the hardships that former child soldiers experience and aspires to widen the range of practices related to football and peace projects. More precisely, it provides innovative methods that differ from the way football is used by UN agencies and NGOs to handle relational patterns in this context. The present research focuses on specific exercises aimed at improving relational patterns, but it also aims to provide solutions to problems such as: lack of perseverance, self-motivation and self-control. As evidenced in contemporary research on the topic, these are among the features which are fundamental for a successful reintegration process. In order to attain such goals, the present study employs the photo-voice methodology and football exercises used for character building with young players.




During the last decade, armed conflicts around the world took the lives of 2 million young people, left 6 million disabled and displaced about 20 million people (UNICEF, 2007). Consistently, studies have reported that child soldiers are exposed to high levels of violence, which results in serious health, mental health and development issues (Betancourt et al., 2010; Kohrt et al., 2010; Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, 2008; Johnson et al., 2008; Ward & Marsh, 2006; Gingerich & Leaning, 2004;). Consequently, children and adolescents involved in armed conflicts are often considered a lost generation without hope of physical or emotional rehabilitation. In Colombia between 1999 and 2013, divided into 3 large waves, 5,417 demobilized children began social reintegration programs. Giving that in 2008, according to Thomas (2008), approximately 10,000 children and adolescents were still part of different Colombian guerrilla groups, it is likely that there will be more groups of demobilized youth once peace talks with the FARC are finalized (El Espectador, 2014).


The Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) program was set up by the UN with the objective of rehabilitating and reintegrating child soldiers within society, offering a long-term alternative to military life (Bamidele, 2012). In Colombia, within the framework of the Constitution of 1991, Law 1106 of 2006 of the Infancy and Adolescence Code defines a victim of political violence as every minor who has taken part in the conflict and orders the Colombian Institute of Family Welfare (ICBF) to assist all children and adolescents who have been victims of the armed conflict (ICBF, 2010). Care programs are guided by the Operational Manual for the Demobilization of Children; Disarmament and Demobilization of Adults, and Reintegration. Returning children initially receive medical attention and counseling at “transition homes,” where they stay up to 45 days and are subsequently assigned to one of the different kinds of care centers (Puentes Puentes, 2012). Although different authors have argued that family reunification and return to the community is generally in the best interests of the child, reunification has been more difficult to achieve in Colombia than in other DDR experiences (Blatt, 2006; Singer, 2005; Verhey, 2001). Colombia’s DDR process is taking place within an ongoing armed conflict in rural areas which, for security and structural reasons, complicates family reunification and justifies youth displacement to urban care centers.


According to the Operational Manual, the attributes of social reintegration include psychosocial, economic and community reintegration (Puentes Puentes, 2012). Professionals working in the centers encourage participants to consider their life as a "work in progress" where tehy are building new opportunities for their future. However, according to educators and care workers, demobilised youth become easily frustrated, demotivated and experience low self-esteem in light of the hurdles they need to overcome (Efraime, Errante, 2012; Thomas, 2008; Punamaki, 1989). Children who come from rural areas report feeling isolated, afraid and alienated by the city. As such, once they have completed the program, some of them are afraid to leave friends and counselors whom they know and trust (Thomas, 2008). Likewise, a big challenge to reintegration is the stigmatisation of former child soldiers by Colombian society at large. A YMCA representative involved in the process said, "what we need is a campaign to build awareness about these youth as victims. Although they are now legally recognised as victims, socially they continue to be stigmatised as victimisers" (Thomas, 2008).


Once former child soldiers reach the age of 18, the Colombian Agency for Reintegration (ACR) continues the work of the ICBF, helping the new adults to find their own way. Although the situation of each youth depends on many variables, Puentes Puentes (2010) has shown that among adults under the authority of the ACR, between those passed through the ICBF and those demobilized in adulthood, there is no marked difference in the attributes of social reintegration. Furthermore, although it is not known if and how many adolescents return to armed or criminal groups once they complete the process under the ICBF, approximately 20% of the adolescents quit the program before its end (Thomas, 2008). Additionally, according to the ICBF, more or less 60% of children and adolescents enter the program between the ages of 16 and 18 years old. As such it is understandable that the program has a limited impact (Thomas , 2008).

The peer-reviewed literature on former child soldiers includes few studies of interventions informed by major policies and the effectiveness of most practices remain empirically unexamined (Betancourt, 2011; Tol et al., 2011; Betancourt & Williams, 2008). The scant literature about rehabilitation programs represents an obstacle to ensuring effective public policy addressing rehabilitation programs and psychosocial adjustment of demobilized children and other young people affected by war.




In light of the evidence indicating the existence of many challenges associated with the Colombian DDR program, the goal of the present research is to examine and address children’s emotional difficulties arising from and affecting the success of this program. First, as propositional research, this study aims to test football as a sustainable method able to complement other rehabilitation initiatives in helping children to cope with their emotional difficulties. Second, photo-voice, a technique which consists in giving children a camera to photograph their routine, is used to further identify children's hardships and confirm or inform current policies managing the reintegration program. At the same time, photo-voice is used to reach the public opinion about these children's experiences and boost comprehension and tolerance.




UNICEF has been using sporting activities for peace programmes in post-war contexts to promote reintegration of former child and youth combatants within reintegration DDR programmes (United Nations, 2014; UNESCO, 2014). Reviews concerned with the use of sporting activities in peace management suggested that where young people lack hope, sport can be a valuable and effective tool (Donnelly et al., 2007; Gutiérrez, 1995).


The growing enthusiasm for ‘Sport for development and peace’ projects around the world has created a much greater interest among critical scholars seeking to interrogate potential gains (Black, 2010; Darnell, 2010; Levermore, Beacom, 2009; Donnelly et al., 2007). Most programs, in a variety of situations, see sport simply as a tool for the (re)construction of relations between antagonistic groups. Some examples include: Football 4 Peace, the SCORE in South Africa, the Open Fun Football Schools and the Golombiao in Colombia (UNICEF , 2014; Donnelly et al., 2007).


Football, a popular sport in Colombia, has been used only in communities at risk, producing mixed results and creating a series of contrasting responses among professionals. Programs generally follow the Golombiao’s method, applying a set of guidelines to a modified football game in order to improve some relational dynamics (World Coach Colombia, 2014; Connection Colombia, 2014; UNICEF, 2014 ). Sport is a social construction which depends largely on what people do with it and how it is practiced (Sugden, 2005).


In Colombia, as mentioned, the reintegration process of former child soldier occurs in particular circumstances in which football has never been used as a peace tool. In contrast with othr programs abroad, this study proposes a much more focused approach to the use of football characterized by greater control and accuracy, and aims to achieve better results. Beyond relational dynamics, specific variables that limit the development of children and adolescents in the reintegration process emerge and are assessed and treated in the long term with specific exercises related, but not limited to, a simple football game.




The Photovoice methodology can be effective within marginalized groups since it can make the invisible visible. It is a way of bringing conflicting social problems to the surface and it is used to enrich our understanding of young participant’s perspectives (Loseke, 2001). Photo-elicitation can also be therapeutic to the participants who are unable to open up about their emotions and specifically, about their needs (Thupayagale-Tshweneagae, Mokomane, 2012).


The Photovoice technique allows participants to elicit sentiments which are usually silenced and it encourages their active participation and confrontation in the research process, thus, legitimately producing knowledge outside the formal community (Hurwort et al., 2005; Wang, Burris, 1997). A similar technique has been used in Colombia by the NGO Taller De Vida. However, their study did not give children free agency in the use of the camera and it relied mainly on their methodology, which mixes drawings and photos (Taller De Vida, 2014). Nevertheless, the researcher has chosen this approach because, as mentioned, it can provide an important contribution to understanding the perspectives of children and adolescents, and at the same time, it is a very useful tool to build narratives able to reach and influence public opinion.






The study will employ qualitative investigation methods including observation, photo-voice, and in-depth and semi structured interviews. Qualitative data will be collected before, during, and after delivering football related activities. Based on previous findings, ex – child soldiers are likely to lack in attributes such as cooperation, respect, discipline, obedience, perseverance, self-realization, self-motivation and self-control (Efraime, Errante, 2012; Thomas, 2008; Punamäki, 1989). As such, the researcher expects to observe a similar trend. Nevertheless, this study will not be bound to previous findings, and therefore open to observe and identify additional attributes that may be lacking among ex-child soldiers. Initially, the qualitative data will be used to frame those attributes and life skills, which appear to be lacking among ex-child soldiers. Consistently, the research activities delivered will be structured to exert positive effects by developing and enhancing the attributes and life skills identified to be less prominent among ex-child soldiers. As the study progresses, the data gathered will be used to assess the impact of football related activities on ex- child soldiers. Ultimately, the research aims to establish whether these activities are beneficial to develop important attributes and life skills. Consistently, the study will employ a control group to better assess the impact of football related activities.




Participants will be recruited at a care center responsible for offering reintegration programs to children who were previously soldiers. The care center is based in Colombia. Particularly, children assigned to a Home Tutor or Specialized Care Center (CAE) are more exposed to the attention of social workers and are potentially more appropriated to participate in this research (Puentes Puentes, 2012). Recruitment will be carried out on a random basis as it happens when children arrive at the care center and therefore, there will not be any criteria to meet. The researcher anticipates recruiting a total of 30 participants, 15 of which will be allocated to a control group.




Part of the research will make use of typical football materials such as balls, cones and coloured jerseys. The other part of the study will make use of Nikon Coolpix 3600 cameras.




The present study’s researcher has ten years of experience as a professional football player and youth football coach. The inicial in-depth interviews, used to indentify the attributes that appear to to be lacking among ex-child soldiers, are used to elaborate football related exercices to improve the attributes encountered. Football activities will be carried out eight hours per week over a six-month period. The purpose of these activities will be openly discussed once a week with the participants in order to create an understanding of how learned skills can be transferred to their daily life. To assess the impact of football on the attributes, participants’ observation will be conducted continuously in the care center and during football activities. Semi-structured interviews will be carried out every two weeks to further assess the impact of football on children's attributes.




Thematic analysis will be employed to assess the in-depth interviews. The researcher will code each sentence provided. Afterwards, coding will be organized into categories. The categories extrapolated will ultimately be used to identify attributes and life skills lacking among the participants. These attributes will then be employed to develop semi-structured interviews and behavioral dynamics to be observed through participants’ observation. Ultimately, as the study progresses, statements gathered during observation and in-depth and semi-structured interviews will be compared in order to assess the effect of football activities. The statements provided by the participants will ultimately be compared with those provided by the control group.




Football will be employed as the means to first contact these children, allowing them to familiarize themselves and build rapport with the researcher. After the first month, a camera is handed over to football participants. The attribuites that this research aims to improves are used to give task to the children when handling their camera. Apart from that, children are given free agency in relation to camera handling and number of pictures to take. The image-text concept proposed by Mitchell (1995) is used by the children to accompany their photographs with an explanatory text or testimony. This will be done during weekly interviews by employing photo elicitation, which is a technique used to provoke a response from a given photograph (Heisley, Levy 1991). Colaizzi’s model of data analysis will be applied to analyse the themes which emerge from photo-elicitation (Colaizzi 1978). Findings from the study are then grouped under headings related to the interpretation of needs as perceived by adolescents.


Visual narratives originated during the project will be produced in partnership with media and NGOs, respecting ethical concerns, in order to openly discuss and sensitize the public opinion about these children's stories.




Participants will not be allowed to portray themselves in any picture and will be ensured total anonymity and confidentiality. It will be made clear that if participants feel uncomfortable during the experiment they are free to leave. Furthermore, prior to the interviews the researcher will emphasize that he does not want the participants to feel pressured to talk about anything about which they feel uncomfortable.


The researcher is aware that the evaluation of field notes among participants of both groups is influenced by the fact that the control group will be observable only in the care center while doing other activities. In contrast, participants of football activities will spend more time with the researcher.


The images produced need to be understood not simply as authentic representations of self but as a product of the task that was set and how this was framed. Also, since many of these photographs may be photographs of opportunity, it is needed to interpret the intentions behind the photographs with caution (Crogha et al., 2008).






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