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RELIGION-COLOMBIA: Children of Hope in a Violent World

Helda Martínez

BOGOTÁ, Apr 29 2008 (IPS) - When she was 12 years old in her native Colombia, Ornella Barros decided that she did not want to be "the future, but the present; not a hope, but a certainty." Six years later, as a political science student, Barros says she made the right decision when she joined the Global Network of Religions for Children (GNRC).

"Now that I’m at university, I can confirm that the most important thing is to teach ethical values that promote human dignity, which is something that all religions have in common," Barros told IPS on Monday at the opening of GNRC’s regional conference on interfaith dialogue to overcome domestic violence in Bogotá.

The conference is receiving support from the Latin American Bishops’ Conference (CELAM), the Christian relief agency World Vision International and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

The participants are "analysing the causes, effects, and cultural structures surrounding domestic violence, to establish communication mechanisms and support for those working to overcome intra-family violence," said Mercedes Román, the GNRC coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean.

"It is an ethical imperative to eliminate violence against children, along with the urgent need to ensure that no child lives in poverty, while protecting the planet on which we live," she said.

The deliberations of the delegates from several Latin American countries and different religious faiths "will be part of the input for the third GNRC Forum to be held in Hiroshima (Japan) from May 24 to 26," Román announced at the start of the regional conference.

"Hiroshima will be the venue because of the drastic effect that World War II had on Japanese society," said Román, harking back to 1950, when Mitsu Miyamoto, a devout Buddhist, founded the Myochikai ("making the heart bloom") movement, dedicated to applying Buddhist values in order to achieve peace.

In 1990, as leader of Myochikai, Reverend Takeyasu Miyamoto established the Arigatou ("thank you") Foundation, with the aim of striving for a better world for children.

The Arigatou Foundation, a non-governmental organisation with consultative status at the United Nations, was the driving force behind GNRC, which was created in May 2000 as a cooperative effort of all religious traditions with the goal of a world free of violence against children.

"Thank you to those who make it possible for us to work with children," Román said to the conference participants, who included a group of girls and boys aged six to 16, members of the Voices for Hope choir who live in slum neighbourhoods on the outskirts of the Colombian capital, such as Bosa, Soacha and Cazucá.

"In these places, there are conflicts everywhere. There are fist fights at every street corner, and small children aged between 10 and 12 smoke, drink alcohol and do other things that are not worthwhile," Jorge Molina, a member of the choir, told IPS.

"That’s why we sing, to bring voices of hope to lots of people, many of whom have been displaced by the violence, to try to multiply good feelings," Molina said.

Tens of thousands of people from all over the country who have fled their homes because of Colombia’s nearly half-century civil war have taken refuge in the slums surrounding Bogotá.

Voices for Hope sings works by Colombian songwriter Santiago Benavides which invite reflection: "you can’t change things with a bullet," or "what can you do so that tomorrow / when you look back / you will see your own footprints?" or "Hugo arrived from Urabá / with his brown backpack / fleeing from his town / without knowing which way to go".

The lyrics reflect Colombian reality. "Between 11,000 and 15,000 children are involved in the armed conflict," Samuel Albarracín, the deputy director of World Vision in Colombia, told IPS.

"The situation is particularly serious, so World Vision is making every effort to impinge on the lives of some 400,000 children belonging to 35,000 families. Worldwide, we estimate that the organisation reaches about three million children," he said.

In Colombia, the violence suffered by children has its roots in exclusion, poverty, marginalisation, child labour and the armed conflict, according to Albarracín.

But in spite of this, "we will find the future," he stated.

At the conference, which runs through Wednesday, UNICEF will discuss the results of the United Nations Secretary General’s Study on Violence against Children, published in October 2006.

The study, which began to be carried out with the participation of experts, children and adolescents all over the world in 2003, was the greatest effort ever made to understand the causes and manifestations of violence.

Among these are cultural patterns such as "adult-centrism" and its effects on the most vulnerable populations, corporal punishment and its effects, and sexual and psychological abuse.

A central theme of the three days of debate will be the importance of human dignity as a value that is shared by religions and societies, and as a force for change to transform the world.

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