BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - More than 230,000 Colombian children have been forced to flee their homes since peace talks between the government and rebels began three years ago, and children will continue to be at risk even if a deal is reached, the United Nations said on Monday.
The government and rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are inching ever closer to signing a peace deal in Cuba, where talks began in late 2012.
If a peace accord is reached it would bring an end to more than half a century of war and Latin America's longest-running insurgency.
"Even if the peace agreement were to be signed tomorrow, children will continue to be at risk of all kinds of violations including recruitment, landmines and sexual exploitation," Roberto De Bernardi, Colombia representative for the U.N. children's agency (UNICEF), said in a statement.
"Unless these children receive the material and psychological assistance they need, the prospects of long-lasting peace will remain elusive," he said.
Peace talks and a unilateral ceasefire declared by the FARC in July 2015 have led to a decline in the number of children displaced and injured or killed by landmines, UNICEF said in its latest report.
But despite peace efforts, an average of more than 6,000 children a month were uprooted from their homes between 2013 and 2015, the report said.
Children account for one in every three of Colombia's 7.8 million officially registered war victims.
Government figures show nearly 45,000 children have been killed and 8,000 disappeared since 1985.
"No child in Colombia today knows what it is like to live in a country at peace. It is time to turn the page," said De Bernardi.
Indigenous and Afro-Colombian children living in conflict areas, mainly concentrated in Colombia's border areas and jungle provinces, have been particularly hard hit by the conflict over the decades, UNICEF said.
Children are also at risk of being recruited, and 1,000 children were used or recruited by illegal armed groups, including the FARC, in the last three years, UNICEF said.
The government estimates there are 2,000 child soldiers in FARC ranks. Children are trained to fight, use grenades and to plant home-made landmines, while girls are used as sex slaves and undergo forced abortions, according to human rights groups.
In April 2015, the FARC reiterated its pledge to release child combatants but did not say when or where this would take place.
"Releasing every child below the age of 18 from armed groups should not be contingent upon the outcome of the peace agreement," UNICEF said in the report.
In the last three years since peace talks began, at least 180 children, mostly girls, were victims of sexual violence at the hands of warring factions, it said.
"Sexual violence is so prevalent in Colombia that it will most likely continue unabated even after the peace agreement is signed," the report said.
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney, editing by Ros Russell.; 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 news.trust.org)
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