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June 1, 2002

Girl Power

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Mayerly, 16, cofounded the Children's Movement for Peace at age 12.

Mission: To end the violence in war-torn Colombia.

"Violence is everywhere in Colombia," says Mayerly Sanchez. "Children in this country are suffering because of bad choices by grown-ups."

She should know. In 1996, when Mayerly was on the brink of turning 12, her 15-year-old best friend was stabbed to death by a youth gang -- most likely a victim of the random violence provoked by Colombia's raging narcotics trade.

"Back then, the neighborhood was so dangerous, children couldn't even go out and play in the street after dark," she says.

Shortly afterward, Mayerly joined other children who had lost people in the country's civil war -- among them Juan Elias Uribe, then 14, and Farliz Calle, 15 -- as a leader in the Children's Movement for Peace, a project that was spearheaded by UNICEF. Their aim: to give children a voice in trying to end the kidnappings and murders that have become endemic to Colombia during its 40-year conflict and to stop the recruitment of thousands of child soldiers.

"We felt very strongly that children had a right to speak up and tell grown-ups to stop the violence," says Mayerly.

The organization's first action was to hold a nationwide children's ballot, backed by UNICEF and a Colombian peace organization called Redepaz, in which 2.7 million minors were asked to vote for their greatest priorities in life. Not surprisingly, the vast majority voted for peace. Over the next year, the Children's Movement helped establish peace zones in the interior and persuaded the government to pledge to keep children out of their conflicts.

Today, membership has grown to more than 100,000. The program has spread to rural areas as well, where Children's Movement counselors help children traumatized by the war work through their feelings by reenacting scenarios with dolls. In the past three years, the group has received three nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize. Adults in Colombia, inspired by the children's initiative, put forth a national referendum in 1997 asking for an end to the war; that in turn prompted President Andres Pastrana to run on a peace platform.

To learn more about Mayerly and the Children's Movement for Peace, click here.

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