In the small, isolated town of Timbiquí, located on the banks of one of the many winding rivers in Colombia’s Pacific region, there isn’t much for kids to do.

Years ago, children used to splash around in the river at all hours of the day. But today, swimming in Timbiquí’s river is dangerous due to contamination from illegal gold mining in the region.

Children and youth in Timbiquí are heavily exposed to armed conflict violence linked to illicit activities. This exposure to violence, combined with excessive free time and a lack of mentors, puts them at risk of falling prey to illegal armed group recruitment and continuing the cycle of violence and the internal conflict.

The Afro-Colombian and Indigenous Program, financed by USAID and implemented by ACDI/VOCA, exists to increase the social, political, and economic inclusion of ethnic populations in Colombia.

If you would like to know more about the Soccer for Peace or get involved with VOCA projects across Colombia you can contact them at:

To try to counter this, USAID’s Afro-Colombian and Indigenous Program (ACIP), in partnership with Fundación Tiempo de Juego, is implementing a powerful tool: the soccer ball. The strategy aims to teach kids values like peaceful conflict resolution, respect for others and teamwork, while doing something they are passionate about.

In Timbiquí, children and youth play soccer — rain or shine, with or without shoes.

The Soccer for Peace methodology also strives to bridge the gender gap by empowering girls and women in the soccer matches — spaces that have been traditionally dominated by boys and men.

“Girls don’t play soccer because they’re supposed to be at home taking care of the chores,” said Ángel Ocoró, a youth leader in Timbiquí.

Another young participant is even more honest, saying that “girls don’t come out because they know we don’t like playing with them.”

An organized sports program gives girls the opportunity to cross invisible barriers, and some small rule changes mean that the first goal needs to be scored by a girl. Now, young women are no longer shunned from the field. They are welcomed and encouraged.

When girls play soccer, they begin to exercise decision-making skills that they didn’t know they had. They learn to excel in a team. And they are applauded for their progress.

All of this increases a girl’s confidence in her own ability, and that translates into everyday life, as they take more initiative and exhibit higher self-esteem.

Soccer for Peace schools are also nurturing leaders to create a new generation of positive role models for the youngest in Timbiquí. These role models are discouraging fistfights and promoting peaceful conflict resolution; they steer younger generations away from a culture of illegality and violence.

Most importantly, they are creating spaces where kids can be kids.

“I want Timbiquí’s kids to have a space where they can have fun and where they will be safe,” said youth leader Jasmin Gómez.

“They are surrounded by violence. Soccer is the best strategy for making changes, because soccer is what excites them the most.”