ESPERE: Schools of Forgiveness and Reconciliation, Colombia

  • Date published:
    26 November 2019
©Fundación para la Reconciliación

Programme Key Information

Programme Title ESPERE (Escuelas de Perdón y Reconciliación): Schools of Forgiveness and Reconciliation
Implementing Organization Fundación para la Reconciliación
Language of Instruction Spanish
Date of Inception July 2013
Programme Partners Colombian Ministry of Education, local education authorities and educational institutions
  • Cycle 1: National Ministry of Education
  • Cycle 2: Secretary of the Nariño Educational Department and Gran Tierra Energy (Norte de Santander)
  • Annual Programme Costs US$1 million
    Annual Programme Cost per Learner US$100

    Country Context and Background

    Colombia has experienced internal conflict for more than five decades, which has had a devastating impact on the civilian population. Indeed, according to the Unidad para la Atención y Reparación Integral a Víctimas (Unit for the Assistance and Integral Reparation of Victims) (2019), the conflict has affected more than 8 million people (more than 16% of the total population of the country). In addition, data from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC, 2018) shows that Colombia has more than 5.6 million internally displaced people (IDPs), the highest number worldwide – more than Afghanistan, Nigeria and South Sudan combined, and surpassing Syria by a wide margin.

    As depicted by Rios (2018), for more than five decades Colombia endured an armed conflict that involved members of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), as well as two guerrilla groups: the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). While the process of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) of the AUC took place between 2003 and 2006 (Lair, 2015), negotiations with the FARC-EP took several attempts before concluding in 2016, when both parties signed a peace agreement (Rios, 2018).

    This conflict has had significant consequences for the provision of education. Based on UNICEF’s estimates (UNICEF, 2015), children that live in zones affected by the conflict in Colombia represent 40% of the total number of children in the country who are not in education, either at primary or secondary level. Furthermore, according to the same report, the school drop-out rate was 3.6% in 2013 and in 2014 the illiteracy rate in rural areas was double the national average. And, according to Ferris and Winthrop (2010), internally displaced adolescents lag behind their non-displaced peers: 51% of registered IDP youth attend secondary school, compared with 63% for non-IDP youth. Moreover, a significant percentage of registered IDPs aged 12 to 15 are still in primary school, which means they started their formal education late, have had to repeat grades, or have had to interrupt their education.

    The Departamento Administrativo Nacional de Estadística (National Administrative Department for Statistics, DANE, 2018) reported that, in 2018, 5% of the population aged 15 years and over was illiterate. And, according to UNESCO data, in 2016 the literacy rate for over-65s (81.43%) was lower than that for those aged between 15 and 24 years (98.67%), with more than 2 million illiterate elderly people in the country (UNESCO, 2019).

    ESPERE: Schools of Forgiveness and Reconciliation emerged as a strategy for addressing the Colombian population’s literacy needs, and takes a contextualised approach that acknowledges the country’s history, and the effects of the armed conflict on its communities.

    Implementing organization

    Fundación para la Reconciliación (Foundation for Reconciliation) is a non-governmental organization established in 2003 that promotes forgiveness and reconciliation in political culture and as political values. Fundación para la Reconciliación emerged from the experiences of its founder, Leonel Narváez Gómez, while acting as a facilitator in the negotiations between Colombian government leaders and guerrilla groups during the 1990s.

    Fundación para la Reconciliación thus began an initiative to provide psycho-social support to ex-combatants. The organization has focused on developing programmes that contribute to the construction of cultures of peace in areas affected by structural and cultural violence, or with recurring violence. It places special emphasis on the subjective causes of violence such as anger, resentment and retaliation and has developed programmes that have targeted the main needs of those areas affected by violence, integrating learning and reconciliation into these programmes. Violence is more destructive when practised against poor and excluded people and, in Colombia, this is no different.

    The foundation was also aware of the association between low literacy rates and those areas where armed conflict has been most damaging, such as Nariño, Caquetá, Putumayo, Arauca, Antioquia and Choco. Thus, the organization chose to provide literacy education along with and through its peace education methods. They saw that, by bridging these subjects and providing individuals with skills that address both their literacy needs and encourage them to advocate for social change, they could provide a solution to the needs of the wider community. This approach has spread today to 21 countries around the world, with close to 2,200 volunteers from a number of different organizations working as members of the international network for forgiveness and reconciliation (Fundación para la Reconciliación, 2018a). Figure below illustrates the countries it has worked in during the past 15 years.

    The foundation’s international presence.

    Programme Overview

    ESPERE: Schools of Forgiveness and Reconciliation is an initiative that promotes the development of literacy skills, including reading, writing and numeracy, in conjunction with emotional and communicative competences. The programme has an innovative approach as the curriculum takes the processes of forgiveness and reconciliation as its learning context, and places great emphasis on participants’ needs.


    The programme’s purpose is to promote the personal development of adult people with low literacy skills through literacy programmes, using the methodology of the Schools of Forgiveness and Reconciliation (ESPERE, for its name in Spanish). Thus, participants learn how to write, read, and do maths, which gives citizens more agency.

    Theoretical inspiration in which students establish a connection between their previous beliefs and their new learning.

    The ESPERE programme has three specific objectives:

    • To offer a flexible education model for the further education of adults (and a few adolescents) in accordance with the regulations of the General Education Law (Congreso de la Republica de Colombia, 1994) and the regulations of decree 3011 of 1997 (Congreso de la Republica de Colombia, 1997).
    • To implement a pedagogical project that takes into account participants’ life situations and uses them as a reference for programme development.
    • To facilitate participants’ literacy, numeracy and emotional skills development in an integrated way, by addressing their needs as a way of promoting learning consolidation and personal and social development.

    Target population

    The main target groups were youth and adults (aged 15 years and over) from rural areas or small municipalities characterised by issues associated with illicit crops (mainly coca), precarious public services or insurgent movements. These groups included internally displaced persons and ex-combatants, as well as minority groups and those living under conditions of extreme poverty with no access to primary education. However, the programme also had indirect benefits for the children and families of participants. There were 41,127 learners in total comprising:

    • 17% youths
    • 58% adults
    • 25% elders

    And of these:

    • 91% were victims of the armed conflict and persons in vulnerable conditions
    • 9% were ex-combats and their families

    Programme implementation

    The programme was implemented in partnership with the Colombian Ministry of Education, local education authorities and local educational institutions, and was carried out in different stages. Firstly, the Fundación para la Reconciliación (n.d.a.) conducted a pilot study by invitation of the National Ministry of Education, in Bogota, Ibague, Yopal and Mosquera, in which 300 adults participated. From this study, the government identified the highest rates of illiteracy in conjunction with the presence of conflict and/or poverty.

    The foundation was then able to determine the feasibility of the programme and make adjustments to the learning materials. Following this, the foundation implemented the first cycle of the model, called Learning to Read and Write through Forgiveness, as part of two consecutive contracts with the ministry. To start with, 8,032 participants took part in the programme, which was carried out in the administrative areas of Guajira, Magdalena, Antioquia, Sucre, Bolivar, Cesar, Atlántico and Caquetá (Fundación para la Reconciliación, 2013a) as part of the fulfilment of the first contract. This resulted in the second cycle, in 2014, called Interpreting and Participating through Forgiveness, which started in the department of Nariño and involved 2,000 participants (Fundación para la Reconciliación, n.d.a.). Whereas Cycle 1 was designed for 290 hours from which 252 were contact hours, and 38 were self-study hours, Cycle 2 comprised 590 hours, including 350 contact hours, and 240 hours of participants independent work.

    After the implementation of Cycle 2, through the second contract, 30,795 participants took part in the programme from the following territories: Apartadó, Atlántico, Bogotá, Boyacá, Buenaventura, Cali, Choco, Caquetá, Córdoba, Jamundí, Montería, Neiva, Palmira, Sahagún, Santa Cruz de Lorica, Sincelejo, and Valle del Cauca (Fundación para la Reconciliación, 2016a).

    Classes took place in various spaces specific to each group. Some were carried out in educational institutions, while others took place in informal spaces such as participants’ houses, community centres or parks. The locations chosen were peaceful spaces that enabled participants to trust on one another and feel comfortable.

    Currently, although the programme is on hold due to funding difficulties, the foundation continues to offer these two cycles. Cycle 1, which includes 11 modules, is equivalent to Colombia’s 3rd grade level, while the second cycle corresponds to the 4th and 5th Colombian grade levels. Participants are tested at the end of each cycle and, if successful, they receive an accreditation equivalent to that of a primary education in Colombia.

    Teaching and Learning: Approaches and Methodologies

    The organization produced content relevant to participants’ lives and experiences, through the methodology of the Generative Themes of Paulo Freire (2005), the constructivist method, and active pedagogy. The programme continued this process by asking participants questions about their lives and using their responses to create content.

    Each thematic module tackled the concept of violence through participants’ insights and reflections. These were turned into symbols and, through the consideration of these symbols, participants learned new words that helped them to become literate. In other words, the facilitation of dialogue about those words and are significant for participants in emotional terms, such as anger or fight, connected participants with their life-story and with the emotions experienced through their lives. Then, by developing each module, each of these words became symbols when participants were able to write them, since they became meaningful, motivating participants to learn how to write them. As a result, each participant learned reading and writing through studying topics that interested them, and through the use of individualized study plans.

    Discussing the construction of meanings about forgiveness and reconciliation, from where the literacy process begins.

    This educational model also combined the teaching of basic reading and writing skills with emotional learning and social reintegration, by changing how those who have experienced violence perceived what it means to be a victim. This was done through a formative process that worked to integrate the cognitive, communicative and emotional spheres. In this way, the programme not only addressed the participants’ literacy needs, but also focused on the stories and suffering of each, reframing them to create a new narrative and a different perspective on their experiences or offences.

    In conclusion, pedagogical principles of the ESPERE’s literacy model not only strengthen reading and writing skills, but also communication skills, cognitive skills related to the four elementary operations in maths, and emotional competencies, including empathy, assertive communication, and conflict resolution among others. These skills are useful for solving problems and relating to other people, promoting the possibility of defending an idea and generating practices of care, forgiveness and reconciliation; actions that contribute to the foundation of a culture of peace and sustainable coexistence (Fundación para la Reconciliación, 2018b). This process was possible through the promotion of an understanding that the use of weapons is the result of a failure of dialogue, and by fostering dialogue and transformative conversations about violence between victims and perpetrators. Participants took this message back to their families and communities, and thus instigated a more profound social change.

    A dialogue and settlement/understanding exercise on different forms of conflict resolution, leading to the creation of texts that refer to the topic from a personal history viewpoint.

    Programme Structure

    The organization developed a basic structure for the programme and adapted it to suit each group of learners and the location in which they lived. In this way, the learning process was tailored to the specific needs of the community. As previously mentioned, the programme included two cycles. A facilitator was assigned to groups of 25 participants, and conducted sessions that comprised a review of previous topics, a review of the activities completed at home, the development of the session’s theme, a short evaluation and, finally, a closing ceremony.

    The didactic structure followed seven steps:

    1. A review section for identifying the progress achieved.
    2. A discussion of the reasons why participants joined the group and identification of the experiences and knowledge of participants in relation to the themes discussed in the programme.
    3. The building of a safe environment in order to generate trust among participants.
    4. The provision of a theory to support the themes discussed.
    5. ‘My Case’: individual reflection in groups made up of three participants (‘groupinho’), which added collaboration to the learning process.
    6. Work and activities to consolidate learning.
    7. ‘Ritual’: a moment for participants to promise to change their outlook or attitude towards the themes discussed.

    Working on the concept of reconciliation through the pedagogical technique of the ritual (symbolic exercises), where changes are made for life based on the new lessons learned.

    Programme Content and Teaching Materials

    The literacy process utilized two types of materials:

    Moment of celebration in which the participants’ first phase of training culminates.
    Performing the personal task of emotion management, which is then shared in a group (a group of three people in an environment of trust).

    1) Pedagogic material. The foundation’s team developed a material, which was updated and adapted periodically by assessing the participants and facilitators’ suggestions. It covered the topics of forgiveness, reconciliation, restorative justice, and the ethics of care, which were integrated into the areas of maths, social sciences, and language.

    Facilitators used two books: Guía del Facilitador, Fase Perdón [Facilitator’s Guide, Forgiveness Phase] (Fundación para la Reconciliación, n.d.b), and Guía del Facilitador, Fase Reconciliación [Facilitator’s Guide, Reconciliation Phase] (Fundación para la Reconciliación,n.d.c), as well as two workbooks for the teaching material needed to facilitate the process: Cartilla del Participante, Fase Perdón [Participant’s Workbook, Forgiveness Phase] (Fundación para la Reconciliación, n.d.d), and Cartilla del Participante, Fase Reconciliación [Participant’s guide, Reconciliation phase] (Fundación para la Reconciliación, n.d.e).

    2) Didactic Material: Each facilitator and group designed this material for themselves, to facilitate the mediation processes that took place during the sessions, including the use of face painting, balloons, blindfolds, life silhouettes, magazines, observation and self-reflection, and newspapers, among others. Figures below show examples of didactic activities developed during the sessions, which included learning to write vowels and developing emotional competence.

    Practical tasks that invite reflection on different emotions, after which students learned to write each of the words.
    Practical tasks that consolidate the conceptualization of the sum (Maths operation) from its context.

    All classes were run in Spanish, Colombia’s official language, and the curriculum encompassed three elements: 1) analysis of the needs of the adults, 2) reading from a socio-political context specifically relating to the needs of the victims of the armed conflict, and 3) compliance with the regulations of the General Education Law in Colombia.

    The following is an excerpt of the curriculum for the first cycle of the programme; the sessions combined numeracy and reading and writing with emotional literacy, as an alternative education and as a way of pedagogical mediation. Thus, with forgiveness and reconciliation as the main themes, facilitators worked on a) decoding syllables through the translation of the spoken to the visual word, allowing participants to read words in their contexts, b) identifying syllables in a word by producing sets of syllables, c) discovering new words through the workbook tasks, d) conveying words by making hand movements, and e) producing creative writing pieces after learning the suggested phonemes for each session.

    1. Opening doors This module aimed to promote understanding of the main reasons for forgiveness and reconciliation; for participants and the facilitator to get to know each other; to explain to the participants the purposes, methodology and use of the programme’s material; to introduce the literacy process, and to build agreements regarding the programme’s rules. 26 hours
    2. Starting a new way The goals of this module were to identify abusive situations in different life areas and determine how they affect peace, reconciliation and forgiveness building, as well as understand the concepts of community, the natural environment and addition in mathematics. 24 hours
    3. I decide to forgive The purpose of this module was to put forward the decision to forgive as the best alternative for overcoming resentment and hatred provoked by aggression. 20 hours
    4. Seeing with new eyes This module aimed to promote empathy between participants and the offender, facilitating the construction of a new narrative of the offence. It also fostered the understanding of offences and their nature. 18 hours
    5. My offender is a human being The goals of this module were to extend understanding of the concept of compassion and to understand offenders’ actions by promoting awareness of the life events they have experienced. 22 hours
    6. I build a bridge The purpose of this module was to establish ideal conditions in which to allow a meeting with the offender. 20 hours
    7. Promoting truth and principles This module aimed to teach the pathway to reconciliation and to promote dialogue about life principles. 26 hours
    8. Developing care The goal of this module was to put forward the ethics of care as a constitutive element of reconciliation. 26 hours
    9. I promote restoration The purposes of this module were first, to acknowledge the moral criterion for determining the implementation of sanctions on participants’ life experiences and second, to internalize concepts and strategies developed for restorative practices. 26 hours
    10. Engaging in dialogue and agreeing on reconciliation This module aimed to acknowledge pacts as opportunities for dialogue about guiding principles for relationships, to identify possible pacts to build with others, to suggest mediation as a tool for facilitating dialogue as well as other possible ways of reconciliation according to ESPERE. 26 hours
    11. Celebrating the reconciliation process The goal of this module was to foster the practice of celebrations as fundamental rituals for enhancing coexistence commitments and a new life. 18 hours
    Total 252 hours

    The second cycle, Interpreting and Participating through Forgiveness, attempted to consolidate the lessons from the first cycle, with a literacy goal that focused on developing the ability to produce written text according to different communicative needs (Fundación para la Reconciliación, 2013b).

    According to Fundación para la Reconciliación (n.d.f.), this cycle was organise in a levelling course and eight additional modules as follows:

    0. Levelling course The purpose of this module was to go over the topics of the first cycle, and to improve participants’ literacy and numeracy skills, though acknowledging themselves as subjects and members of the community. 50 hours
    1. Our emotions inventory The module aimed to interpret our and others’ emotions to become aware of the ability to transform them and to become a social model of a culture of peace. 35 hours
    2. The Olympics of forgiveness: forgiving by playing The goal of this module was to become aware of the importance of forgiveness as a strategy for building and enhancing social capital through regaining trust, the ability to establish relationships with others, and by acknowledging our weaknesses as human beings. 35 hours
    3. “Salpicón” (Traditional mixed-chopped-fruits Colombian juice) and the richness of difference The purpose of this module was to understand the value of difference as a possibility for breaking cycles of marginalisation, rejection, aggression and violence. 35 hours
    4. Knitting dialogues to clothe the soul The module aimed to promote affective communication as a possibility for social construction through discursive constitutive and shaping actions of those close human relationships. 35 hours
    5. By caring about others I care about myself: the other as a mirror The goal of this module was to understand care as an interaction that allows parties to establish two-way communication, strengthening solidarity, respect and affection. 35 hours
    6. Repairing the broken pieces The purpose of this module was to understand reconciliation and restoration as integrated processes in which acknowledging the damage (given or received) and the intentionality of reparation, allow us to overcome conflict and heal wounds. 42 hours
    7. Making history with our memories The module aimed to acknowledge the importance of memories in the construction of our history as social subjects. 42 hours
    8. I am participating The goal of this module was to understand the importance of participation in the social transformation and the mechanisms of citizen participation provided by Colombian’s constitution. 41 hours
    Total 350 hours

    Recruitment and Training of Facilitators

    Schools and representatives from local education departments collaborated in the recruitment of educators, who occasionally were ex-combatants, with previous experience of the model being an advantage. It was also important for facilitators to be well known by their communities, as this ensured that respect for the local culture was upheld.

    Facilitators attended four days of compulsory training in their region, in groups of 25. The course focused on methodological and conceptual training, and on-site follow-up sessions and ongoing support from the foundation’s professionals was also included. Each facilitator was assigned a group of 25 participants and worked on a voluntary basis, receiving a bonus of around US$1,380 for 290 hours of work over four months.

    Enrolment of Learners

    Participants were recruited as follows:

    • Local education authorities, based on the literacy data of each territory, referred approximately 20% of participants
    • 70% of participants were recruited through different outreach strategies such as flyers, community meetings, local radio programmes, and public announcements on the streets. Community leaders did all this
    • The remaining 10% of recruits were found through local schools using literacy data such as information gathered on students’ families

    Facilitators collected a copy of the ID documents of those who were interested (around 90% of potential participants) and, after verifying their information with the SIMAT (Ministry of National Education’s Integrated Matriculation System), they registered those whose information matched the SIMAT data. The foundation then conducted the pre-test (Fundación para la Reconciliación, 2016) for assessing participants’ levels of literacy skills and divided them into groups according to both their results and to their commonalities in terms of vulnerability or participation in the conflict context.

    Assessment of student learning outcomes

    As mentioned in the previous section, the first assessment stage comprised an official pre-test, which the foundation designed with the Ministry of National Education. The test comprised four different sections: reading comprehension, writing, maths operations and mathematical reasoning (Fundación para la Reconciliación, 2016b).

    During the programme implementation period, facilitators carried out both summative and formative examinations. This guaranteed ongoing progress in participants’ writing and reading skills, arithmetic, and the analysis of their abilities. Each session included an evaluation section, with activities designed for assessing participants’ improvement and gathering feedback.

    During the summative process, participants underwent an assessment at the end of each thematic module. Attendance at the sessions was taken into account, with a compulsory minimum attendance rate set at 85%.

    The formative assessment included different assessment instruments, such as self-evaluation and peer evaluation, which offered the opportunity for collaborative work. Mixed assessment was conducted through assignments such as dictation, text construction and the observation of a shift in participants’ attitudes towards forgiveness and reconciliation – for instance, changes in attitudes towards their peers, responses they gave when facing conflict situations, and consideration of their participation in community meetings and in the political arena.

    Educational tasks also involved the discussion of family and community members in order to improve ties and foster dialogue. For example, participants were asked to write about well-known community members, life in their municipalities, or the reasons why other members of the family had decided to study. The programme also included mapping activities in which participants had to visit public institutions to find out about the services they provided and write about them, or places of interest such as libraries, museums and monuments, as a strategy for building collective and historical memory.

    Feedback was given through cards that showed participants’ areas for improvement, allowing them to identify strategies for overcoming these issues with the help of the facilitator. These cards were individualized and illustrated changes in attitudes throughout the course of the formative process. Participants organized them in a portfolio, which was used as another source of information to assess participants’ changes in attitude.

    Finally, upon completion of the cycle, participants were required to pass the post-test (Fundación para la Reconciliación, 2016) in order to progress to the next cycle.

    Cycle 1 of the programme lasted for 290 hours and Cycle 2 for 590 hours. After completing the cycles, the beneficiaries received an accreditation from the educational institution linked to their site and from the secretary of education for their local department. This institution reported the achievement through the SIMAT platform.

    Monitoring and Evaluation

    The programme was assessed both internally and externally. For the external process, members from the Ministry of Education visited locations periodically in order to identify obstacles, and to support the sessions and events during each contract term.

    For internal monitoring purposes, the foundation did monthly follow-up sessions either online or through visits to the sites. The platform was periodically updated with data from each region, including numbers of groups per territory, progress in the number of modules per group, groups per municipality, and the strengths and challenges of the programme implementation.

    Impact and Achievements

    The programme has so far reached 41,127 participants located in the most violent zones of the country, as well as other areas affected by the armed conflict.


    Performing textual construction and calligraphy improvement exercises.

    Participants improved reading and writing skills and developed a positive attitude towards literacy and numeracy, including mathematical skills, identifying vowels and consonants, learning to read and identify numbers, constructing sentences, and reading comprehension. For instance, in the municipality of Tumaco, Saez (n.d.) the average score in the literacy test for reading and writing was 4.4/5; it was 4.8/5 in the numeracy test, and 4.4/5 in the peace and reconciliation assessment. Additionally, 95% of participants from the first contract concluded the process and 89.2% passed to the next cycle (Fundacion para la Reconciliación, 2013a).

    Overall, this model favoured participants who wished to continue in the formal education system, according to educators’ reports, which estimated that 15% of participants enrolled in further education. The model registered a dropout rate of 4.6% during the first cycle (Fundación para la Reconciliación, 2013a), and of 0.5% during the second cycle (Fundación para la Reconciliación, 2016c).

    Learning to read and write is in itself a significant benefit. Literacy allows participants to communicate their ideas and thoughts and access information, opening new possibilities for political participation and social inclusion. For instance, in Testimony 1, S., a man from the municipality of Apartadó, Antioquia, describes how learning to read and write allowed him to defend his rights and take legal action after his employment contract was unfairly terminated (Fundación para la Reconciliación, 2016d).

    Participants also stated that their community and family relationships were strengthened. They experienced a fundamental narrative shift in their feelings of resentment for previous grievances, which prevented the potential re-ignition of conflict. Through the process of learning to read and write, participants started to feel they had agency in the peace process in their region, were able to mediate in disagreements, and to create new narratives about the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation in Colombia, as Testimony 2 illustrates (Fundación para la Reconciliación, 2016e).

    The process strengthened social ties among community members in terms of managing conflict and emotions, and of healing the wounds that had resulted from the armed, social and political conflict. Relationships built in the process were greatly strengthened with the construction of a new narrative of truth, which emerged during ‘My Case’ (step number 5 of the didactic structure) and helped to heal painful wounds from the past. Testimonies 3 and 4 respectively depict the cases of C., a woman who was able to reframe her experiences into a new narrative after members of one of the armed groups left a scar on her face, and M., a woman who was encouraged to gather with her family to write their story of displacement and to read it to her peers in the next session, facilitating dialogue with her husband and children (Fundación para la Reconciliación, 2016e).

    The programme also made possible the development of solidarity networks, since trust and social cohesion among group members increased, as demonstrated by P., a woman with physical disabilities described in Testimony 5 (Fundación para la Reconciliación, n.d.g.). The teams and communities also built social support networks and developed new ways of interacting, which decreased the potential risk of participation in the armed conflict. Thus, both victims and ex-combatants came together to generate proposals aimed at helping their communities solve their economic and social needs. For example, in Mampuján, Bolívar, one of the Colombian villages that suffered a massacre in 2000 (The New York Times, 2000), participants helped their community to set up an agricultural cooperative to which everyone could contribute.

    Small group work about personal paths on how to process painful stories and memories.

    Finally, the programme has also had a positive impact on families, by supporting intergenerational learning and changes in perceptions of elders. Adults who learnt to read and write were able to support their children and grandchildren at home with schoolwork, and/or to learn together, and felt more able to contribute to the family and help improve family dynamics (Arevalo, 2016).


    The programme benefitted facilitators by strengthening their skills such as listening, assertive communication, compassion for and understanding of the specific issues faced by individuals, and a caring attitude towards their students. They became qualified in teaching the specific methodology used by the programme, ie, Freire’s pedagogy and constructivism, and learnt how to use forgiveness as a tool through which to teach literacy. They also obtained the tools for reaching peaceful solutions to conflict, thus becoming practitioners of restorative justice, constructive dialogue, the understanding of others, and creators of new community relationships that help to minimize social and political violence in the family and community where the literacy processes take place. They also gained experience in community work and achieved social recognition, which allowed them to achieve greater participation and leadership roles within their communities.

    Recognition of the programme

    The foundation has been recognised with the following awards for its work in promoting peace and reconciliation:

    • Finalist for the National Peace Prize in 2014;
    • Tackling Peace Issues Prize in 2011;
    • Simon Bolívar Democracy Prize in 2007 from the Colombian Congress;
    • UNESCO Education Peace Prize in 2006 (Honorable Mention);
    • Civil Merit Prize in 2004 from the Bogotá Council



    The main challenge to the programme was that its main source of funding, the Ministry of National Education, decided to change strategy in 2016 in favour of an alternative programme called ‘Let’s Grow’. Since then, the ESPERE programme has been put on hold.

    The method for collecting participants’ information presented an additional challenge. Verifying information using the SIMAT (Integrated Matriculation System) database took a long time, and this caused delays. There were also inconsistencies in the SIMAT database regarding participants’ levels of formal education and literacy that government departments had to rectify.

    Furthermore, more time was needed to train facilitators, although this did not fit with the government’s timetable. For example, Saenz (n.d.) reported that, in the municipality of Tumaco, it was difficult for facilitators to implement a dialogic methodology as most of them were used to a more traditional approach, and their students were used to being taught in a different way. More extensive training could have helped to overcome this barrier. Learning to read and write through forgiveness has a greater impact when it results in increased social and political participation among its students, as well as in lasting peace in areas heavily impacted by violence.

    Finally, according to Fundación para la Reconciliación (2016a) there were also geographical and physical barriers. Long distances made it difficult for some participants to attend classes, and elders reported that it was difficult for them to sit or to remain in certain positions. A few institutions also refused to provide space for the sessions, citing the potential damage that might arise from allowing the community to take their classes there.


    The programme was conceived as a first step in the formative process for each participant. Thus, it established a link to further educational opportunities, including those for further improving reading and writing skills. Additionally, the programme guaranteed that trained facilitators developed the capacity to teach others, and to instil in participants the importance of living together peacefully. Finally, the foundation provided pedagogic material allowing participants to revise what they learnt and to strengthen their overall knowledge.

    Teachers after completing their qualification in adult literacy.

    While the programme is on hold, the foundation has enhanced its second cycle of literacy, Interpreting and Participating through Forgiveness, and is looking for new partners to enable it to continue its development.


    Testimony 1 (Fundación para la Reconciliación, 2016d)

    ‘My name is S., I live in the rural municipality of Apartadó, Antioquia. I worked all my life in a banana-production company, and I was fired unfairly two years before getting my pension. Since then, I have been fighting for the money that belongs to me. Two years ago, I hired a lawyer but since I could not read I just signed whatever he wanted me to, while all he did was take my money with no results. One day my colleague, P., told me about this project. To be honest I initially was not interested because, as we say, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, but today I am very happy at this graduation.

    ‘I want to show my teacher the “right to petition” that I wrote to request my money. This week I am going to take it to the ombudsman to find out what else I have to do. Many thanks to the teacher and to you all.’

    Testimony 2

    Significant experience no. 2: Territory of Palmira (Fundación para la Reconciliación, 2016e):

    H., one of the facilitators, presented the case of two women from well-established local families who had a long-term feud.

    Implementing the Situated Learning theory, H. took advantage of every session in which conflicts were debated, to talk about disputes between neighbours and families, types of dialogue, and pacifying strategies for managing differences. The first words that the participants read were ‘fight’, ‘problem’, ‘solution’, ‘anger’, and ‘hate’. After that, using didactic resources such as cuts-outs, modelling clay, paintings and puzzles, he proposed other words that implied anger management, finding a way to decrease the differences and distance between both participants.

    He also came out with the idea of ‘deconstructing words’, teaching participants to do so in letters, in order to substitute words of anger for those that were less painful and more peaceful.

    Groups of three were organised, so others members could work as tutors to their peers, including both the women involved in the feud. Additionally, at the beginning of each session, there was time assigned for reflecting on the importance of forgiveness. Eventually, both women understood through the activities of the modules that harbouring resentment was hurting them, and wasting their time. At the end of the process, as a symbolic act, both women designed a ritual called ‘The Forgiveness Cake’, and exchanged letters (which they wrote during the programme) in which they apologised or expressed their pain for previous offences.

    Testimony 3

    Significant experience no. 1: Boyacá department (Fundación para la Reconciliación, 2016e):

    C. has a scar on her face that resulted from a guerrilla attack in her village. C. struggles daily to get beyond the scar and what it represents; a scar that is not only physical but also psychological. C. said that her main motivation was to ‘learn something useful’ but, while undertaking the programme, her self-esteem improved and she started to overcome her fears. In her own words, ‘I came to learn to read and write ... a new story for me.’

    Testimony 4

    Significant experience no. 3: Neiva city (Fundación para la Reconciliación, 2016e):

    During one of the sessions, M. shared her experience of having been displaced by an armed group who threatened to kill her. One of her peers suggested writing the story with her family, and once she did this she shared it with the group. As she mentioned, ‘I spent a lot of time writing each word, but eventually I achieved it.’ After writing their story, she affirmed that trust between the members of the family increased, that she was able to talk to her children again about meaningful things in their lives, and that the relationship with her husband improved.

    Testimony 5 (Fundación para Reconciliación, n.d.g.)

    adult learners performing writing tasksPerforming written exercises for fine motor development.

    class run at participants' houseA class taking place in the house of one of the participants.

    ‘It’s never too late.’ This is how P., a woman from Caquetá, aged 84 and with a physical disability, described the opportunity of taking part in the programme. ‘Every day of work changes my life and I forget that my hips hurt. I feel that I am useful for my classmates, I explain things to them, I support them, and that gives me strength every day. I feel like a teenager. Thank you, classmates, for sharing these self-development moments with me.’


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    Jorge Hernan Narvaez Giraldo
    Coordinator of Implementation and Quality
    Calle 40 No. 26A-30
    Bogotá, D.C.
    Telephone/fax: 57 1 3689327

    Website: www.fundacionparalareconciliacion.org

    For citation please use

    Sofia Chatzigianni . Last update: 26 November 2019. ESPERE: Schools of Forgiveness and Reconciliation, Colombia. UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning. (Accessed on: 30 June 2022, 16:04 CEST)

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