While travelling across south America between October 2010 and May 2010, I visited an organisation in Peru in March 2010 that was working to support disadvantaged, marginalised children. This is an article I wrote for the charity ChildHope UK on how its partner organisation in northern Lima is helping to tackle child labour.
The community room is buzzing with the sound of young people working and chatting together. In the corner, a group of teenage girls huddle around a poster they’ve made for a project on human rights. One by one, different groups take it in turns to pin their posters to the wall under the watchful gaze of Jessica Cabrera, group coordinator and psychologist.
The children may have had fun while working but each poster tackles a hardline subject: challenges they face in their communities, such as child labour, domestic violence and sexual abuse. Jessica looks on, pleased with their progress.
These workshops, held every week in the community of Las Lomas in northern Lima, offer a safe space for the children to socialise. But it’s not just about fun, she tells me. These groups serve an important purpose in helping the children relearn how to think and behave. “Violence is very common here and it is important for the children to discover that there are different ways they can relate to each other and their families, other than what they may have learned at home or at school,” Jessica says.
Indeed, the children are gentle and respectful with everyone at the workshop, and Jessica hopes this can be cultivated in the community. Sticking with the theme, she starts a discussion on how abuse can be psychological as well as physical. The children share their thoughts and experiences to round off the session.
Child labour: a human rights issue
This Las Lomas group is one of several similar initiatives in the area supported by Proceso Social, a local NGO and ChildHope UK partner. Proceso Social works to raise awareness of issues around rights and equality for all age groups, but particularly among Peru’s most vulnerable members of society: children and adolescent workers.
The organisation supports projects and communities in two districts – Carabayllo in Lomas, and Sol Naciente – working with young children and teenagers living in conditions of marginalization, social exclusion and extreme poverty. Most of the young people are involved in some sort of child labour, so are exposed to even greater risks of violence and disease while working on the streets or sorting rubbish.
Their backgrounds prevent them from accessing their basic rights to education, health, recreation and a decent quality of life, so Proceso Social steps in to help them develop skills, access their rights and widen their horizons. This is evident at a Proceso Social project in a neighbouring community, where there are workshops in computer skills and software, such as Photoshop and Word.
Up to 20 children and adolescents take part, using computers donated by the telecom company Telefonica and applying their newfound skills to different projects, including PowerPoint presentations in advance of World Day Against Child Labour on June 12th. Toshi, a shy 15-year-old, has been working on a presentation conveying the impact of child labour on a young person’s life. “We need to know about our rights so that we can change things,” she says.
Breaking the cycle of poverty, abuse and exploitation
These projects, and others like them, fall within the remit of Martin Yaranga, Proceso Social’s Project Coordinator, who is overseeing an initiative to reduce child labour and increase access to education from June 2009 to July 2010.
A trained anthropologist, he has been working with the organisation since 2004 and is passionate about what he does. But sadly, he has his work cut out, as the situation for working children and teenagers in Peru is worsening, rather than improving.
Between 2008 and March 2010 the number of working children and teenagers rose by 13% from 1,900,000 to 2,150,000, according to the national statistics institute INEI. Child Labour has become a national social crisis throughout Peru. Martin says: “President Garcia says Peru is a country of middle and upper income but this is not consistent with social reality.
Child labour occurs in both rural and urban areas, in places where working children and teenagers of extremely poor families live in inhuman conditions, without drinking water or sewers and sometimes without electricity. They don’t even have access to farm land for cultivation or to rear small animals and they live in small and precarious houses.”
To him, one of the key aims of Proceso Social’s work is to try and break the vicious circle of poverty, whereby children start working at a young age, miss out on school and can then only get casual or menial work, becoming further trapped in a life of poverty which forces their children to start working at a young age.
He says: “We know of cases where the starting age for working children is 5 or 6 years old, or where child labour binds the families of those children into further poverty. All that is left is work in the informal economy or as a street hawker, with few possibilities of having an adequate and permanent income.”
In both Sol Naciente and Lomas the main form of work is rubbish separation of solid waste. Communities develop alongside unsightly rubbish tips and industrial sorting zones – not the healthiest of places to live. While working, the children and teenagers run the risk of being physically and psychologically abused, and while sorting rubbish in remote places are often raped or touched inappropriately by unscrupulous adults.
Other forms of work include that of market porters, which can cause back ailments and reduce normal growth so that the children are smaller in height then they should be. Furthermore, they are exposed to diseases including chronic malnourishment, respiratory diseases, gastric problems and skin issues – all the product of a bad diet related to their extreme poverty.
Towards a future without child labour
So, what lies ahead for these young people and their families? Despite the massive challenges, Martin remains hopeful, due to seeing good results from the projects. For example, the young people with whom he works are consistently reducing their involvement in child labour and increasing their school participation, thus breaking the pernicious circle of poverty.
People around the world, such as ChildHope UK supporters, can help strengthen Martin’s work by helping to increase pressure on the Peruvian government to raise the profile of child labour at a national level, and to create initiatives to tackle the root causes of poverty.
These include helping to train families in business enterprise strategies and supporting them with micro-finance credit to develop their businesses, in return for a commitment to take their sons and daughters out of child labour and redirect them towards study.