I wrote the piece below after thinking about one of the most powerful and unforgettable experiences in my life.
One day I will go back.
In 1989 UNICEF reported an estimate of 100 million children growing up on urban streets around the world. 14 years later the true amount was unquantifiable: “the figure almost certainly runs into tens of millions” (UNICEF, 2003). A study in Lima, Peru found 3% of children living on the streets are under 6 years old and 97% of street children use drugs (Consortium for Street Children, 2010).
It is hardly surprising that schooling is not high on their list of priorities. Yet NGOs working in South America know that education can be a way out of the street lifestyle, for every child, one child at a time.
Brue Peru is an NGO that goes into the poorest communities where the highest concentrations of out of school children can be found. Volunteers from around the world enter some of the most dangerous shanty towns to recruit the most in need, and not just the children. Women are encouraged to become teachers and social workers in self- built schools constructed out of corrugated iron or in borrowed spaces. Children get access to teaching, their childhood and a future; the community gets hope.
Organisations like Bruce Peru don’t have time to make excuses for parents who have let them down and don’t believe that the best place for a child is automatically with their family. There are too many years of bitter experience behind them for that. They define their mission as intervening to provide the child who has been ‘let down’ with basic rights. But when it is right, when a mother is not so impoverished that they would sell their child into slavery again, or too intoxicated to realise they are there, Bruce Peru will move heaven and earth for them as well. Essentially though, it is about basic rights for children, in practice it is about education.
Child labourers become students.
But, perhaps more critically, in the shanty towns of South America, children are rescued from a path of self and community destruction before it is too late.
Children are seen as dispensible, an asset and an easy target for drug barons and criminals in the favelas. Economic disparity and rampant racial inequality exacerbate an overwhelmingly negative attitude towards children in poverty across the whole of South America. Seen as vermin, criminals and pests, children born into a street lifestyle have few options to get out. With a distinct lack of role models or awareness about alternative futures in the ‘outside world’ it is easy for children as young as five or six to play a vital role in the drug running and territorial gang warfare that inevitably leads to death or imprisonment.
NGOs working in these environments are far from welcomed with open arms. Even mothers, who would rather every member of their family was working, no matter how young, will hide their children from well meaning volunteers and social workers. Their fear of where education will take them, away from the shanty town and the money making toolkit of the family, demonstrates the power of learning. It’s intimidating, it’s unknown and it goes against the grain.
That’s why it should be embraced as one of the most powerful steps towards a solution for social development.
It can easily be proven that legislation is not enough to halt or even slow down the dramatic rise in recent years of children living in poverty in Peru. Socio-econonmic inequality and discrimination means that poverty reduction strategies put in place by the government don’t affect children’s rights nor do they adequately protect children from the day to day pressures that they face from an inherited life on the streets. Since 2005 Peru has been identified as a middle-income country based on per capita, yet women and children in particular play little to no role in this statistic.
Education is key because it combats this inheritance for children, but is only effective when combined with education for the families.
Education means intervention, collaboration and integration but it should be executed properly, safely and in the interests of the child. Families, and again the focus must be on the mothers, need to be assured of a safe, secure and stable income and this means educating communities from the inside out.
Bruce Peru, with whom I worked in 2005, practice this cohesive process of change by investing in working on the mindset of a community. Without this wider backing the shanty schools would stand empty, and the children would be washing cars, transporting drugs or begging. That’s the brutal truth.
Without community education, mothers are forced to ask (usually their eldest) child to leave the home as they can’t afford to keep them. Either that or the child are under intense pressure from an early age to sustain the family. Drugs and crime; how else would you solve that problem? Education for the child shows another way, through learning essential life skills, languages and mathematics to raising self esteem, re-introducing the concept of play, and positively structuring a chid’s time.
The children I met in Peru, who were lucky enough to be brought into the classroom by Bruce Peru, loved their education. They held their books proudly, they kissed their teachers gratefully and they raised their hands excitedly. Even the very youngest knew what the process of sitting in that classroom meant for them, it was innate in their being, to want to learn, improve, be different, to be a child that was growing into an adult with a future. It was overwhelmingly exciting to witness. It was the power of education.
It is those classrooms made out of corrugated iron and in borrowed spaces, those children who understand the blessing of learning and who believe in a different future for their communities, that is what makes education the answer. I have seen it with my own eyes and won’t ever forget it.