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‘We need to start with the children’

by Oxfam | November 27, 2012

A story from the field by Robert Fox, Oxfam Canada Executive Director

The school perches perilously at the top of a dizzying climb, seemingly ready to slide down into the abyss. And the view is far from pretty, looking out on a bleak and broken landscape where homes cling to the walls of a deep ravine that cuts through the suburbs of Guatemala City. 

So the name of the school is doubly ironic: Escuela 911 Buena Vista Chinautla. 

Many of the children who attend this school have every reason to call 911. They live in a chronic state of emergency, poverty, risk and violence. But as they watch me approach, you can see in their cautious smiles that well of resilience that keeps them going. 

I’ve come to visit a program of AMES, the Association of Women in Solidarity, a pioneering Guatemalan organization that promotes women’s rights, workers’ rights and indigenous rights and assures access to health care, legal aid and community support.

It’s a unique and innovative program that reinforces the school infrastructure so that it is more safe and secure while weaving a safety net under the students so they too are less vulnerable.

Retaining walls, reinforced trenches and concrete culverts help ensure the building will withstand all but the worst earthquake. For the children, the response is more complex.

Safe space for students

More than 300 students, aged 12 to 14, take part in a summer school that combines sports, crafts, drama and music while creating a safe space within which they can build their confidence – and take teachers into their confidence. 

For too many of the students, summer school is a refuge from their day to day reality. Over and above the grinding poverty, many live in terror. For the girls, sexual violence and abuse are all too common. For boys, gang violence and bullying is rampant.

Guatemala is one of the most violent countries in the world. A toxic mix of racism, sexism and acute inequality fuelled by corruption and trafficking in people, drugs and organs, leaves these children caught in the cross fire. 

Against this backdrop, the opportunity to play, to create, to excel, to relax is precious – and empowering. 

Many of these children have gone through their lives without the boost to their self esteem of having been part of a winning team or having been acknowledged for their accomplishments. A school band, field trips, community gardens, group photos and “I am someone” workshops all contribute to the change.

Most live in families where taboos and ignorance mean they learn nothing about sexual health.

Earning trust

By helping the students develop knowledge and skills and feel better about themselves, the teachers in turn earn their trust. And with that trust comes a great responsibility. 

One teacher tells me about a girl who confides she wants to become a prostitute when she grows up. Because the only woman she knows who is well dressed and appears to have some money and independence is the sex worker who works her barrio. 

Another young girl tells a teacher she is contemplating suicide. She is being abused by her father and berated by her mother, who herself is battered.

To guide and support the students, the teachers themselves need support. As one says, “we need to start with ourselves. If we are strong we can help others be strong.” So they greatly value the training and counsel they receive from AMES that equips them to better advocate for the children and link them to further support.

In particular, they’ve welcome the opportunity to learn from Oxfam partners in El Salvador and Nicaragua who are working in parallel, using reading circles and counselling to help children address the violence in their lives.

Some of the teachers travel two and a half hours each way by bus and on foot to get to school. Their dedication to the students is inspiring.

But they are the first to acknowledge that they too greatly benefit from this work. As one says, “If we are going to build a society of peace and equality, we need to start with the children.”

– Robert Fox, 24 October 2012