Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Investing in Girls

In celebration of International Women's Day (commemorated worldwide on March 8th - I know I am a little late), here are some incredible but true facts about girls and women in the developing world:

source: the UN:
- The majority of the 1.5 billion people in the world living on less than a dollar a day are women (a phenomena known as the "feminization of poverty."
- Worldwide, women earn on average slightly more than 50 per cent of what men earn.

source: the girl effect
- When a girl in the developing world receives seven or more years of education, she marries four years later and has 2.2 fewer children.
- An extra year of primary school booosts girls eventual wages by 10 to 20 percent. An extra year of secondary school: 15 to 20 percent.
- When women and girls earn income, they reinvest 90 percent of it into their families, as compared to only 30 to 40 percent for a man.
- Approximately one-quarter of girls in developing countries are not in school.
- One girl in seven in developing countries marries before age 15.
  • 38% marry before age 18.
  • In Nicaragua, 45% of girls with no schooling are married before age 18.

To find more excellent resources on the intersection of gender and education, poverty, and health, check out the resources page at girl effect: http://www.girleffect.org/learn/more-resources

I wish I could find some El Salvador-specific facts on the gender gap between girls and boys and education levels, but what I see around me in very consistent with these facts. Here at Centro Hogar, for example, over 50% of our kids are raised by single mothers. Just three kids out of 122 are raised by single-fathers. While the education level across the board for mothers and father is low, men tend to have at least a few more years of schooling under their belt, and in almost all cases where the child is raised by both a mother and father, the father makes more money than the mother. In almost all cases. I actually questioned this one day and went through the files one by one, and it's true. In general, men are much more likely to have more stable jobs where they make the minimum wage - in cleaning and maintenance, mechnics, bus drivers, taxi drivers, supermarket cashiers, construction workers. Women, on the other hand, mostly make their living in the informal sector - selling produce in the central market, selling typical Salvadoran foods on a street food stand, selling beauty products from a catalog, selling used clothes door-to-door. And not only can they not count on a stable salary every month, what they do make is often much less than the Salvadoran minimum wage of about $200. One mother, a seamstress: $160/month. One mother, a domestic maid: $120/moth. One mother, tortilla-maker: $120/month. One grandmother, Avon saleswoman: $90/month.

So what does this mean? How did this happen? From what I see in El Salvador, it has a lot to do with the culture of machismo that is so very ingrained in society. Most girls, from birth, are raised to believe that one day, they will marry a man who will maintain them. The girl spends her childhood and adolecence in preparation for this. She learns the chores of the home: cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, so that she may be ready for this moment to come. Her parents never really invested in her education, because why pay money for high school when we are just waiting for the husband to come? She is 16, she is from a poor family, she wants to rise out of her situation. But all she has been taught is that a man must come and rescue her. So, she meets a boy, she gets pregnant. Perhaps she thinks that having his child will mean he will take responsibility for her and their child. In some cases, this is true. More often than not, the boy (often a child himself), leaves, and she is now a single mother, and her opportunities are even fewer. How can she continue to study or find a job if she is the only caretaker for her child? So the cycle continues, and perhaps she looks for another, more responsible, more mature man to help make ends meet.

A machista society, then, blames the woman for her situation. Why did she get pregnant when she couldn't afford a child? I cannot tell you how many families we have at Centro Hogar where little girls are raised by their 17 year old mothers and 32 year old grandmothers. It is easy to blame the girls. It is hard to see how the world we live in creates these girls and puts obstacle after obstacle in their way.

A way out? In my opinion, the key is education. Educate girls, from the very first moment. Send them to pre-school. Send them to primary school, high school, and even university! Educate our world's women, so that they might not have to depend on men to survive. This does not mean that men are bad, or the enemy, it just means that when women have the tools to be independent economically and socially, they will not be forced to make decisions like getting married and having children out of economic or social need. They will make those decisions because they want to, because they are ready. They might marry later, have children later, and their levels of income, health, and overall well-being will increase. There might be less intrafamilial violence. Less femicide.

Can you imagine?

Ariana shows off her new lunchbox on the first day of school, 2012.

Monday, January 16, 2012

SPECIAL: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in His Own Words

SPECIAL: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in His Own Words

I encourage you to take some time for yourself, whenever you get a moment, a listen to Dr. King's speech. There is still so much relevancy and urgency in his words. Take a moment, let yourself rest in his words, be energized by his words.

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.

And I don't mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

practicing gratitude, part 2

This Saturday, the Centro Hogar Alfonos Acevedo class of 2011 proudly graduated from preparatoria. (This means that next year, having completed a full 7 years of age, they will go on to first grade, already knowing how to read, write, count really high, respect their compañeros and compañeras, be self-confident, tell stories about Monseñor Romero, put on plays in front on big crowds, and a variety of other great achievements).

Each child was asked to think of one thing they were grateful for during their time at Centro Hogar. As they stood proudly on stage holding their diplomas, they each spoke into the microphone, for all to hear, their gratitudes. This is the list of things they came up with (all by themselves!):

Claudia: I am grateful for my grandma.
Brenda: I am grateful for the trees.
Michael: I am grateful for my Señorita (the teacher).
Marco: I am grateful for learning about Monseñor Romero.
Juan Carlos: I am grateful for the food.
Daniela: I am grateful for the help of my mom and dad.
Rocio: I am grateful for my mom.
Marilyn: I am grateful for the storybooks.
Antonio: I am grateful for Programa Velasco.
German: I am grateful for a clean environment.
Ernesto: I am grateful for the playground.
Douglas: I am grateful for my friends.
Krissia: I am grateful for all the lessons.

I will miss you, prepa!

Friday, November 25, 2011

practicing gratitude

I have learned, especially amongst the poor, that gratitude is a fundamental human attitude. If we don't want to live our lives as resentful people, we must live our lives as grateful people. - Dean Brackley, SJ 1946 - 2011

I am grateful for:
watermelon, orange and banana smoothies after a great bike ride up and down the hills of this city
kids who scream my name (SENORITA OLIIIVIIAAA) as I walk by their classroom
the view of the volcano (during the day) and the stars (at night) from my roof
friends who drop by at any hour for a cup of coffee
delicious coffee from ANADES's organic farm and vanilla soymilk from the soy project in San Ramon
leaving work at 5:00 sharp, when all the moms and dads wave hello and goodbye
flowers blooming in November
the bark of my neighbors dog, welcoming me home
hugs from Abner, a really special kid
one cent limes
"te quiero"
the tears from that mother two days ago
the noise and life in the centro, downtown
systems of support

What are you grateful for?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Programa Velasco and the Bajo Lempa - Update

The Sun is shining once again over El Salvador after October’s devastating rains. The land is beginning to dry, and people have returned to their communities to begin the clean-up effort. President Mauricio Funes reported this week that the storm caused about $840 million worth of damages, the most highly affected sector being the agricultural sector at $300 worth of losses (link)

In San Ramon, where Centro Hogar is located, there was extreme risk of landslide. In 1986, an enormous landslide completely demolished the area. There was only one home left standing. This year, however, Civil Protection and the Police were on high alert in the area. Families who lived in unstable homes or in areas of the volcano that were at risk of landslide, according to the experts, were evacuated to San Salvador’s main shelter. Several Programa Velasco families and one teacher from Centro Hogar spent the week in the shelter. Thanks to the generosity of donations from the Salvadoran people, the government, and local and international NGOs, the thousands of people at this shelter were well taken-care of. They ate three meals a day, received donations of clothing, shoes, and hygiene products, and slept on dry mattresses. Two little girls in Programa Velasco glowed when they told me how much fun they had playing with new friends they met at the shelter. Thankfully, San Ramon was for the most part unaffected by the rains, and the people were able to return to their homes safely.

In the Bajo Lempa, the low-lying farming area near the Lempa River, the communities were completely flooded, destroying most crops. Because most people have lived through floods before – something more and more common due to climate change – they have learned how to protect the personal possessions from damage; one teacher from the pre-school in Amando Lopez described how the people hang their mattresses from the roof with heavy rope and place clothes and other possessions up high, out of the water’s reach.

There were heavy floods in the three communities where our partner organization ANADES has pre-schools, Amando Lopez, Presidio Liberado, and La Canoa. Thankfully, the three schools are structurally very sound and did not receive any devastating damage during the rains. One school even served as a shelter for dozens of families as they waited to be rescued by boat. After the waters subsided, the communities got together in a joint clean-up effort to make the schools safe and ready to receive children again!

Thanks to your solidarity and generous donations, ANADES was able to make several trips out to the Bajo Lempa during and after the rains. We brought food, clothing and mattresses to the shelters, and have sent several medical brigades to the communities. The ANADES doctor, natural medicine expert, medical students, and a handful of volunteers have spent three days in various communities doing medical checkups and providing patients with free medicine, when we had what was needed. Many of the children and even many adults were very underweight, some severely malnourished. ANADES was able to give some food to each family that came through, and to the children with the most serious malnourishment, we gave a bag of powdered nutritional supplement.

Now that the rains have subsided, the situation may look like it has gone back to normal, but the loss of the crops in the area means that the majority of families have lost their main source of income for the year. In an already poor region where the people stretch each dollar they earn to provide for their families, the coming weeks, months, and years will be that much more difficult. ANADES and Programa Velasco are seeking to reinvest in the future of these communities – both by supporting immediate needs like food, clean water, medicine, cleaning supplies and hygiene products and long-term needs like reinforcing the levee (which broke during the floods) and the replanting of the crops, so that the people can begin to generate income again. We also believe that education is the most powerful tool of empowerment that can be offered, and we would like to expand our scholarship program next year to the rural communities in the Bajo Lempa and in Morazan, where the economic situation is extremely difficult, now more than ever.

Please join us in support of this work – make a one-time donation to purchase immediate needs like food and medicine; Become a Compañero/a to support long-term projects in San Ramon and in the rural communities, or Sponsor a Child for the 2012 school year. Learn more at Support Us.

In gratitude and hope,

Olivia Amadon
Programa Velasco, In-Country Director

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Devastating Rains

Dearest friends,

As you may (or may not) have heard, all of Central America is suffering one of the its worst natural disasters in history. Unfortunately, it is not getting much coverage on English-speaking news, but the situation here in El Salvador is overwhelming. For 8 days, we received rain day and night, non-stop. More rain was poured onto this fragile country than in 1998's devastating hurricane Mitch. We received almost the equivalent amount of rain as what we normally get in an entire year. As you know, the poor suffer more greatly in catastrophes like this. In one area of the country near the Lempa River, the Bajo Lempa, hundreds of communities were flooded up to the roofs of homes and businesses. This area is a principle crop-growing region for El Salvador, and everything was lost. The loss of crops means that the price of food will increase soon, and a lot. There are 34 people dead, and over 30,000 in shelters indefinitely. What do the poor do when they lose everything, in a country with little to no safety net? There is no flood insurance. There are no homeless shelters. People must lean on each other; solidarity must carry people forward.

I know some of you have been worried about me. I want to let you know I am fine, mostly. I am high and dry in my middle class neighborhood. But San Ramon, where I work, is at extreme risk of landslides, as it is at the base of the San Salvador volcano. My heart breaks for the people in the Bajo Lempa, including many co-workers and friends. ANADES, Programa Velasco's Salvadoran partner organization, has 3 pre-schools in the Bajo Lempa, and those communities are very close to my heart. I have been visiting some of the shelters, completely overwhelmed by the scale of loss and suffering. Amidst it all, I also have had bronchitis for 2 weeks now (stress-related?), but I am thankful to be home, on medication, and resting. Please pray for those that do not have food, medical care, or even a dry bed to sleep on.

The situation in the shelters is overwhelming. People have nothing, not even blankets or a change of clothes. Some federal and international aid is beginning to arrive - food, hygiene items, medicines. But what is uncertain is the long-term rebuilding process. There are thousands of people - the country's poorest - that have lost everything: their homes, their possessions, their crops, their animals. What will they do? Unfortunately, in poor countries like El Salvador, there is not much to fall back on.

Programa Velasco would like to help the three communities where we work in the Bajo Lempa rebuild the three pre-schools run by ANADES, and send donations of basic necessities to the families in those communities. We would also like to contract a psychologist to tend to mental health needs in the area. If you can, please consider donating to help with relief efforts. Learn more at www.programavelasco.org.

I have included some photos from the catastrophe and ANADES's work in the past 2 weeks.

During this time of catastrophe, we also learned the beloved father Dean Brackley, a North American Jesuit priest who has lived in El Salvador since the 6 Jesuits were murdered here in 1989, recently died of cancer. He was an inspiration in my life personally, and taught me so much about the meaning of suffering and solidarity. He taught me about vocation, and downward mobility - the direction my life has taken toward solidarity with the poor, toward self-gift, simplicity, and love. Please pray that his spirit would not die with him, but be made greater in each of us.

in love and gratitude,

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

feels like coming home

I have stopped trying to distinguish between my homes. Have you ever caught yourself, maybe the first time you moved out of your parents house, or after getting settled in college or a new city, referring to your new house as "home"? It feels almost scandalizing to refer to a messy dorm room with a word so intimate - "home" - that surely there can only ever be one real home in my life.... Right? Like, it's almost a sin to refer to this strange Northern city with bland food as "home," but maybe it's okay.

Well, I have decided to be done with all the confusion and just accept that I have three homes. So when I left El Salvador this month headed to Boston to visit some of my best friends in the world and the city where I became a lot of who I am, I went home. Being home was biking around the city with my roommate (once a roommate, you will always be "my roommate," no matter how long it has been since we have lived together); being home was eating mac and cheese for dinner and sharing joy with my friends, the sound of the T rolling along its tracks and the sight of the sunset over the Charles.

Then, when I went to New Orleans to be with my family, to be in the house that I have lived in since I was ten, I went home again. Being home was my own New Orleans accent coming back overnight (Is it Southern? Is it Cajun? Is is New York? Or somewhere in between...?) Being home was Dad closing the house up each night before bed - dishes washed, kitchen clean, trash taken out, doors and windows locked, air conditioning set to the perfect setting. Being home was family, and resting, and letting myself be taken care of.

And then, when I went back to El Salvador, and went through that customs line for the sixth time (this time with a residency card!!), I went home, too. I have come home again and again. The smells, they smell like home here, and it sounds like home too. The Salvadoran phrases, the white little ring painted around every manicured tree, it all makes me feel at home.

And getting so many hugs, everywhere I went, Homes A and B and C, all with people saying "We missed you sooooo much!", "I have felt an Olivia-shaped hole in my life...", "Don't be a stranger, ya hear?", or "Olliiiiiiiii, me hiciste MUCHA FALTA!" it all just reminds me that my heart is torn in three, in a million, and I am so over trying to decide which one is the real home, because that just doesn't exist. I am always home from now on, ya hear?!