Monday, May 30, 2011

the rights of children

This article was recently published in the May issue of Bridges, the VMM newsletter. If you did not receive the May edition via email and would like one, let me know and I can make sure you get one. Learn more about VMM (and see past newsletters) at

One morning as I accompanied the preparatoria class (6-7 year old children preparing to enter first grade), I sat down at one table to help the kids use finger paint to stamp images of their own hands on the poster we were creating.

“Who can tell me what a ‘right’ is?,” I ask, for the activity this morning had to do with the rights of the child.

“I know!” shouted Marco, a bright, energetic little six-year-old. “It means you have one on this side,” he said as he signaled to his right hand, “and one on this side,” as he signaled to his left.

“Of course!” I assured him, “But I was thinking of a different type of right. The kind of right I am thinking of is something that you deserve, something you deserve simply because you are a human being!”

As we went deeper into the topic, their teacher Senorita Reina encouraged them to think about what their own rights are. The children came up with lots of different answers, everything from a house and food and a bed to sleep in, to parents to bring them to school, notebooks to draw in, good health and medicine when they are sick, and even love, respect, and freedom.

Children are smarter than we think. I am constantly surprised by the things they say and the way they truly express themselves. They are loving, and somehow know how to love easily, unconditionally, and without restraint, a quality that I think most adults have lost somewhere along the way. Unfortunately, in El Salvador and around the world there are many children whose rights are continually violated – they have little access to education, health care, adequate nutrition and clean drinking water; they are abused, beaten, and spoken to as if they were less than human.

In El Salvador, the average level of education is through 6th grade. The economic structures that have waged war against the poor have created a poverty of opportunity for those on the margins of society. There are extremely high levels of unemployment, and for the majority of families, life is a daily struggle to make ends meet. Often, children leave school in order to help their family find a way to survive, by working or staying at home to cook, clean, and care for younger siblings. There is even less importance placed on early-childhood education. It is a quite common sight to see young children and even toddlers and infants accompanying their mothers as they work – selling produce in the market, at juice stands on the street, or riding around with their taxi driver fathers all day.

Here at Centro Hogar, the preschool where I work on the outskirts of San Salvador, we believe that all children deserve a place of their own to learn, make friends, and grow and develop in health and safe environment. We are run by ANADES (New Dawn Association of El Salvador), an NGO that was born during the war in the spirit of the martyrs of El Salvador with a special desire to care for children whose parents disappeared during the war. Here, the teachers educate in a creative, stimulating way, allowing the children to learn through questioning and through play – the way children learn best. They enjoy coming here because they have fun, but they also learn how to think for themselves about their own identity and the world around them. We encourage creativity through daily artistic and hands-on activities in the classroom, weekly assemblies where the children perform dances or tell stories, and foster the growth of their own imaginations.

In addition to the education they receive here, the children deserve integral care, proper nutrition, a safe home, love, good health, and freedom from violence and fear. Over the years, we have learned that in order to care for children in this kind of integral way, it takes much more than just a good teacher or two in the classroom. Here at Centro Hogar, the children receive a nutritious breakfast, lunch, and snack every day; many children here would not have access to such a nutritious diet at home. At least twice a year, they have medical check-ups at ANADES’s natural medicine clinic, and are treated for parasites and amoebas which are commonly found in San Salvador’s drinking water. Programa Velasco, the scholarship and empowerment program I coordinate, connected 36 of Centro Hogar’s poorest families with child sponsors who provide scholarships so they can stay enrolled in school this year.

No matter how much time and energy we may put into reinforcing all of the rights that these children deserve from Monday to Friday while they are here with us, the truth is that families are integral to a child’s growth and development in love and safety. Unfortunately, many poor families carry heavy burdens and have few spaces to share their frustrations, relieve their stress, or think about their own spiritual or emotional well-being. And when parents have no support, it is difficult to support their children in the way they deserve.

At Centro Hogar, we accompany families – we want to be a support for them in the way they need so that they may better care for their children. Once a month we hold meetings with all the parents where we discuss themes that may range from discipline methods without the use of violence to gender equality to self-care. The social worker and I also accompany many families through home visits and regular meetings with the families who need the most support, especially the families of those children who demonstrate violence and aggression at school.

For me, working with these children and families here in San Ramon is such a joy. After a long day of office work or some tough home visits, I will walk into the playground area and the kids know exactly how to give me the joy and life I need. Or, while feeling let down or disillusioned, I will run into a friend, the mother of a child here, and I will remember the connections I have made and the way I am being sewn into the fabric of this community. I think it takes a whole community to raise a child, and I am so grateful to be part of this community. I am growing into my vocation and each day learning how to better be an advocate for children, and a support for their families, teachers, and care-givers.

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