Date: Sun, 12 Dec 1999 17:59:56 -0600 (CST)
New Effort to End Child Labour
By David Carrasco, IPS, 8 December 1999
PANAMA CITY, Dec 8 (IPS) - Panama is making new efforts to stamp out child labour, a growing problem that has alarmed the country's civil society.
The last labour survey, taken in 1994, revealed that some 50,000 children and adolescents over the age of 10 had dropped out of school in order to work.
The Ministry of Education has now begun an initiative to ensure that every Panamanian child attends school until the age of 12, to prevent them from being exploited in the labor market.
The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) is support the project and an official of agency, Nadya Vasquez, said the situation was most serious in rural and indigenous areas, where a more in-depth analysis of socioeconomic conditions was needed.
Poor urban children wander the streets shining shoes or selling flowers and candy, while those from impoverished parts of the countryside are usually found working on sugar cane plantations, or picking rice and coffee in the fields.
About 67 percent of Panama's child laborers live in rural areas. Of that number, sixty-three percent work in the agricultural sector, 13 percent in small businesses and eight percent in factories.
A government document entitled "New Strategic Focus on Poverty 1998-2003" recognised that almost 45 percent of children between the ages of 10 and 14 live in poverty and suffer from malnutrition.
In June, the World Bank published a report in which it noted that, despite having a relatively high per capita income (3,080 dollars in 1997), "Panama is one of the countries with the greatest inequality in the world," similar to Brazil and slightly worse than South Africa.
More than half of all children in indigenous areas suffered from malnutrition, particularly members of the Ngobe-Bugle ethnic community living in remote western areas, the report said.
Vasquez said that the central government, local communities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) would promote a series of programmes to assist these children, with the aim of helping them to complete a basic education so as to improve their chances to escape the cycle of poverty.
The Mayor's Office of Panama City is giving academic scholarships to youths considered at social risk, adding to the focus on children from poor households, said Noris Estrada, a sociologist and the head of the capital's social work agency.
And the NGO Casa Esperanza, which works with more than 1,500 children from marginal urban neighbourhoods, said it has obtained encouraging results from community discussions about the problems of daily life, like drug abuse, disease and crime.
Ramon Aleman, president of the steering committee of Casa Esperanza, told IPS that the group's efforts to encourage education and other youth programmes had proved to be a successful model for rescuing children from a life on the streets.
"Since 1992, we have been dedicated to prevention in the districts of Panama, Colon and San Miguelito, and with that we hope to keep more kids from leaving their homes in search of income and being recruited into the youth gangs that operate in these neighbourhoods," he said.
Such preventive efforts include community education, informal discussions on human rights, nutrition programmes and group incentives.
Angelica Bria, 10, who first met volunteers from Casa Esperanza on a street corner of the capital, told IPS that now she has time to play with other children and doesn't have to sell oranges or clean windshields to make a living.
Her mother, who continues to work, is paying a group of teenagers to sell fruit on the informal market.
Hector Rodriguez, 16, said he felt optimistic after encountering the solidarity in Casa Esperanza, whose volunteers helped him to get a job with a food delivery company.
For this enterprising youth, the small income he earns has permitted him to take an auto mechanic course and help out with the bills in the modest home he shares with his mother and siblings.
Rodriguez recalled that a few years ago, he was in dire straits, and the only work he could find was shining shoes.
In addition to its work with children in the capital, in 1998, Casa Esperanza introduced an innovative project for sustainable farming, and now plans to expand its services for indigenous children laboring in the coffee fields that dot the border with Costa Rica, where there is severe exploitation.
Recent studies show that child and adolescent laborers, particularly those in indigenous areas, work more than 40 hours a week, which keeps them away from school.
Aleman stressed that civil society must stand up to defend this vulnerable group, by promoting their scholastic development and vocational training through permanent programmes that have a real impact in poor communities.
Issues relating to childhood will be one of the relevant points on the agenda of the Tenth Ibero-American Summit, to be hosted by Panama in November 2000.
Aleman recognised that there has been progress in the fields of child health and legal protection of the Panamanian family, but added that it is crucial to get children off the streets and back into the classrooms, as a first step to guarantee peace and equality in the 21st century. (END/IPS/dc/ag/hd/ks/mk/99)
[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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