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Pedaleando por la educación indígena en Paraguay

En medio de senderos plagados de mosquitos, caminos llenos de barro y una naturaleza exuberante, un grupo de ciclistas conformado por distintos profesionales y personalidades de Paraguay recorrió comunidades indígenas del Chaco para conocer la realidad de los niños y niñas nativos como parte de una expedición organizada por UNICEF Paraguay.

Los participantes posan al inicio de la expedición ciclística, en la entrada de la comunidad indígena Armonía, a 400 km al norte de Asunción. © UNICEF Paraguay/2015/Brom

Los participantes posan al inicio de la expedición ciclística, en la entrada de la comunidad indígena Armonía, a 400 km al norte de Asunción. © UNICEF Paraguay/2015/Brom

Bajo la consigna ‘Cero niños fuera de la escuela’, una marcha ciclista quiso concienciar ‘in situ’ sobre la realidad de los niños y niñas que viven en el Chaco paraguayo y las dificultades que enfrentan en su día a día para llegar a la escuela, lo que en muchos casos acaba influyendo para que abandonen los estudios.

Según datos oficiales del Gobierno de Paraguay, el 7,8% de personas de entre 6 y 17 años de edad no asiste a una institución educativa de enseñanza formal en el país, es decir, unos 125.000 niños, niñas y adolescentes permanecen fuera de la escuela.

Para visibilizar esta realidad y sus causas, la expedición partió a unos 400 km al norte de Asunción, donde viven algunas de las comunidades indígenas de Paraguay. Hasta allí se trasladó el grupo de participantes conformado por periodistas, chefs, deportistas, empresarios, filósofos, médicos y entusiastas del ciclismo de aventura, entre otros perfiles.

El recorrido transitó por varias aldeas nativas del área. El encuentro central tuvo lugar en El Estribo, donde los participantes compartieron unos momentos con los líderes de la zona y conocieron sus principales preocupaciones y desafíos.

Uno de estos líderes, Gabriel Quintana, comentó que este año las familias decidieron destinar una parte del subsidio que reciben del Estado para comprar alimentos para los niños y niñas, por lo que prácticamente no se registraron deserciones escolares. “No se puede decir que los indígenas no quieren estudiar. Sí quieren. ¿Pero por qué no pueden? Por la falta de recursos”, explicó.

En el trayecto, los ciclistas pedalearon 65 kilómetros y pasaron por varias comunidades, donde fueron saludados por sus miembros, quienes los esperaban animadamente al costado del camino. “Todo el que pasaba, me saludaba. Me decía ‘¿a dónde vas?’. Y si me veían cansada, me decían ‘te falta poco’”, relató Yehimy Alison González, una conocida periodista de radio y televisión de Asunción.

Vicisitudes

Pero no todo fue alegría y camaradería en el recorrido. Varias partes de los caminos de tierra se encontraban anegadas, por lo que los ciclistas tuvieron que cruzar con esfuerzo el agua y el barro.

Todas estas dificultades les permitieron entender las vicisitudes que deben pasar diariamente niños, niñas y adultos para vivir en las duras condiciones que impone el Chaco paraguayo, donde acudir a la escuela es una difícil aventura para cualquier estudiante.

Dado que el Chaco es una zona con vegetación muy agreste, algunos de los participantes sufrieron el pinchazo de las ruedas de sus bicicletas, lo que les obligó a cambiarlas en medio de nubes de mosquitos que prácticamente eran inmunes a los repelentes de insectos.

Los caminos que atraviesan las aldeas indígenas del Chaco son de tierra y están rodeados de una vegetación agreste. © UNICEF Paraguay/2015/Villalba

Los caminos que atraviesan las aldeas indígenas del Chaco son de tierra y están rodeados de una vegetación agreste. © UNICEF Paraguay/2015/Villalba

“Yo pinché la rueda en uno de esos caminos que le llaman ‘picadas’ y quedé paralizado por unos cuatro o cinco minutos cambiando la rueda. Era impresionante la cantidad de mosquitos que tenía en todo mi cuerpo”, comentó Fernando Marín, un filósofo mexicano que trabaja en una ONG que también desarrolla proyectos sociales en las comunidades indígenas de la zona.

Pero más allá de las cuestiones de distancias y caminos intransitables, los participantes se dieron cuenta de un factor muy importante para aumentar la presencia de los niños en las aulas: la necesidad de una correcta alimentación. Como afirmaron los líderes indígenas con los que conversaron, el hambre es uno de los principales impedimentos que aleja a los estudiantes de las escuelas. La periodista Natalia Daporta -una de las participantes con gran experiencia en el área de educación- recorrió precisamente las comunidades recabando datos sobre la situación en este campo. “No recibieron hasta el momento merienda ni almuerzo escolar. Sabemos muy bien que la alimentación es muy importante para el rendimiento de los alumnos, y también para mantener a los chicos en la escuela”, indicó.

La experiencia

Al final de la jornada, la mayoría de los participantes estaban impactados con lo que habían vivido ese día y surgieron ideas para tratar de colaborar con la subsistencia de las comunidades. “Esta experiencia nos tiene que concientizar, para mí ha sido muy significativa y creo que tiene que generar una nueva cultura: que todos seamos conscientes de esos derechos que tienen los niños y el principal derecho a estudiar”, sostuvo Marín.

“La visita a las comunidades me permitió ver y sentir esas barreras invisibles que nosotros desde la ciudad no podemos percibir. Cuando uno tiene hambre, cuando uno está enfermo, cuando hay que recorrer muchísimos kilómetros para poder ir a la escuela… llegar a ella y aprender es un verdadero desafío para esos niños y esas niñas”, reflexionó la abogada María José Rivas. Tras la experiencia, ella consiguió un importante lote de medicamentos que fue enviado a El Estribo, donde no se contaba con productos médicos básicos cuando los expedicionarios la visitaron.

Nadia Cano, periodista y ciclista, posa con algunos niños y niñas de la comunidad El Estribo. © UNICEF Paraguay/2015/Villalba

Nadia Cano, periodista y ciclista, posa con algunos niños y niñas de la comunidad El Estribo. © UNICEF Paraguay/2015/Villalba

Asimismo, está previsto realizar una jornada de evaluación y sistematización de propuestas con los participantes para mejorar la situación de las comunidades indígenas de la zona. Todo esto será presentado posteriormente a las autoridades del Ministerio de Educación y Cultura del Gobierno paraguayo para contar también con su apoyo.

La expedición ‘Cero niños fuera de la escuela’ se confirmó así como una actividad no tradicional que buscó atraer la atención de diferentes tipos de personas hacia el Chaco y sus aldeas nativas, la mayoría de las cuales no siempre se encuentra en la agenda de las prioridades de las autoridades nacionales, ya sea por su lejanía geográfica como por su invisibilidad política y real.

UNICEF es una de las organizaciones que trabaja en el Chaco paraguayo, específicamente en el distrito de Tte. Manuel Irala Fernández, mediante acciones integradas que buscan desde hace dos años asegurar que niños y adolescentes se inscriban, permanezcan y aprendan en la escuela. En este sentido, apoya campañas de comunicación para sensibilizar a la comunidad educativa sobre esta problemática y fortalece al Consejo Distrital de Educación, que está integrado por representantes de la municipalidad y de la comunidad educativa. Asimismo, UNICEF apoya los sistemas escolares de agua y saneamiento y educación en higiene, la capacitación de docentes rurales e indígenas, la producción de materiales educativos en las diversas lenguas indígenas de la zona y a las organizaciones de mujeres indígenas para que incidan en las políticas educativas y en proyectos productivos.

* Diego Brom y Nadia Villalba son, respectivamente, asistente y consultora de Comunicación de UNICEF Paraguay

 

Back in April, residents fill their containers with water at outdoor taps in Sana’a.

Checkpoints, water and the children of Yemen

A boy pushes a wheelbarrow filled with jerrycans in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen.

A boy pushes a wheelbarrow filled with jerrycans in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. © UNICEF/NYHQ2015-1291/Yasin

My job is to ensure that more people have access to water and sanitation in Yemen, one of the most water-scarce countries in the world. After less than a month there, I had to leave Sana’a, along with other international United Nations colleagues, because of the escalation in conflict.

It is now the holy month of Ramadan and I’m back in Sana’a. Although it feels good to be back, my return comes with mixed feelings. The lively and bustling city that I left just three months ago is now deserted, except for the kilometres-long lines of cars waiting for petrol and the garbage piled up on the streets. We drive past a checkpoint, where I see a boy with a rifle, clearly too young to be holding a weapon. A bit further down the road, people queue up at a mosque to fill their jerry cans with water. Desperation is visible in their eyes.

The conflict in Yemen has brought the country to the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe. A colleague describes it as “the straw that broke the camel’s back”. Schools, hospitals, roads and bridges are damaged, and public services have collapsed. Supplies of food, fuel and medicines are critically low, and the lack of safe water and proper sanitation poses serious health risks to millions of people.

It is clear that the people of Yemen are suffering and need urgent help. And that’s exactly why I came back. My team and I are working around the clock to provide children and their families affected by the conflict with clean water and basic hygiene kits that contain necessities like soap and jerry cans.

Back in April, residents fill their containers with water at outdoor taps in Sana’a.

Back in April, residents fill their containers with water at outdoor taps in Sana’a. © UNICEF/NYHQ2015-0870/Hamoud

The United Nations estimates that 80 per cent of the population is in need of humanitarian assistance, a number that gives me goose bumps. But small things continue to inspire me, like the trucks on the streets of Sana’a that have started to collect garbage strewn all over, which has in part been possible because of UNICEF’s contribution of fuel to the local authorities. UNICEF is also providing fuel for over 10 cities in the country, to keep the pumps of the urban water systems operational, thereby reaching millions of people.

From time to time, emotions overwhelm me. Of course my heartbeat goes up when my bed shakes from the loud bombing nearby at night. But it affects me more when I get the news that a staff of one of our local partners was shot by a sniper while delivering water to a community, and another constructing latrines for displaced people was kidnapped for a week. At the same time, there are heroic stories of those involved in transporting supplies and fuel to pump water to areas where heavy conflict is ongoing, and where no assistance was able to reach before.

I feel a lot of respect for all of my Yemeni colleagues who continue to go out and serve those displaced while putting their lives at risk. Being back in Yemen has brought me closer to my team. I’ve begun to understand the difficult conditions people face every day, and that it hasn’t stopped us from planning big and going the extra mile. What if we could negotiate access to collect the solid waste in Aden, where a disease outbreak is looming? What if we could distribute hygiene kits to the people who are left behind in Sa’ada, because they have no means to leave the area?

Reaching these people is so important, because our biggest fear is that the children of Yemen won’t die of bullets and bombs, but of preventable diseases like diarrhoea and pneumonia. In addition to medical services and vaccinations, providing clean water, a toilet and a piece of soap can literally save a child’s life. Even if the conflict rages on, and we are denied access time and again, we will continue to try to reach out to those most in need. But most importantly, we will continue to hope that one day this conflict will end and peace will return to the people of Yemen.

Marije Broekhuijsen works in Yemen as a UNICEF Water, Sanitation and Hygiene specialist. This post was written during the month of Ramadan.

Zainab [NAME CHANGED], 16, holds her hands in front of her, casting shadows on a sunlit wall, in a UNICEF-assisted transit centre for recently released former child soldiers, in the town of N’dele, capital of the northern Bamingui-Bangoran Prefecture. Wanting to avenge the death of her fiancé, Zainab joined an armed group but, once recruited, was frequently sexually abused by male soldiers. She is now recovering at the centre, where she receives basic business training to pursue her dream of owning a restaurant.

A day of rage

Friday was a particularly hard day. Work interspersed with outrage.

No, not outrage. Simple rage. Because, among other issues, we were focused on various reports of rape. The terrible rape and enslavement of women and girls in Iraq. The horrific rape of a twelve-year-old in the Central African Republic. Sexual violence against humanitarian workers. We could go on and on.

There is a “new normal” in the world: The ugly spread of conflicts and violence in every region, against which the capacity of the humanitarian response does not keep pace, despite the efforts of people and governments of good will.

Zainab [NAME CHANGED], 16, holds her hands in front of her, casting shadows on a sunlit wall, in a UNICEF-assisted transit centre for recently released former child soldiers, in the town of N’dele, capital of the northern Bamingui-Bangoran Prefecture. Wanting to avenge the death of her fiancé, Zainab joined an armed group but, once recruited, was frequently sexually abused by male soldiers. She is now recovering at the centre, where she receives basic business training to pursue her dream of owning a restaurant.

Zainab*, 16, stands in a UNICEF-assisted transit centre for recently released former child soldiers in Central African Republic. © UNICEF/NYHQ2012-0884/Sokol

But the sexual abuse of women, girls and boys in conflicts is anything but “new.” And we must no longer think of it in any way, as “normal.”

Women and girls have long been seen as one of the spoils of war. There is a reason that “pillage” is preceded by “rape” when we read of the past destruction of castles and cities by victorious armies.

In the earliest days of Rome, when the Sabines refused to provide their women as wives for the Romans, the latter simply seized them.

Even ancient religious texts, reflecting the outlook of the men who wrote them and their times, today still give the perverted a veneer of morality for their brutality. As reported by The New York Times on Thursday, those carrying out the systematic enslavement and rape of women and girls in Iraq are “justifying” their acts by texts from the Quran.

Before non-Muslims pass judgment, they should recall that the ancient texts of other religions could similarly be misused. Moses told his men after a battle, as recorded in Numbers 31:17-18: “Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known a man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.” In other words, enslave the virgins.

No one of any good sense and sensibility should take such passages as religious instruction or absolution for such vile acts. But such texts show that rape is not an aberration; it is the most outrageous result of the historic lens through which men have seen women — as possessions.

The ancient code of conduct for Hindus, the Manusmriti, repeatedly views women in this way. For example, “Pita rakhshati …..” — 9/3. “Since women are not capable of living independently she is to be kept under the custody of her father as child, under her husband as a woman and under her son as widow.” Possessions with which he/they can do as they please. An attitude that can have terrible consequences.

Women stand in a shelter for girls and women who have endured sexual and gender-based violence, in Mogadishu, Somalia.

Women stand in a shelter for girls and women who have endured sexual and gender-based violence, in Mogadishu, Somalia. © UNICEF/NYHQ2012-0712/Holt

Consider this one vile statistic from the United Nations: Worldwide, it is estimated that one in five women will become a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime.

The hard fact is that we don’t have hard facts about the numbers of women and children suffering sexual violence in conflicts. It is certainly many more than one in five.

It is estimated that over 200,000 women have suffered from sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo since armed conflict began there. Somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000 women were reportedly raped during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. In Bosnia, at least 20,000 women are believed to have been raped or suffered sexual violence during that conflict, although the true number will probably never be known. It is hard to even find an estimate of the women and girls raped in Darfur. A partial list of a global horror.

Women and girls are not only seen as the spoils of war and conflict, but their rape has been used as an instrument of war to terrorize populations and enemies into surrender and submission. They become the particular victims of genocide.

So on Friday, as we worked on speeding up our internal reporting procedures at UNICEF — both about alleged cases of sexual violence and about the work our colleagues in the field are doing to help care for the victims — we felt again our rage. Not only at how so many women and children are violated. But, at how, after so many centuries, we human beings continue to violate our own best hopes for ourselves.

In the end, while we in the United Nations — and many others — struggle with complex legal issues and procedural efficiencies, what matters most is that all of us avoid the moral numbness that can come with the statistics and stories of sexual abuse — and feel, instead, a rage for action.

Anthony Lake is Executive Director of UNICEF. Geeta Rao Gupta is a Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF.

This blog post was published by The Huffington Post on 17 August 2015.

*Name has been changed to protect identity.

Sisters complete schoolwork together in Kenya ©UNICEF/NYHQ2012-0763/Noorani

Giving girls a chance

Mounting evidence from systematic reviews, such as these on early childbearing and HIV risk, suggest that cash transfers have positive impacts on youth transitions into adulthood. Yet, data illustrating how these programs affect outcomes is generally scarce.

Now new research from the UNICEF Office of Research-Innocenti and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, published in Social Science & Medicine, recently presents evidence of these impacts, suggesting that unconditional cash transfer programs targeting orphans and vulnerable children may significantly reduce the likelihood of early pregnancy.

Sisters complete schoolwork together in Kenya ©UNICEF/NYHQ2012-0763/Noorani

Sisters complete schoolwork together in Kenya ©UNICEF/NYHQ2012-0763/Noorani

Most cash transfer programs in Africa are unconditional, leaving the decision on how to spend the cash with the beneficiaries. These decisions, in turn, can play a key role in determining the magnitude of impacts on the household. National statistics report that approximately 32% of Kenyan women aged 25 to 49 were married by age 18 and 14.5% of 15 to 19-year-old girls had given birth to at least one child. Researchers studied whether the Government of Kenya’s main anti-poverty program: Cash Transfer for Orphans and Vulnerable Children, had potential beneficial effects on adolescent girls, in particular if there was an impact on early pregnancy and marriage. While the primary objective of the Kenya cash transfer program is poverty alleviation, it appears to make an important contribution to the successful transition of young women into adulthood.

At the time of the study, in 2011, the Kenya cash transfer program benefitted nearly 280,000 orphans and vulnerable children in 135,000 households – it has more than doubled in coverage since that time. By design, the program provides a monthly stipend of approximately $21 intended to represent 20% of monthly total household expenditures. While the cash transfers were unconditional, beneficiaries were provided a message during enrollment that they were expected to use the money for the care and development of the orphans and vulnerable children that lived in the household. As a way to encourage self-sustainability and, ultimately, independence from the program, once the children turn 18, they are no longer eligible to receive benefits.

The research found that the program reduces the probability of early pregnancy for young women aged 12 to 24, who had never given birth, by 5 percentage points (34% decrease). The researchers attributed this effect partially to increased enrollment and attainment of young women in school, increased financial security as well as a delay in sexual debut. Notably, the largest impact was among the group of most disadvantaged girls (those not enrolled in school).

Essentially, the cash transfer program kept vulnerable girls and young women in school longer and delayed their engagement in sexual activity, thereby reducing their chances for early pregnancy.

Although the study found no impacts on early marriage, the authors believe that the study was not designed to identify impacts, since adolescent girls who migrated out of households due to marriage, as is custom in Kenya, were not tracked. Therefore, while the findings on early pregnancy are significant, the researchers suggest that follow-up studies are necessary to more adequately gauge the dynamics of how cash transfers can impact outcomes, including:

  • focusing in on the link between marriage (including those already married), fertility and adolescence for girls who move out of study households;
  • learning more about the behavior of boys vis-à-vis their female counterparts; and
  • understanding complementary strategies that can improve reproductive health and life trajectories for young women which can be bundled with cash transfers.

What directions are suggested by this study? Given that Kenya’s cash transfer for orphans and vulnerable children program is similar in design to other cash transfer programs in Eastern and Southern Africa, there is considerable scope to magnify these effects with proper targeting and messaging from policymakers, program designers and other relevant stakeholders.

 Michelle Mills is based at the UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti

For further research on the impact of cash transfers on youth transitions, see: The Government of Kenya’s Cash Transfer Program Reduces the Risk of Sexual Debut among Young People Age 15-25 and Child-focused state cash transfers and adolescent risk of HIV infection in South Africa: a propensity-score-matched case-control study. Click here to learn more about Transfer Project research and evaluations. Stay tuned for further results from ongoing government-run unconditional cash transfer evaluations and impacts on adolescents in Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.