Latin America and the Caribbean

January 1995

By Adrean Scheid

Caught in the Crossfire

Pablo and Walter stand outside of the bakery behind the Supermarket La Fe, begging for money from the middle-class patrons who enter. Their clothes are torn and dirty, and the calluses on their feet testify that they have never owned a pair of shoes. Although they are both ten years old, neither one has ever attended school. However, they consider themselves lucky-- they are fortunate enough to have a steady job cleaning the bakery each day for 3.50 cordobas (about 50 cents U.S.). In addition, they receive scraps of food and any money that they can earn begging outside. Pablo confided that in his family of nine, he is the only one who has a steady job. Pablo and Walter are just two of the growing number of Nicaraguan children who have been forced to forego their childhood and prematurely enter the adult reality of hardship and suffering.

In a study presented in July `94 by the Ministry of Social Action and funded by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), it was revealed that 75% of all Nicaraguan households register poverty level incomes. The hardest hit are the children--the level of poverty for children under 5 years old has reached 86% and for those between 6 and 14 years it is at 85%.

Neo-liberal structural adjustment policies applied in recent years have exacerbated the country's economic crisis, resulting in a reduction in employment and wages while increasing the price of basic goods. Conservative estimates place the national unemployment level at 60-70%, and the Apr `94 signing of the Extended Structural Adjustment Facility (ESAF) with international lending organizations is expected to put an additional 13,000 workers out of a job in the next three years. At the urban level 57% have full-time work, but almost 74% of these workers earn less than 1,000 cordobas each month (U.S. $143). The reduction of family income has reinforced the necessity of child labor to support family subsistence.

In addition, social protections for children provided by the state during the Sandinista administration have been stripped away under austerity programs imposed on the Chamorro government. The programs that do exist are often on-governmental, and rely on donations from individuals and organizations to obtain operating funds. This combination severely limits the number of children who can be helpful. However, the problems that the children face are not disappearing, and the situation is escalating due to the lack of programs of prevention and rehabilitation.

The Price of Capitalism

According to a study by the Institute for Human Development (INPRHU), there are approximately 15,000 children between the ages of 7 and 14 living on the streets of Managua. On a national level, there are an estimated 17,000 street children. They can be divided roughly into four groups: war orphans, children from broken homes, abandoned children, and the glue-sniffers who as a group can overlap with any of the other three. Many of these children live in and around Managua's sprawling public markets, where it is easy to scavenge food. A few work shining shoes, cleaning windshields, or selling anything from candy to their bodies, but most beg or steal to survive.

Many cannot resist the temptation of cheap drugs to take away the pain of poverty and rejection and the number of glue- sniffing children is growing at an alarming rate. They buy small baby food jars full of glue from vendors who ostensibly sell the glue for shoe repair purposes. Inhaling the fumes produces hallucinations which numb their hunger and fears, but the physical effects of the glue on the children are devastating. Long-term use typically results in irreversible brain damage, paralysis, kidney or liver failure, and eventually death. The industrial glue that the children often sniff is Resistol, manufactured by the U.S.-based H.B. Fuller Company. The dangerous component in the glue is toluene, a by-product of oil refining that is severely restricted in the U.S. Yet Fuller continues to manufacture and distribute the adhesive in Latin America, despite the evidence that it is helping to destroy a generation of Latin American children.

Quincho Barrilete

Quincho Barrilete is a recovery program for glue-sniffing boys started by Italian educator Zelinda Roccia in `91. The project is named after an eight-year-old boy who lost his parents and his home in Managua's `72 earthquake and managed to support himself and his family by selling colorful, handmade kites.

The program focuses on rehabilitating the boys and helping them to re-enter society. They receive medical attention, and attend a local school. They have rules and chores, but in their new environment once-violent young boys are showing themselves to be intelligent, caring individuals.

Roccia claims that the key to the boys' recovery is getting them away from the influence of the subculture associated with the public markets. In Feb `93 the project purchased a farm in San Marcos about 40 km south of Managua. They currently depend on volunteers and donations to continue their work, but Roccia wants to develop the farm commercially to make the project self- supporting.

Las Chicas

Jacqueline is only 16 years old, but she has a 10-month-old son. Her father died shortly after she was born, and her mother began working in the Oriental Market selling fruit drinks to support the family.

Jacqueline spent her days helping her mother in the market, where she made friends who introduced her to the glue. Although she became involved with the glue at an early age, she did not leave her family until 23 days after her baby was born. At that point she left her child with her mother, and ran away to spend her days and nights in the market sniffing glue. She did not feel comfortable discussing how she became pregnant, however it is common knowledge that the girls in the market are often used by the older boys, and rape and prostitution are frequent.

Last September she was reunited with her son through a project called Las Chicas, and is making great strides towards recovery. The project is headed by Olivier Sebrechts, a Belgian who worked closely with the Quincho Barrilete project since its inception. The project is situated on the outskirts of Managua, and there are currently 11 girls who are with Las Chicas full- time. Others come to the house during the day, but return to the market at night.

The project is not only an attempt to get the girls away from the influence of the glue, it also attempts to teach them skills to make them self-sufficient. The girls who have had some previous schooling take classes at a nearby school, others are tutored at the house. All the girls participate in sewing, ceramic and baking workshops. The hope is that they will leave the project with the self-confidence and skills to build a new life elsewhere. The project has only been in existence for 10 months, but Sebrechts notes that they have been successful in stabilizing many of the girls.

Hope for the Future

Another group that strives to endow Nicaraguan street children with the power to direct their futures by teaching them valuable skills is run by INPRHU. The project "Promotion of the Family and the Community" works with children who are living in especially difficult circumstances. There are 49 institute educators who work with children in two public markets and around the traffic circles. They sponsor activities and workshops that are designed to promote self-esteem and assist the children in leaving the streets and becoming productive members of society. Attention is also given to health care and nutrition.

A project with a similar philosophy is run by the Center for the Capacitation of Artisans (CECAPI). All of the project participants work in the market in the mornings, doing various odd jobs to earn money. At 11:00 am they arrive at the center, and are given a hot lunch. After lunch they have workshops in electricity, plumbing, carpentry and furniture making.

Masaya is noted for its handcrafts, and the boys are learning to make furniture that is both beautiful and functional to sell in the store that the Center operates. Proceeds are sued to pay the boys a salary of five cordobas a day (about 71 cents U.S.), as well as to help contribute to the operation of the Center.

According to Juan Manuel Gongora, one of the project's participants, CECAPI has changed who he is, as well as what he will become. If he had not become involved with the group, he said that he would probably have spent the rest of his life guarding cars, or selling things in the market. Now that he has marketable skills, he feels that he has a future.

A Call for Action

When examining the precarious situation of Nicaragua's street children in the context of the recent shift to neo-liberal economic policies coupled with an unambiguous growth in poverty, the children are clearly the victims. Reduced spending on social services and declining family incomes have had a negative impact on the quality of life. If government social service agencies are unable or unwilling to offer programs of prevention and rehabilitation, then nongovernmental organizations must become involved on a larger scale and assume the responsibility. Otherwise, the inevitable result will be a whole generation of lost children.

Institute for Central American Studies
Apto. 1524
2050 San Pedro, Costa Rica
Tel 506 234-7682
Fax 506 224-8910

Return to PANGAEA HomePage