By Thomas Nybo
PANAMA CITY, Panama, 7 September 2010 – Look beyond Panama's famous canal, and you'll find a world where an estimated 55,000 children under 18 are working in the streets, on farms, in fisheries and in coffee plantations.
|VIDEO - UNICEF's Thomas Nybo reports on UNICEF and its partners' efforts to end child labour and get children in school in Panama.|
The children at greatest risk of exploitation here come from indigenous and Afro-descendent families who work in the informal economy, many who live in rural or border areas far away from basic services. A large percentage of these children are not legally registered at birth, which contributes to their denial of health care, education and social assistance.
Lack of registration can also deny children their right to an identity and puts them at risk of illegal adoption, early marriage and trafficking.
Young people at work
|A student at gazes towards the basketball courts outside Casa Esperanza's school grounds.|
Beginning at age nine, Juan Carlos Quintana, 16, spent many years working a series of jobs. While children his age in school were learning to read and write, he was sweeping the floors of a grocery store. Then one day he was approached by a social worker from Casa Esperanza, a UNICEF-supported non-governmental organization committed to reducing child labour in Panama.
"I have been coming to Casa Esperanza for six or seven years," said Juan Carlos, who now visits the organization’s Panama City location regularly. "When I first came here, I was small and very shy.”
Through Casa Esperanza, children begin attending class and take part in skills workshops. For those families in extreme poverty, the organization helps to pay school fees and provides all children with a meal during their time at the centre. The programme is currently reaching out to some 5,000 children in Panama.
|Juan Carlos Quintana, 16, with Casa Esperanza Director Angelica La Vitola.|
Students are also encouraged to become role models to other children. As Juan Carlos caught up to the other students in his class, his confidence soared and he became a mentor to new arrivals at Casa Esperanza.
Investing in children
With financial and technical support from UNICEF, Casa Esperanza has been able to implement several programmes, including a violence-prevention campaign in urban areas and a project that aims to reduce child labour on coffee plantations in Panama’s highlands.
“We have children who work in the street, who live below the poverty line,” said Director of Casa Esperanza Angelica La Vitola. “Many of them are sick and have problems in school. Casa Esperanza takes them in and includes them in our programmes."
|The Panama Canal, Panama's most famous icon. Beyond it an estimated 55,000 children under 18 are at work in the country.|
The work of Casa Esperanza highlights the educational challenges in the region, especially for the one in three Panamanians living in poverty. Children are disproportionately affected, and without access to a quality education, the generational cycle of poverty is unlikely to be broken.
Only with a continued investment in children will a sustainable reduction in poverty take place.
Strides toward MDGs
Through the work of UNICEF and organizations like Casa Esperanza, however, major strides are being made daily toward achieving the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, a set of internationally recognized targets for reducing poverty worldwide. In particular, two of the eight targets call for ensuring universal primary education and promoting gender equality – including narrowing the gender gap in schools – by the year 2015.
|Director Angelica La Vitola interacts with students at Casa Esperanza during lunchtime.|
Despite some improvement, girls worldwide are still less likely than boys to attend primary school. To address this imbalance, particular emphasis must be placed on gender equity and special attention should be paid to the most vulnerable children in the poorest of households.
By helping young people realize their rights – especially their right to an education – Casa Esperanza is making their world safer, happier and more likely to be free of the poverty that most of them have known their entire lives.
“The best [moment] is years later, when you see the children at the head of their class,” said Ms. La Vitola, referring to children taken under the Casa Esperanza wing. “Children who want to become lawyers or doctors to help other people in their own area, becoming intelligent community leaders. Children who have dreams and their faces say, ‘it is not important how I got here – I am going to rise up because many people believe in me.’"