Mexico is a country of tremendous contrasts. It has basic education coverage of nearly 98 per cent and a globally recognized social development strategy for poor families (Oportunidades) that reaches 5 million households. Important advances have been made in health services for children. Yet a significant group of children and adolescents are excluded from these benefits: the children of migrant farm workers. These are the workers who take part in the annual migration from Mexico’s southern states to the northern states, where the country’s large agricultural corporations are located, to provide the manual labour essential to the production of agricultural goods for both internal consumption and export. Despite their important role in the economy, these workers live in sub-standard housing, lack access to basic services and receive low wages. As a result, their children become part of family survival strategies and are forced from an early age to work alongside their parents in the fields, violating their rights to education, recreation, adequate nutrition and health care.
Though statistics on their exact numbers do not exist, it is estimated that 350,000 children between the ages of 6 and 14 years take part in these annual migrations. As many as 42 per cent of them suffer from malnutrition, and the vast majority are working by the time they are 10 years old. Only one in 10 is enrolled in school; those who are in school rarely move beyond the first or second grade. In addition, close to 50 per cent are from indigenous families and suffer from discrimination and regular violations of their rights. Even though the labour of farm workers makes an important contribution to the national economy, they remain ‘invisible’ and the problems that affect them are only partially addressed.
Government efforts to remedy this inequality have been scattered and limited in coverage. For example, though the national cash transfer programme (Oportunidades) was developed to benefit the country’s most excluded children, the regulations governing this programme essentially make it unavailable to migrants, because they lack a fixed address and cannot maintain continuity of schooling for their children. Moreover, there is a dearth of schools close to agricultural areas, and the educational system is unable to meet the demand for new schools, a situation that contributes to the early incorporation of these children into the labour market. The two entities charged with providing for their education, namely the Secretariat of Public Education (SEP), through the Primary Education Programme for Migrant Boys and Girls (PRONIM), and the National Council for the Promotion of Education (CONAFE), respectively cover only an estimated 4 per cent of migrant children each. Thus, in direct violation of their rights, 92 per cent of the children of agricultural workers do not have access to education. And even those who do may find that as they move from location to location and from educational system to educational system, whatever progress they might have achieved is often not recognized by their new jurisdiction.
Strategies used and actions taken
During 2006, UNICEF focused on four principal lines of action:
1. Advocacy and awareness-raising: Given the invisible nature of this excluded group of children, UNICEF and its partners organized several highly visible events, including two national forums about the children of farmworkers and their right to education. These events achieved the participation of representatives of the government, mass media, academia, the private sector and civil society, as well as representatives of farm workers. In addition, three studies were undertaken, one analysing the educational services available to children nationally and the others analysing services in the two principal states where migrant children reside and work. The studies were used to inform strategic decision-making and highlight the disparities existing between these children and the majority of Mexican children.
2. Dialogue between different actors: The information derived from the above studies was used to promote a dialogue among national and local decision makers, including NGOs, academic institutions, agribusiness companies and government leaders, in order to generate consensus on new policies, obtain commitments to increase investments in education for migrant children and improve coordination between the different government programmes. UNICEF began this work in the state of Sinaloa, the principal recipient of farm workers’ children. An agreement among these parties laying out specific goals to increase school attendance and eradicate child labour was signed in September 2006, with UNICEF and an agribusiness producers’ network as witnesses.
3. Improvement of education quality: UNICEF provided school supplies for 25,700 children and 900 teachers as part of a joint plan of work that also included a commitment by government and private sector partners to increase school enrolment by 20 per cent. For their part, the agribusiness companies agreed to construct new schools, while the educational authorities agreed to provide teachers and educational materials. Additionally, UNICEF provided technical assistance to create a single evaluation system to be used by all educational programmes, thus overcoming the bureaucratic obstacles met by children as they move from one system to another – a historic achievement that will benefit not only migrant children but also others who change residences or school systems. Finally, to improve the overall quality of education for these children, UNICEF provided funding for the development and publication of school materials that focus on the multi-cultural aspects of the migrant farm worker population, which includes a diversity of indigenous groups.
4. Influence in public policies: UNICEF worked in close collaboration with the national government’s Social Development Agency to design and implement a pilot programme of cash transfers modelled on the successful Oportunidades programme but designed to meet the particular needs of migrant households. Technical assistance was provided to develop programme regulations and to test the programme in three states. Some 500 children were the initial beneficiaries of the programme, which has the joint objective of improving children’s access to and permanence in school and preventing their early incorporation into the child labour system. The results of the pilot project are under evaluation, and funds have been allocated in the national budget for its expansion. UNICEF is working with the Mexican government to advocate for its implementation in all states with migrant farm workers.
The results of the migrant children’s programme reinforce and validate UNICEF’s commitment to policy advocacy in Mexico. The successes obtained in the programme to date are, first of all, due to coordinated work at the national and local level to bring together the political commitment and the technical expertise necessary for its implementation. The successes also owe a great deal to partnerships between the various government agencies, NGOs, the private sector, the media and research institutions. All of these, along with increased funding, will be needed to ensure the programme’s sustainability. In particular, new types of partnerships, especially with the private sector on which the migrant workers depend almost entirely, are important, as they can have a tremendous impact in a short period of time. UNICEF can play an important role as a catalyst of these partnerships and in proposing innovative solutions to meet the needs of children.