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Bolivia, Plurinational State of

In Bolivia, working towards a brighter future for children

By Susan Markisz

UNICEF’s Executive Director had a first-hand look at the serious challenges children and families in Bolivia face every day – and the efforts to improve children’s future through education and counselling.

POTOSÍ, Bolivia, 6 May 2014 – Echoing the words of a mural behind him at his school in Potosí, 11-year-old Roberto Canaza believes that education will provide a good foundation for his life. “I want to study agronomy, in order to care for plants, animals and the environment,” he says. 

Roberto Canaza, 11, stands in front of a mural at the UNICEF-supported Robertito School in Potosí. "An education will provide a good foundation for your life," the mural reads.

For Roberto, who comes from a family of miners, leaving behind arduous mining work will not be easy. In a country of almost 10.5 million people, about one quarter of all children aged 5 to 14 are engaged in some form of child labour, including thousands who work in mining. 

But Roberto has a chance to change this destiny. He attends the UNICEF-supported Escuela Robertito, at the Cerro Rico mines in Potosí, along with over 90 other children of mining families. 

During a three-day visit to the region in April, UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake, accompanied by Potosí Governor Félix Gonzáles, met children and families at Escuela Robertito and discussed the challenges they face.

“Young children working in life-threatening conditions – instead of going to school to earn just enough money to scrape by – is a tragedy. Bolivia has developed policies that mean children can learn in a safe, healthy and protective environment,” said Mr. Lake.

The most important treasure

Named for one of the nearby mines in Cerro Rico, located 4,700 metres (over 15,000 feet) above sea level, the Robertito School was founded in 2007 by NGO Voces Libres. It is the only educational facility serving the local mining community, for whom education would be otherwise inaccessible. The school’s aim is not only to provide children an education, but also to keep them from being put to work in the mines. It provides basic hygiene instruction and nutritional support, as well as materials for the development of artistic talents in music and drawing.

Governor of the Department of Potosí Félix Gonzáles, UNICEF Representative in Bolivia Marcoluigi Corsi and UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake discuss issues related to child labour, at a mine in Potosí. A local miner stands beside them.

After more than 500 years of exploitation, Cerro Rico presents dangers both to miners and to their families living nearby. Concerns about the structural integrity of the school, which has developed cracks in its foundation as a result of explosives used daily in the excavation process, have led the Potosí municipal government to acknowledge the potential danger for children. Mr. González announced that construction of a new school would begin in August 2014, with improved hygiene facilities, a library and computer stations – good news for parents hoping to give their children an education and a chance to leave the mountain for other career paths.

For young Roberto, he may yet realize his dream of studying agronomy.

“This investment in the future of this country’s children must not go to waste,” Mr. Lake said after his visit to the school. “The miners are working for treasures. The most important treasure to be developed was in the school on the side of the mountain, the children.”

Overcoming sexual violence

During Mr. Lake’s mission, he also met children and youth at the UNICEF-supported Centro Especializado de Prevención y Atención Terapeútica (CEPAT), a therapeutic care centre in Potosí, where they are helped to recover from sexual violence and abuse. According to statistics of the General Command of the Bolivian Police, which records reported acts of sexual violence, there were 3,602 incidents of sexual violence against children and adolescents reported in 2012 in Bolivia, the last full year for which data is available.

Thirteen-year-old Gabriela (foreground) holds her son Juan while speaking with a therapist at CEPAT in Potosí.

In an emotional meeting with Mr. Lake, mothers of some of the girls receiving support at the centre expressed the urgent need for continued assistance for their daughters – a testimony to the importance of effective psychosocial support.

But not all the girls at the centre have family to rely on. Gabriela*, 13, who lives with her 18-month-old son at a nearby shelter, attends CEPAT for counselling and other social services. Abandoned by her mother at age 3, Gabriela lived with her grandmother and never attended school. Left alone most of the day while her grandmother worked, she was molested several times. A year and a half ago, she gave birth to a son, Juan*, the result of a rape by a 50-year-old neighbour.

Gabriela has made tremendous progress since she came to the centre more than 18 months ago, and Juan walked around the room greeting Gabriela’s friends at CEPAT, jumping from one set of loving arms to another. She is deeply committed to her son, to her education and to moving on with her life.

“I want to learn to read and write,” she says. “I am also learning to be a seamstress to make polleras [traditional pleated skirts], so I can support my son.”

*Names changed




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