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UNICEF highlights challenges children face in Peru's coca growing areas

Extreme poverty, lack of basic services, early pregnancies hindering development

LIMA, 9 February 2006 --  UNICEF today presented “Children in the Coca Areas”, a study that describes the plight of children who live in the areas of Peru where coca is grown.

The focus is on the Apurímac and Ene River valleys and Alto Huallaga, where most of the coca in Peru is grown.  These are predominately rural areas plagued by poverty and extreme poverty.  The study illustrates how living conditions in these regions perpetuate the cycle of poverty and how children's rights are violated and their possibilities for development diminished. 

The local population is in want of basic services such as clean drinking water, sewer systems, health care and education. This, in turn, has a direct impact on children's growth and development.

During the presentation, Cabinet Council Chairman Pedro Pablo Kuczynski spoke about the need to intensify efforts to combat malnutrition among children and to improve the quality of public education, especially primary schooling, since the first years of life are fundamental to a child's development. The ceremony at the Cabinet Council was attended by Mr. Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, Chairman of the Cabinet Council, and Mr. Andrés Franco, UNICEF Representative in Peru.

“We congratulate the Cabinet Council Headquarters for contributing to give a voice to the children living in coca leaf production zones and thereby give the chance to show the reality of their everyday life. The living conditions in these valleys are very hard for the children. Their access to a complete basic education is difficult because they start working early, teenage pregnancy is common and secondary school coverage in these communities is only 24.5%, as opposed to 50% in the district capitals. We keep on working hard to change the living conditions of children”, said Nils Kastberg, UNICEF Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean speaking from London.

“We hope Children in the Coca Areas will help to build an effective system for protecting the rights of the poorest, the smallest and the most forgotten, especially the indigenous children who live in these regions," stated Andrés Franco, UNICEF Representative in Peru.  He added that the findings will encourage people to think about the situation of children in others countries where coca is grown.

Even though education is viewed as a way to achieve a better life, the study shows that enrollment rates decline with age.   For example, 99% of the children under 13 years of age are enrolled in school, as opposed to only 87% of the adolescents between 14 and 17 years of age.  This gradual desertion is due to the expense of keeping a child in school. Child and adolescent labor is a factor as well.  Nearly 90% of the children in these areas help out at home or work on the family farm.

Unfortunately, the local population has a high opinion of child labor.  Not only does it generate additional income for the family; it is considered a learning experience and part of a child's preparation for the future. According to testimonies gathered for the study, neither adults nor youngsters see work as a factor that interferes with education. Nor do they believe that children who process coca leaves are exposed to health hazards. 

One teenager said: "You work there and earn more.  If you start at six in the morning, you're done by two or three o'clock in the afternoon and it's not hard.  You get tired hauling coca, but it's easy and the hours are less than on other jobs."

The study also reveals that teenage pregnancy is common in these areas, where 21% of adolescent girls between 15 and 19 years of age have a child or are expecting for the first time. The fact that girls usually are taken out of school if they become pregnant also is a cause for concern.  They are denied their right to education because the community considers them a poor example to the others.  These are areas where women do not receive proper care during pregnancy. More than 25% of the mothers who were interviewed for the study said they had received no medical care during pregnancy; 67% indicated they had not taken iron supplements, and 20% had not been vaccinated against neonatal tetanus.  This vaccine is essential because of the precarious sanitary conditions in these areas.

As to the health problems that affect children, more than 26% of those over five years of age suffer from diarrhea and 35% have an acute cough.  Respiratory infections are due to the wet weather in these areas, but diarrhea is associated with a lack of clean drinking water and sewer systems, as well as inadequate hygiene. Only 35% of the homes are connected to a public water system and just 5.5% are connected to a sewer system. This is an alarmingly low proportion. Sixty percent of the homes have latrines or septic tanks.

Children's growth and development are affected by the quality of the environment, which is particularly harsh in the coca areas of Peru.  Children are being deprived of their right to health, education and a decent life.  This situation jeopardizes their development and will affect them for the rest of their lives.

For further information, please contact:

Marilú Wiegold, e-mail mwiegold@unicef.org,
Telephone (511) 213-0706 / Mobile (511) 9757-3218

Maria Pia Valdivia, e-mail: mpvaldivia@unicef.org,
Telephone (511) 213-0745 / Mobile (511) 9757-3212




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