Preventing violence through sport in El Salvador

In an area plagued by gang violence, sport and recreational activities offer children a haven from insecurity on the streets.

By UNICEF El Salvador
A girl in a swimming pool, El Salvador
UNICEF El Salvador/2017/Martinez
11 January 2018

SAN MARCOS, San Salvador, El Salvador, 11 January 2018 – Seven-year-old Natividad Sánchez Ventura is the youngest of ten children, and their daily life is predictably chaotic. Every morning, her mother María heads out before sunrise to sell seafood at the municipal market, while her older sisters finish their morning chores and her father José takes the youngest children to school.

After school, Natividad and her siblings return home where their mother is either cooking or washing clothes. Their father uses this time to make house calls as an electrician. Until recently, this routine posed a challenge for their family: What kind of safe and secure activity can the children do in the afternoon?

“There’s not much room at home, our street is quite dangerous and when the children wanted to play with other children, they had to go far and we had no idea where they were,” says María.

For José, the main concern about letting them play in the street was insecurity. The municipality is known for its high rates of homicide, gang violence and crime. The children would be putting themselves at risk if they stayed nearby to play.


A girl adjusts her swim cap, El Salvador
UNICEF El Salvador/2017/Martinez
Natividad chats with a friend during swimming practice. The lessons have helped her and her siblings make new friends and gain confidence outside of school.
Sport for safety

Everything changed the day the family received the invitation from the Mayor’s Office in San Marcos for their children to attend free swimming lessons at the Cutacuzcat Recreational Center.

“We decided to let them attend the centre so that they could learn to swim,” says María. 

The invitation to join weekly sport activities was extended to all children in San Marcos as part of the municipal violence prevention project supported by UNICEF. After a year and a half of operating, more than 1,000 children participate in these activities two to three times per week.

The swimming coach, Wilson Galán, says that the sport came naturally to Natividad and her siblings. “Their results took me by surprise because in two months they had already mastered all the styles pretty well,” he says.

The children have now accumulated a collection of 47 medals they have won in different local and national competitions. For Natividad, who has won 8 of the medals, these triumphs have boosted her confidence.

“I feel very excited when I hear my family rooting for me ‘go, go, go’ and I keep my strength till the end,” she says.


A group of children hold medals, El Salvador
UNICEF El Salvador/2017/Martinez
The Sánchez Ventura family holds up the medals the children have won in swim competitions. Since starting the sport programme a year and a half ago, the children have collected over 40 of them.
Healthier bodies and minds

Sport and recreational activities are just one part of a comprehensive violence prevention strategy in the municipality, for which UNICEF is working closely with the San Marcos Mayor’s Office. The strategy includes child protection and development components, as well as educational workshops that teach children and parents about non-violence and strengthening family ties.

“In these workshops, she can spend time with other children who are learning just like her, and we get to meet other parents with whom we can share new ideas,” says María.

A scholarship through the programme also covers some of Natividad’s school expenses. “For us, a large family, this is of great help so that she doesn’t stop going to school,” says José.

Both parents agree that playing sports has changed their children’s lives. “It has been good for their health and their mind,” says María. “They are active doing exercise and they have a purpose in life, better self-esteem and they are more disciplined in school.”

For José, one of the greatest benefits of the programme is that it keeps the children safe from gang violence. “Swimming has taken our children away from the streets,” he says.