Claire Blanchard, Coordinator of the SUN Civil Society Network, hosted at Save the Children, blogs about her recent visit to El Salvador, where she met groups involved in Scaling Up Nutrition, a global movement founded on the principle that all people have a right to food and good nutrition.
El Salvador is a small, densely populated country suffering from corruption, drug trafficking and a level of violence that defines everything.
Armed private security employees and police are everywhere in the streets of the capital, San Salvador. El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in the world – more than 1,000 deaths were reported in the first six weeks of this year, with 70-80% of the victims being young people.
I was there to meet NUTRES and its members, an alliance of seven grassroots organisations in El Salvador working on Scaling Up Nutrition.
I visited a programme run by NUTRES member ABAZORTE, a local civil society organisation working with youth, in a town called Tonacatepeque. They work with children, adolescents and young adults whose lives are dominated by poverty. The extreme violence poverty engenders is the biggest barrier preventing these young people from accessing education, food and, simply, the right to develop, be happy and play. The mining industry exploits this community, as it does many others across the country.
The ABAZORTE programme gives hope to many young people, who are often orphans or from single parent households. Disintegrated families are an everyday reality here due to poverty and crime. The programme provides a support system, giving children opportunities to play football, go to school and use community gardens – it teaches them that there is an alternative to violence.
It was striking and heart-warming to see these young people striving to make their community a better place. The testimonies we heard were humbling and it was sometimes hard not to cry:
25-year-old Enrique shared his experience as a football coach and mentor. He told us, “I see this as a service to my community and at the same time it helps us all learn about nutrition as we are ill informed. Through this programme, I am able to teach kids to live a full and happy life. We need to be able to have free and local access to education (from primary school all the way to university) to be able to get out of this cycle of poverty. Out of 30 school kids, just three will go on to university. We need the government to invest more in this area. As young people, we need to engage as future leaders and stewards of this planet.”
Cal, a 12-year-old boy, shared his experience of working in environmental projects to fight deforestation and to recycle rubbish for use in community gardens. He said, “We create families through this effort”.
17-year-old Andy shared his experience of violence: “One day I was coming back from school on my bike and a group of kids just beat me up – they were kids I knew and who knew me.”
Isabella, a 17-year-old girl, responded, “I don’t judge those that resort to violence. It was a way out for them, a way to survive. We have no education, no jobs, no future, no dreams, no opportunities to play. ABAZORTE helps us make dreams a reality.”
The programme focuses on giving young people nutrition education, support systems, guidance on environmental preservation and mentoring and training, so they can find work and have an income. It teaches young people how to cultivate the land. And its impact ripples out to other parts of the community, including parents, teachers and other young people.
The youth group hope that through NUTRES, ABAZORTE can help bring their voice to decision makers. The young people are calling for a range of policies that will help young people, and for MPs to take field trips to find out about how young people live. They also want to see processes developed that support youth engagement.
The visit reminded me how important it is that young people in poor communities can influence decisions that affect their lives.
As a movement we need to make sure tomorrow’s leaders can shape their world today.