Landlocked at the heart of South America, Bolivia is a country of extremes: extremes of geography, extremes of climate and extremes of wealth, poverty and opportunity. Once famed for its mineral wealth, and because of its vast silver reserves a prized asset in the Spanish Empire, Bolivia is now the poorest country in Latin America.
Bolivia is the most ethnically and culturally diverse country in Latin America, with the majority of the population being of indigenous descent. The country has suffered economically from an historic lack of investment and development of infrastructure. Currently, approximately two thirds of Bolivia’s 9.1 million people live below the poverty line. This represents an enormous challenge, and is the main driver that forces children to work from an early age.
In rural areas children work on the land, often doing extremely gruelling physical labour, while in cities children will work as shoe shines, as porters in markets, street vendors, labourers on building sites or any of a hundred other jobs that might bring a few extra bolivianos into the family income. The hours are long and tiring, children are frequently exploited compared to their adult co-workers, including being paid less for their labour, and the rewards are small.
Bolivia’s population is young; children and adolescents under the age of 18 years make up approximately half of the total population. While literacy rates have improved significantly, Save the Children estimates that approximately 20% of Bolivians over the age of 15 years are illiterate. This lack of education allows a vicious cycle of poverty and lack of opportunity to flourish.
This cycle is seen particularly amongst working children, who all too frequently are not just sacrificing their education and childhood but also their future by working to support their families. UNICEF estimates that there are approximately 620,000 working children in Bolivia. Less than 2-in-5 of these children will continue with their education beyond primary level, and over 4% of them will not go to school.
Laws exist to protect children, such as prohibiting children under the age of 14 years from working and prohibiting children from working in certain industries, or from being exploited. In reality, these laws are rarely enforced and the rights of children rarely upheld.
About working children
“Childhood is a luxury that many Bolivian families cannot afford for their children.” – Philly Winstanley, Editor of Inti magazine
Children working on the streets are a reality across Bolivia. Many of these children are very young, marginalised and vulnerable. They come from the poorest families and communities, and work to support their parents, brothers and sisters to ensure there is enough food for the family.
For many this obligation means dropping out of school and the loss of their childhood, as they are forced to take on adult responsibilities to earn money and care for their siblings. Poverty is at the heart of the problem and providing a route out of poverty is at the heart of the solution. Ensuring children receive a full education is vital to providing economic and social opportunities, and enables young people to fully participate in their own societies.
While Bolivia has made great strides in providing universal primary education, child labour impedes access to secondary education for thousands of Bolivian children. UNICEF estimates that less than two out of every five working children complete secondary education, which disadvantages them and their future families for life. In addition to this, working children have less access to health care and can rarely afford it when it is available.
Working children in Sucre
Behind Sucre’s charming colonial façade, great disparities in wealth and opportunity exist. A short journey away from the tourist heart of the city will bring you to extremely poor neighbourhoods on the outskirts of the city.
Here, hidden from the eyes of Sucre’s many tourists and people who live here entrenched poverty is a daily reality that belies the wealthy exterior of one of Latin America’s most beautiful cities. Whilst working children (and the majority of their parents) would prefer to be in school, poverty and the need for money compel them to work.
Many of these neighbourhoods are populated by recent migrants from surrounding rural areas, who have come to the city seeking a better life for themselves and their children away from the harsh realities of life as subsistence farmers in the countryside.
The majority of the working children of Sucre come from these communities, and it is within these communities that Inti works.
Most of the children supported by Inti can be grouped under UNICEF’s definition of “children on the street”. Children on the street are those who have a tendency to work on the street during the day but who return to a home or dwelling at night. This definition fails to paint the full picture of the lives of most Inti children; the vast majority have several siblings and only one parent, growing up in an environment where their father has abandoned the family and where they are expected to fulfil that role.