Too afraid for school: Latin America is losing new generation to gang violence

The Guardian, January 26, 2016

Celia’s education came to an abrupt end the day two gang members threatened to kill her for entering their turf in El Salvador’s San Salvador. The 19-year-old was months into a beautician’s course that was meant to be a new start, but no qualification was worth risking her life for.

“I live in an area controlled by the Mara Salvatrucha [gang] but my college is in Barrio-18 area and those gangs are arch rivals,” says Celia. “On my way to class I was stopped by two men who asked where I was from. I said I was from their area, but they knew I was lying. They said: ‘We don’t want to see you here again. This is the first and last time, or we will kill you.’”

Celia had enrolled with the help of UK charity Toybox and its local partner, Viva, whose work with around 6,000 children in El Salvador includes promoting peace and preventing recruitment into gangs. She had hoped a qualification would help her regain custody of her three children, born while she was living on the streets.

Celia is among millions of young people in Latin America who routinely miss school or college because their route carries risks, the classrooms are caught in crossfire, or they fear being targeted by armed gangs.

In the most violent countries of all, such as Guatemala and El Salvador, armed violence is one of the top three factors keeping children out of school, says Francisco Benavides, regional education adviser for Latin America and the Caribbean at the UN children’s agency Unicef. “In some areas of Latin America, we are talking about a second lost generation [after the wars of the 1980s],” he says.

Teachers are also a target. “We fear reprisals from the gangs. Any decision you take and they don’t like, such as disciplinary action against a pupil, can bring a threat,” says Francisco Zelada, a headteacher who leads the teachers’ union, Simeduco. In a recent interview with Thomson Reuters he said he had received dozens of threats.

In September, Unicef launched an initiative for safe schools in Latin America and the Caribbean with the Global Business Coalition for Education and a World at School. An accompanying report (pdf) reveals the devastating impact of violence on education in the region. In Guatemala, for example, nearly 60% of children fear going to school, and at least 23% of students and nearly 30% of teachers have been victims of violence or know someone who has been targeted by gangs on entering or leaving school.

“In Latin America, violence is a very complex phenomenon,” says Benavides, warning against generalisations in a vast and highly diverse region. “We look at the converging dynamics that make the environment a violent place, such as the presence of drug-trafficking gangs.”

Daniela Trucco, an education expert for the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, says the violence is linked to “culture shock” caused by mass admissions over the past decade in Central American countries, where historically only certain social groups had gone to secondary school. Students from segregated communities clash in the classroom, and tensions arise because teachers have not been trained to work with students whose families lack the resources to help them.

She says the most successful school programmes to reduce violence combine several elements: peaceful coexistence is on the curriculum, students are involved in mediation efforts, and conflict resolution is not only taught but practised.

Unicef’s plan identifies three main areas for work. The first is school-based interventions, including efforts to prevent weapons in schools and to develop conflict resolution. In Buenos Aires province, for example, Unicef has helped to train 10,000 secondary school teachers and authorities in a peaceful coexistence programme.

A second strand is community-based initiatives. Toybox partner Viva brings teachers, students and their families together away from school in four of the most dangerous areas of San Salvador, and engages the children with music.

“We go to places where they can relax and get away from the violent environment that surrounds them and spend some quality time with their families,” says Ada Milca, Viva director. “Children get support for music lessons. We went to a recent recital and it was amazing to see how music has helped new skills and values grow in them, like discipline and dedication. ”

Students taking part in similar musician schemes nationwide cite, “getting a better perspective on my life” and “making new friends from different areas” as benefits.

Trucco said the “Escuelas Abiertas” (Open Schools) – Saturday schools for students and their families, which operate throughout Latin America – have proved effective at tackling violence. The schools educate young people about other communities, for example, and also invite parents to classes.

One teacher, who did not want to be named, says such schemes can change dynamics in a family where violence is the norm. “It is important to involve families [in anti-violence projects] because sometimes parents are involved in gangs, or send children to school to sell drugs. Also, parents start to see their children in a different way and become less apathetic [about education] and start to encourage them.”

In San Salvador, Toybox runs a schools ambassador programme that empowers youths to resist the temptation to join gangs by teaching self-protection mechanisms. At a recent ambassador workshop Eduardo, a boy who had been targeted by gangs, showed up. During the session he learned how to appear less vulnerable and to carry himself more confidently. 

The business community also has a role to play, says Unicef, in offering training to help young people improve their job prospects. “In some communities they are getting organised to demand their rights and to protect their children,” says Benavides. “But this is not enough; government and other actors need to be involved.”

Unicef is collaborating with education ministries to prevent violence, through training teachers, as in Ecuador, or working with authorities to identify children out of school and ensure they enrol, as in Colombia.

But for Celia, who had dropped out of school at 10 after being thrown out by her family, an alternative college could not be found and resuming her education remains an elusive dream. “Today, I am meant to go to classes but I am not going. But I have to think of my children. I have a hearing coming up to discuss whether I can have my children back. People say I have a better chance if I am studying.”