A Bordo in San Pedro Sula. (Source: Miguel A. Cabrera)

Taking a stand against violence

Honduras is known to be the most dangerous country in the world outside a full-fledged war zone. Poverty, hopelessness and an extremely weak justice system create a breeding ground for crime and violence. Even young children are drawn into criminal activities, and many of them pay for it with their lives. Kindernothilfe’s partners, who are dedicated to helping young people, need a great deal of courage in their work.

Honduras:José has many friends in his neighbourhood. But a number of them are already buried in the cemetery of San Pedro Sula, in north-western Honduras. Like José, some were only eleven years old, others were twelve or 14. They were killed because they were working as drug couriers or were involved in other illegal activities.

Many children and young people in the slums of San Pedro Sula end up caught in the middle between rival gangs. The older they become, the greater the danger that they will fall into the clutches of the maras, as local criminal and violent gangs of youth are called.

People in the bordos live under extreme conditions

A boy in the bordo San Pedro Sula pushes a barrow through the streets. (Source: Julia Burmann)
In the bordos of San Pedro Sula, there is no sewer system. 

Honduras is said to be the most dangerous country in the world outside a full-fledged war zone. More than half the population of 8.3 million lives in poverty. The number of violent crimes is increasing, yet most cases remain unsolved. In addition to violent youth gangs, organised crime is a major growing problem in the country. With 169 murders annually per 100,000 inhabitants, San Pedro Sula has the dubious honour of being the murder capital of the world. Along the rivers that flow through the city, slums known as bordos (Spanish for “riverbanks”) are home to some 7,500 families who live under extreme conditions. People here don’t have access to clean drinking water or sewage systems. During the rainy season, many shacks collapse under the torrential masses of water. The rivers break their banks and wash away what little belongings local residents have. Abject poverty and a deep sense of hopelessness create an explosive mixture that fuels violence and crime in the bordos.

Kindernothilfe supports local partners in Honduras who are committed to fighting poverty and violence: "It's important for us to support organisations that help people to help themselves and strive – within the scope of their abilities – to combat the causes of poverty and violence", says Elmer Villeda, who heads the Kindernothilfe coordination office in Tegucigalpa. "This is only possible with a participatory approach that includes children, families, community organisations and state agencies."

Since early 2013, Kindernothilfe has been supporting a violence prevention project in the slums of San Pedro Sula. The partner organisation here is the Comisión de Accion Social Menonita (CASM), the only NGO that is active in the dangerous bordos. "There are of course safety precautions that we have to observe", says CASM Project Manager Denis, whose surname cannot be revealed for security reasons. "Nevertheless, yes, we risk our lives every day – violent robberies and attacks are an everyday occurrence in these neighbourhoods. But we feel that the many children and young people in the bordos are worth the risk!"

"We risk our lives every day – but we feel that the children are worth the risk"

CASM works together with bordos residents to reduce the amount of violence in five out of a total of 16 slums, and to improve the children's living conditions over the long term. "We are using education, training and recreational offers to give young people opportunities for the future and show them that they have viable alternatives to joining gangs", Denis explains. "An environment that is rife with violence can have a devastating impact on a child's development and health. It can lead to problems such as developmental difficulties, learning disabilities, physical illnesses, depression and drug abuse." Working with families, CASM endeavours to improve their living conditions. For instance, prevention work and campaigns aim to help prevent domestic violence. At the same time, it is important to collaborate with many different governmental and non-governmental players who are dedicated to helping children – such as schools, churches, health centres and the Honduran Children and Family Institute (IHNFA).

José juggles with tennis balls. It's one of his favourite pastimes. He has plenty of time on his hands for such activities because he never goes to school. He lives alone with his mother – his father deserted the family early on. José's mother has a regular job in a bakery, which is certainly not something to be taken for granted here in the bordo. She leaves the house at 8 o'clock in the morning and locks the door to their home. The door is not opened again until she returns in the evening. José is locked out of the house all day long and completely left to his own devices. There is a very real danger that he will join a gang so he can feel like he belongs to a group.

José's biggest wish is to be able to go to school. But his mother has no money for school uniforms, textbooks, notebooks and pencils. Kindernothilfe partner CASM took notice of the boy. He is one of 500 children and young people who have been accepted into the support programme. This will allow him to attend school and eventually learn an occupation. That way he can earn enough money to support himself and is less likely to fall into the clutches of one of the maras. He can take part in recreational activities and CASM will show him how to resolve conflicts without violence. He will also learn that, by joining forces with others, he can change things in his immediate environment. Based on these experiences, he will be able to look to the future with a sense of confidence.

The objective: Protecting children from violent abuse

A psychologist talking with a girl. (Source: Jürgen Schübelin)
Psychological counseling: Professionals get to the bottom of children's problems with great care.

While the new project is still in its infancy, a programme that has been up and running since 2004 in the capital Tegucigalpa has proven that such an approach works and brings about change. Kindernothilfe has been supporting this work since 2011.

The Kindernothilfe partner Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa (ASJ) is dedicated to improving the living conditions of children and young people in Tegucigalpa and to protect them from violent abuse. To make their work as comprehensive and effective as possible, the ASJ has involved a wide range of players, including parents, children, young people, teachers, churches, justice officials, city administrations and other NGOs. The project is financed jointly by Kindernothilfe and the Liechtenstein-based Medicor Foundation. It provides legal and psychosocial counselling, family planning, training courses and clubs for children and youth. What's more, it runs campaigns to promote education and closely works together with government agencies. This holistic approach has proven to be successful: The rates of rape, attacks and suicides in the project region have been reduced by half, while these numbers have risen across the country during the same period of time.

Ricardo lives with his mother and four siblings in Nueva Suyapa, a slum on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa. His father left the family years ago and today the mother has to provide for everyone on her own. For the past few months, Ricardo has been a member of a neighbourhood ASJ children's club. He talks enthusiastically about the weekly meetings at the church congregation, where children play together, plan joint activities and speak about important issues.

"The entire neighbourhood was amazed that young people dealt with the problem"

Juan, a young volunteer worker, is leading the meetings. Last week, he and the children fixed the street, which was barely passable because of huge potholes. "Everyone in the neighbourhood turned out to watch us and was amazed that young people dealt with the problem", Ricardo says with satisfaction. ASJ has also helped him go back to school. Looking at this ten-year-old, you can't tell that the last few months have been extremely difficult for him and his family. His oldest brother was found shot dead one year ago. The police still haven't solved the case. Ricardo's brother was not a gang member. Many people in the neighbourhood assume that he might have seen something that he wasn't supposed to see – and was eliminated to ensure that there were no witnesses.

Ricardo's mother is suffering greatly from the violent death of her son. She is grateful for ASJ’s psychological and legal counselling. She has filed a complaint and is determined to see her son's killers found and brought to justice. ASJ is supporting her efforts every step of the way.

In the children's clubs, it's all about learning by trying new things and having fun

A boy at a workshop on prevention of violence. (Source: Julia Burmann)
In workshops, children and young people learn how to solve conflicts without violence.

The children's clubs are based on a pedagogical concept that uses games, sports and involvement in the local community to build the knowledge and understanding of democratic values, life skills and other important related skills. "An important aspect of this approach is learning through experience, trying new things and having fun", says Program Coordinator Miriam. During regular get-togethers, the children learn to respect each other and to feel strong as a group. For children who come from an extremely violent environment, it is particularly important to learn values and respect. To pave the way for them to get involved in their communities and develop their proposals for community project suggestions in a convincing manner, they learn how to work with computers, engage in creative and critical thinking, resolve issues using decision-making and problem-solving skills, enhance their communication and interpersonal skills, and work effectively as a team.

"Elections will be held in Honduras on 24 November", says Miriam. "We hope that the coming government will invest more in social programmes, training and educational programmes so young people in our country will have a brighter future."

Ricardo is gathering up his textbooks. He has afternoon classes today. "Learning every day is not so easy", he admits, "but I'm going to stick with it. I'm going to finish school. After all, I want to be a car mechanic!"

Project No. 82027

How we protect children

How we protect children

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