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 Wednesday 03 October 2007
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COLOMBIA: Giving youngsters an alternative to exploitation

Photo: Carlos Daguer/Revista Cambio
Giving a hand to little entrepreneurs
BOGOTA, 31 August 2007 (PlusNews) - What do cards made of recycled paper, decorated with colourful fish, have to do with HIV prevention? At first glance, absolutely nothing. But at the Little Worker Foundation they are part of a project that aims for a better life in Bogota, capital of Colombia.

Maria Liliana Salamanca, 12, is totally absorbed in making sure she cuts the paper just right, and that the little fishes look nice on the cards. The activity is not only fun because she meets many other people, but also earns money to help her parents maintain her home and "buy clothes", she adds with pride.

The Little Worker Foundation is in a three-storey yellow house in Patio Bonito [Pretty Patio], an area in southwest Bogota that doesn't live up to its name.

Made up of 42 small neighbourhoods with 102,000 habitants, Patio Bonito has grown without the benefit of urban planning: jumbled brick houses line its labyrinth of narrow, poorly maintained streets; unemployment is 21 percent - twice Bogota's average - and monthly household income just US$70.

Patio Bonito shelters the third highest number of displaced people in Bogota, victims of Columbia's four decades of conflict between the armed forces and leftist guerrillas. The birth of right-wing paramilitary groups and drug-trafficking cartels in the 80s intensified the conflict, leading to the displacement of some 1.8 million people, over 20 percent of whom have gravitated to Bogota.

The conflict provides a breeding ground for HIV: sex becomes part of the spoils of war because it is often the only way the desperate and dispossessed can make ends meet.

Colombia's HIV prevalence is 0.6 percent in a general population of 41 million, but in Bogota it is 0.7 percent, with Patio Bonito recording the third highest number of notified HIV cases in the city.

Stepping stones

The atmosphere in the Little Worker Foundation is friendly: there are bright colours on the walls, and the voices and laughter of the 30 youngsters who work there during the day fill the house. Although the workers are young, it certainly does not resemble a sweatshop.

Photo: Carlos Daguer/Revista Cambio
María Liliana Salamanca makes cards out of recycled paper
On the first floor, Jonathan Mercado, 15, sporting the national football team's shirt, and John Freddy García, 12, dressed in the green and white of Atlético Nacional,  are part of a group called the Paper Ark. Its mission is to make the recycled paper that Maria Liliana and her crew, two floors up, turn into greeting cards for their project, Paper Spiral.

The Foundation opposes the idea that youth employment is a cause of shame or stigmatisation. In a perfect world no child would have to work, but when families are poor, minors have to contribute to the precarious economy of their homes.

If necessity requires child labour, it is better done in safety and dignity. Two decades ago, this philosophy led to the creation of the Foundation and, today, to the recycled cards and other products.

Fighting HIV

Patio Bonito's teenagers are vulnerable to sexual and labour exploitation, drug addiction, delinquency, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and HIV.

Project Colombia, a joint effort by the government and the UN that supports the Little Worker Foundation, maintains that any strategy to prevent STDs and HIV has to start by building a better life for adolescents, and one approach is to encourage young entrepreneurs.

"In this way, young people can build small businesses while they learn to value their bodies and their integrity," said Oliverio Huertas, coordinator of Youth Enterprises at Project Colombia.

Besides the cards, young people make notebooks with tangerine rind covers and papier-mâché carnival masks. The project involves all the at-risk youth in the participating municipalities.

Angie Diaz, 19, studies anthropology at the National University, but for the last nine years she has been involved with the Foundation, first as a participant, then as a teacher of home economics.

In 2006, after training by a specialised NGO, she started teaching sex education and now helps the children build self-esteem and respect, guiding them on improving family relations. "With the young ones, aged 7 to 12, we talk about the body and identity; with the older ones, we discuss sexual and reproductive health," Angie said.

"The young ones are keen. The older ones first laughed, later they became interested. It is not unusual to see a 12-year-old pregnant in this neighbourhood, so spreading this information should be useful."


Theme(s): (IRIN) Conflict, (IRIN) HIV/AIDS (PlusNews), (IRIN) Prevention - PlusNews, (IRIN) Urban Risk, (IRIN) Youth - PlusNews


[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
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