Early Childhood Matters - November 2010

Hope for the children of Juarez

Jean Friedman-Rudovsky, freelance journalist

As the new ‘ground zero’ in the war on drugs – and the homicide capital of the world – Ciudad Juarez in Mexico is a challenging place in which to grow up. This article describes the inspirational work being done by the Hazlo por Juárez (Do it for Juarez) campaign, a coalition of community groups, to break the cycle of violence through working with young children and pressuring the city government. 

It’s 6:30 am on a sunny Friday morning in Ciudad Juarez and Raul and Fatima Valenzuela yawn as they slide out of their mom’s dilapidated white pick-up truck. They kiss their mother Leonor goodbye and head down the hallways of the OPI (Popular Independent Organization) Daycare Center, their brightly colored back packs – disproportionately large for their tiny bodies – bouncing along behind. Except for the muted adult conversation near the entrance, the building is virtually silent. You’d never guess that it was already full. The majority of the 75 children there that day were dropped off almost two hours earlier but went promptly back to sleep as their moms rushed off to arrive on time for their 6 am shift at the maquila (a network of foreign-owned factories). Raul and Fatima woke up slightly during the 20 minute bumpy car ride from their house to the center, but gladly lay down on their cots alongside their slumbering classmates and drifted back to sleep.

Outside the day begins to unfold. That late-June Friday in the world’s most dangerous city was couched in a week of exceptional bloodshed: the two days prior had a death toll of 37 murders. Kidnappings and extortions don’t even get tallied anymore: their total probably reached into the hundreds over the course of the week. For the past two years, Juarez has plunged into a state of perpetual grief as the new ‘ground zero’ in the war on drugs. More than 5,000 people have been killed since 2008 and no relief is in sight. As the number of murders rises, so too does the number of those touched by the violence. Most alarmingly, the tentacles of this violence now wrap themselves around Raul, Fatima and their peers: kids witness the murder of loved ones, they happen upon dead bodies or are killed themselves.

As if adding insult to injury, the city lags desperately behind in providing services for this waist-high population. Juarez has more mothers working outside the home than any other city in Mexico and family relationships have fundamentally changed in the maquila-centered city. Yet two-thirds of the city’s 6 year-olds don’t attend kindergarten. Only 6 of every 100 young children have access to day care centers like OPI and so more than half of these kids are left home alone at some point during the day or night. These statistics may seem unrelated to the city’s violence problem but many now believe that no two phenomena that could be more linked: without quality services for early childhood development, the cycles of violence that maintain their city as the global homicide capital will never end.

Through a campaign named Hazlo por Juárez (Do it for Juarez), a coalition of community groups are pressuring government to improve and expand current services including doubling the current number of day care spaces available and creating programmes that train providers in early development. They have used various campaign strategies, from coalition building to advocacy to graffiti sessions to achieve their objectives. It’s an uphill battle in a virtual war zone, but it’s being waged with dignity, force, and – recently – success.

Supporting working families

“No one goes hungry in Juarez,” says 40 year-old Leonor Valenzuela, Raul and Fatima’s mother. It’s a common refrain. Over the last 20 years, Juarez has become an economic hub of northern Mexico because of the maquila industry – the network of foreign owned factories along the US-Mexico border that provide everything from electronics to shoes to skirts for immediate, tax free export to the us. The maquila employs 90% of the city’s work force and because there’s always demand for the cheap goods produced, unemployment in Juarez is consistently the lowest in Mexico. (The 2008 global economic downturn cast a shadow over this minor worker’s luxury. Juarez’s formal sector alone lost 90,000 jobs between 2008 and 2009. Some of these jobs have resurfaced, though, and Juarez is still a working city.)

Yet the maquila, though reliable, is no dream job: shifts begin at dawn, benefits are poor, and tasks monotonous. Most importantly, wages have not risen with the cost of living: families in Juarez now have one- quarter of the buying power they had in 1975 and are thus forced to have two incomes whenever possible. Half of Juarez’s women of reproductive and child-raising age work outside the home – 10% more than Mexico’s national average.

In many places in Mexico, familial networks cover for parents who must leave the home to work. But more than 50% of the city’s population are migrants and these networks have not been able to compensate for the work pace. According to recent studies, 44% of mothers leave their children at home at some point during the day. OPI Director Mikaela Castillo recalls TV news highlights showing 3 and 4 year old kids walking on the streets alone. “Parents would say, “oh, I had to leave and my husband was supposed to have arrived really soon””, says Castillo.

“The maquiladora fundamentally changed the way kids were being taken care of ”, says Clara Jusidman, honorary President of Incide Social, a Mexico City-based social research organisation that has studied labor and familial relations in Juarez for years. Despite 30% of the city’s population being under the age of 14, the government did not provide for social development as the fabric of families changed, she says, explaining: “There has been no policy for improvement in housing, health care or child care. The government cared more about building industrial parks than caring for its people.”

Among others, Hazlo por Juarez campaign advocates for the creation of 'small safe spaces' in neighborhoods around Juarez that allows kids to be outside without the fear of violence. Photo: Luis Aguilar/ Bernard van Leer Foundation

A quick overview of child services illustrates this government’s negligence: in Juarez there are half as many childcare spaces as in the state’s capital city of Chihuahua, despite Juarez having double the population. “Our goal is to have the same number of spaces as in Chihuahua”, says Lourdes Almada, who heads the Red por la Infancia en Juárez, a coalition of child advocacy organisations that started the Hazlo por Juárez campaign. “This would mean adding 2,000 openings so that a total 16,000 kids are covered”, she says, adding: “it doesn’t even seem like much but it would make a world of difference”.

But Almada and her team realize that it’s not just about increasing the number of spots available. Rather, one of the most impressive aspects of the campaign is that it understands that these services must be designed in a way that makes them work for those who need them most and pressures government accordingly.

“There is no recipe for what a comprehensive child care system in Juarez should look like”, explains Almada, “because in every neighborhood and with each sector of the population the day care centers and their services are going to have to be designed to be able to serve those communities’ specific needs”.

For example, when meeting with public officials, Hazlo por Juárez campaign organizers make clear that new centers need to be built in the areas where the poorest residents live because they are often the ones that are forced to work outside the home. Similarly, say campaign members, centers must be able to meet the needs of the maquila workforce – opening and closing hours that align with maquila shifts, coordinated transport and making sure the day care centers are integrated into the umss system to ensure that tuition can be covered by the maquila rather than by the working parents. “All of this has to be taken into account as social policy is designed in Juarez”, Almada concludes.

In need of healing

It was a steamy summer night but the air conditioner remained off because it drowned out all other sound in the large wood-paneled church meeting room. For the one dozen attendees of the weekly parent grief support group gathered, acoustics were more important than temperature.

“My three year old grand-daughter saw her father killed”, says Maria, a 50-something blond woman, eyes turned downwards. The parents are there to discuss their own healing but inevitably the conversation circles back around to the children who have been affected. Maria is taking care of the little one in the wake of her daughter’s tragedy and, she says, what breaks her heart most is her granddaughter’s denial: “She says it was her uncle who was killed”.

Silvia Aguirre, who founded a network of grief support groups because of a personal loss to cancer just before Juarez’s violence made such groups a necessity, says this is common: “Juarez is a city that is contaminated by grief. We now offer groups for kids because it’s clear that they are internalizing the trauma differently than adults and need their own restorative process”, she adds.

Moreover, the city has become a ghost of its former self. As murders began to happen anywhere and everywhere – outside schools, near churches, in parks – juarenses began to cede public spaces to the drug war. “There’s a civil war going on outside”, says Jusidman. “You feel that you are safer inside so that’s where you stay.” Parks are vacant, corner stores close- up shop and for the city’s children the word ‘street’ has become synonymous with danger. Many parents keep their children in the house. Others don’t have to because kids stay indoors themselves.

“This makes child care centers and quality schools even more important”, says Lorenzo Almada, Lourdes’ husband who also works on the Hazlo por Juárez campaign. His son Esteban was six when he saw his first two dead bodies, in a car four blocks from the family’s middle class home. Esteban cried and pestered his father with questions for weeks afterwards: “even if they did something wrong, they didn’t deserve to die, right daddy?”

Lorenzo remembers that Esteban’s school was his saving grace. “Playing with friends and being around his classmates really helped him recover”, says the father. “Kids need that safe space for socialization since they can’t get it informally as in the past.” With this in mind the Hazlo por Juárez campaign is aware that providing safe and nurturing spaces for young people in their city is more important than ever. They decided that they would use this year’s elections to obtain promises from elected officials to comply with their goals.

Bringing about change

“This place is a God-send”, says Valenzuela, as Raul and Fatima disappear down the hallway into the OPI day care center. “I feel great relief everyday, knowing that they are here in this space, especially in the city we live in.”

The school feels like a sanctuary: the building resonates with life in a city characterized by death. There are coos and wails from the room with the 45 day-old babies, half-articulated words from the toddlers and giggle, yelps, songs and snores from the older ones. Some mothers, like Valenzuela, pay about $20 per week. Mothers who work in the maquila are covered by their company’s benefit programme, but obligatory coverage stops at age four.

The center, which was founded after two neighborhood children were killed by a landslide because they were left home alone and locked inside their house, is also a testament to possibilities for positive change.

“We really felt the violence come home in 2008”, Castillo says, explaining that her students became more boisterous and aggressive when the violence began to take hold. “They would talk about violence with a shocking normalcy and specificity, using words like execution or assassination.” She says her staff developed strategies for dealing with this – they encourage empathy building, they try to help parents discourage violent tendencies and they offer a safe space: “We would never throw out a kid for aggressive behavior or speech. That kid needs us even more than the others.”

Castillo says that specialized training for her staff to be able to deal with trauma, or perhaps the opportunity for degrees in early childhood development or education would be very helpful. (None of Juarez’s institutions of higher education offer such a title). But she affirms that their self-made strategies have been effective. “The kids who were with us in 2008 are calmer now”, she says, continuing: “Every time a new child enters, they are considerably more aggressive than the others and it takes time to get those tendencies out of their system”.

OPI’s experience of watching kids lose their aggressiveness over time matches what experts have said for years: “Intervening in the early years can break cycles of violence”, says Maria Teresa Montero, Academic Director of the Autonomous University of Juarez who’s been studying the situation of children in Juarez for decades. “In Juarez this is crucial. Kids in our city have seen their parents die and they are internalizing and normalizing the violence. They need quality care while their parents are working so that their situation isn’t made worse by feelings of abandonment.”

Seeking government commitment to secure the future

The Hazlo por Juárez goal would require an investment from city government of $7.5 million dollars and a strong commitment from local politicians to make it a priority. For months, volunteers and staff of the Red por la Infancia worked tirelessly to educate the public on the need for these programmes and to pressure candidates in the recent municipal and state elections in July to sign a promise of commitment to the campaign. They stood in the blazing sun between rows of traffic handing out flyers and stickers, they lobbied candidates, they painted murals and billboards and in the end, were able to convince all major local candidates to sign the promise, including the pri mayoral candidate who won the elections.

“It is [the government’s] responsibility to ensure that our children’s rights are respected”, says Almada. She notes that the Mexican constitution obliges the state to ensure respect and dignity for all children, as well as to enable them to exercise their rights fully, including the right to nutrition, good health, education and recreation. “These needs are not being met in Juarez and the government needs to live up to its obligations”, she says, adding that beyond its constitutional commitment, the Mexican government signed the un declaration on the children’s rights decades ago.

Over the next several months, the Hazlo por Juárez campaign has many projects appearing on the horizon. In November, the coalition will organise a forum for pertinent civil society and government groups and individuals with the objective of helping advance the understanding that investing in early childhood care and services can bring about long term peace and security for the residents of Juarez. Also, the forum will aim to obtain commitments from and create synergies among the various strategic actors, in order to generate a plan of action and achieve common goals, which may focus not just on early childhood, but also on adolescence.

In addition, Almada and her team will be initiating a new stage of the campaign named Escúchame, juega conmigo, or “Listen to me, play with me”. This public education campaign will seek to make understood how offering young people safe recreational areas is crucial for the youngest children of the city to be able to heal from traumas and to help them live a more animated and joyful childhood. In view of the government’s obligations to its people, the organizers plan to advocate for the creation of ‘small safe spaces’ in neighborhoods around Juarez that allow kids to be outside without the fear of violence.

“We aren’t asking for handouts. We don’t want the government to give money and then disappear”, she explains. “We demand their active involvement in ensuring better services and a better future for our city’s youth.” The hard work of making sure the elected leaders comply with their promises lies ahead, but Almada and her team are ready.

Note: Some of the names in this piece have been changed, and some last names have been omitted, as requested to protect the identity of those who spoke with the author.

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