The country of Bolivia is a warm, vibrant place. Many of its people are descendents of the mighty Inca, and take pride in their rich cultural heritage.
But Bolivia also has a high rate of violence against women, a problem that government and civil society are struggling to combat. The country has the highest incidence of sexual assault against children in Latin America, with one in three girls experiencing this form of violence before the age of 18. According to a 2013 study, 90% of Bolivian women are victim to some form of violence in their lives.
It was in this challenging environment that I met three young women who are forging a path to empower generations of children.
As members of a youth network supported by World Vision, Viviana, Giovanna and Beatrice have changed lives in the community of Nueva Esperanza, Bolivia. Their stories are interwoven, each one adding a crucial step forward for children in their community.
The start of something powerful
Giovanna, 24, was a founding member of the youth network. Her story with World Vision began when she was a registered child from ages nine to 12. Through a program at her school organized by World Vision, Giovanna became involved with programs to train youth and prevent the spread of AIDS. Her experience with the program inspired her to take action and become a leader herself.
Giovanna now works for World Vision Bolivia.
With the help of Miguel, a World Vision Child Protection Officer, in 2010 she founded a network designed to enable youth to raise their voices and call for government protection. In the midst of gang violence and generational poverty, the youth network’s aim is to help children find a place where they can dream of a brighter future, make lasting friendships, and make an impact in government policies related to child protection.
Giovanna was a reluctant leader at first: “I was scared because I couldn’t speak well. What could I teach the children?” she recalled.
With the help of World Vision staff and practical training in leadership and speaking, Giovanna overcame her fears.
She helped develop a network which begins by involving children from a young age, developing them into leaders who can take charge as they grow older. The children encourage each other and keep each other accountable to attend the sessions.
Now a World Vision social worker in a remote mountain community, Giovanna is still connected to her roots. “The ones I trained are now in charge,” she said. “We still have a Whatsapp group, and when they need my help, I go back to visit them.”
The next generation of leaders
One of the children that Giovanna goes back to visit is Beatrice, 15. This poised young woman is still a member of the youth network that Giovanna started in Nueva Esperanza.
“As a volunteer, my main role is to help and support the children, and to get other teens involved,” Beatrice told me.
I sat in on one of Beatrice’s sessions at a children’s community centre. In a small classroom covered with children’s drawings, Beatrice taught a group of children ages four to 10 about their rights and responsibilities. These included things like the responsibility to tidy their space and the right to be loved by their families.
Beatrice reads to a group of children.
“As children we need love. We have the right to be fed and protected from risk. We need our parents to respect us,” she told them. These messages may seem straightforward, but with such high rates of violence, they could be a lifeline to some of these children.
Beatrice doesn’t stop with teaching children about their rights. She has brought her message all the way to a local municipal council, which she attended as a child leader.
“I proposed ways that the municipality can support the network’s activities,” she told us. Her participation is helping to pave the way for important legislation to protect children.
Viviana is working towards the same goal, in a very special way. The former member of the youth network is now a lawyer, and is helping the youth networks of Nueva Esperanza receive formal, legal recognition from the Bolivian government.
When I happened across Viviana in the World Vision Nueva Esperanza office, the staff were greeting her warmly. The respect they had for the young woman was evident in the smiles that spread across the room from her presence.
“The networks have grown,” Viviana told me. “They need legal recognition to do activities like marches for children’s rights and legal demonstrations.”
Viviana looks out over her community.
Viviana’s hope is that the networks (there are eight in total in the area) will continue to encourage government officials to develop desperately-needed policies that favour children and youth. Adding her voice to the call is a powerful way of ensuring that the youth networks are heard through the proper legal channels.
In their own ways, Giovanna, Beatrice and Viviana have taken the support that World Vision offered, and used it to grow in incredible ways, bringing up other children in the process. The respect that the community members show them is a powerful example of the empowerment that child sponsorship can foster.