The children of San Benito walking through the streets of Peru holding signs that read 'let us celebrate International Day of Play'.
When the women of San Benito voiced their concern over their children’s future saying, “we have to do something about the young children, they are at risk", Columban Fr Edward (Ed) O’Connell and the Warmi Huasi team decided to do something.
Warmi Huasi is a small civil association (NGO) I set up, with two other Columbans and three lay professional women 12 years ago to accompany families, especially children at risk, who live in situations of poverty. The name Warmi Huasi comes from the Indian Quechua language meaning 'Women's House'.
We began in 2006 in the parish of Our Lady of the Missions, where I work as parish priest, with health and non-violence programs supporting families, especially women, in the area. Then I was asked in 2008 to visit Lomas de Carabayllo, some 20 miles north from the parish, by the Government's Human Rights Office, to help interview people, displaced by the violence in Peru of the 1980s and 1990s, for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That was when I got my first look at San Benito, the largest of the townships in Lomas de Carabayllo, where many lived in extreme poverty.
San Benito was a settlement which started up some 21 years ago in the foothills of the Andes, on the extreme northern side of Lima. It has now developed into a township with a population of 12,000 people. When the Warmi Huasi team and I helped in the interviews with the displaced, we were moved by the plightness of the people. As a result with the health delegates from the parish of Our Lady of the Missions we visited San Benito, consulted the local parish priest and community leaders and with them decided to run two projects responding to the greatest needs of the families, malnutrition of young children and family violence. These were the years 2009 to 2011.
Over these three years we got to know the community well, especially the mothers and key local leaders in the townships. At the end of 2011 we evaluated our work with the community and shared our thoughts on what would be the most important need to work on in the following years. What we heard back, repeatedly from the women was “we have to do something about the young children, they are at risk".
In San Benito, they were saying, there is a large number of families where the mother is the main bread-winner or where the father works far away from home. These women have to go out each day to make enough money to cover their families basic needs. This results in young children being at risk. They are left alone to fend for themselves and even babysit toddlers.
The risks faced by the children were:
- Accidents either at home or in the rocky hillside that is their neighbourhood.
- Poor health due to inadequate diets and lack of adults to supervise the preparation of meals.
- Poor school results with no one to help with homework or no time to do homework.
- No time for play and no safe facilities in which to play.
- Having to face situations of violence at all times, physical, psychological and sadly sexual abuse.
Where were we to start, in the effort to accompany the working mothers in reducing the risks faced by their young children?
We began working with the mothers in 2012, organising workshops on self-esteem, basic first aid for their children, healthy diets and child protection. But we soon found out that the mothers had little time for such orientations, mostly because they lacked time or were so tired they had little energy for anything more than just survival. That is when the Warmi Huasi team, a social worker, an obstetrician and a psychologist decided that the best way forward was to trust the children themselves, let them be the architects of the project, that getting through to the children was the best way to get through to the parents.
Six years later, in 2017, we are looking at some amazing results...
We began by setting up homework clubs in the township, in a chapel, a soup kitchen and two community halls, as safe places for the children to be after school and where they would be helped with their homework. These township organisations took on, and still do, the responsibility of hosting the clubs and providing mothers, taking turns, to accompany the children. Warmi Huasi found the money to hire teachers to work with the children three afternoons a week. Each year about 80 children attend. Throughout the years hundreds of children have passed through the homework clubs, all of them passing their end of year exam. In the summer break we run classes for other children who have failed the academic year. We get them through their
re-sit exam so they can move up a year, about 50 children each year. Often these children then join the homework clubs.
We also set up a play centre. The township leaders gave us the land, and we built a simple plywood hut, in which toys and games were placed, many came as donations from the parish in which I work, and volunteers accompanied and still accompany the youngsters. On average 50 children use the centre in the afternoon during the week.
Then, we opened a reading club in the Warmi Huasi Centre in San Benito. Over 70 children attend every Saturday, and they are queuing up before starting time to get in to read. Some children have read over 100 books and younger children are helped in their reading as well. Over the years hundreds of children have had a safe place to be in and the chance to read and dream of a better future. The local state school asked us to help set up a library and reading club in their school which has over 1,150 students of primary and secondary age. We had to build the library first, through donations from benefactors and books were donated from the parish in which I work. We also prepared the teachers to run the reading club. Now all the students have one hour of reading each week.
We noticed that some of the children in the homework and reading clubs had speech difficulties and a number also had posture problems. So, we set up a therapy club, with the help of physiotherapists from the local municipality, and the club is in great demand three afternoons a week. Average attendance in a week can be as high as 50 children.
Personal and civic formation with various themes
Things did not stop there. From 2013 onwards, we invited the children from the homework and reading clubs to come together to further their personal and civic formation with themes on self-esteem, children's rights and organisation skills such as public speaking, how to run meetings, how to elect their leaders and how to run a monthly play day for all the children of San Benito. About 60 children took part and then they got into analysing what were the risks in the township for children and worked on a plan of action to reduce these risks. In this task they were helped by our social worker and child psychologist.
Children form their own committee - 'Children of San Benito in action'
In 2016 these children formed themselves into a Children's Committee called 'Children of San Benito in action' to work with the local council and the adults in the township to make safer a number of public places for children to play in and to be able to move around without being molested, especially the girls.
Hard work pays off - 'Children of San Benito in action'
The work proved very successful and we had the inauguration of the San Benito 'Maze Park' at the end of 2016. Soon afterwards a second park was remodelled and opened, another group of children we had formed and were working with, organised that one. The children are able to speak in public and many of the leaders are girls.
By then we realised the importance of getting the children’s committees formally recognised by the municipality, and this took the best part of 2017 to have them legalised by a notary. As then we could help them apply for funding from the municipality to improve their parks, many of which were very basic or had fallen into disuse and for other projects to improve their environment. We passed on the word to other children and adolescent groups in the townships along the length of Lomas de Carabayllo so that they too could apply and in the end we helped five groups formalise themselves so that they could apply for funding. In 2018, over 170 children and adolescents are participating in the groups and three of the groups won a competition, through the quality of their presentation and their capacity to speak in public about their projects, and this means their parks will receive funding and also the municipality will provide security so that the children will be able to play safely.
A big bonus from the work of the Warmi Huasi team to the benefit of children and adolescents was the recognition by the Municipality of Carabayllo in Lima of the expertise of our NGO as consultants to them in their child protection policies. In Peru, each municipality is obliged legally to have COMUDENA, (Committee for the Rights of children and adolescents), but often they existed only on paper and were not activated.
In Carabayllo, we have helped the municipality set up norms and laws to protect children and promote their participation in the life of the district. Over 113,000 children and adolescents who live in the district indirectly benefit from the work of Warmi Huasi with the COMUDENA of Carabayllo Municipality. The voices of the children are being heard and their actions are beginning to transform their communities.
The local communities in San Benito and the other townships along Lomas de Carabayllo are now more aware of the need to protect and listen to the children. The news is spreading around the district about the reading clubs and the growing voices of children demanding they be treated with dignity, respect and that they not be mistreated or abused.
"I have been with Warmi Huasi since I was a year old, I entered because there was a Nutrition Program with Miss Milka and Miss Charito.
Last year I began to participate in my children's organisation of San Benito ONSBA (San Benito Children in Action Organisation). It was when we spoke with the Mayor and they gave us our credentials as the first child organisation registered in the Municipality of Carabayllo.
In the workshops I have learned beautiful things, what I like the most is when we play, share and help each other. When we did recycling things I learned that it is good to take care of the environment.
With my organisation ONSBA, Warmi Huasi and the help of my community we have been able to recover a park called the 'Maze'. This year 2017, it has been inaugurated. Fr Ed and the Mayor came and it was nice to see many people there, where we could see our dream become a reality.
Also recently we were able to celebrate in the 'Maze Park', the Day of the Right to Play where other organisations of girls and boys were invited. We played with our mothers and it was something very nice. I hope this continues and the municipality let us play every day there since almost it is always closed.
Now Antonio, psychologist, from Warmi Huasi does workshops with us, he listens to us and we learn how we should be better organised and help other people."
Note: In accordance with the Child Safeguarding Policy, the name of the girl in this story has been changed to protect her identity. Ariana is now 11 years old.
Columban Fr Ed O'Connell began his mission work in Peru in 1973 and is working in the parish of Our Lady of the Missions in Lima since 1999.
- Read more from The Far East, October 2018