Child Exploitation in Guatemala
by Bill Farrell, S.M
There are many organizations and individuals working vigorously against child abuse, labor and slavery.
Living in a developing country viz. Guatemala , I have a close-up and personal awareness of this reality that I have to deal with on a daily basis. I read recently that it seems that on a world wide level the instances of trafficking and abuse and slavery have diminished slightly in the last decade. Be that as it may the problem exists and be it in sub-Saharan Africa or central America we can’t ignore the tens of thousands of children who still are being victimized. II am familiar in Guatemala with some of the networks who exploit children and adolescents forcing them into prostitution, begging, selling candies, shining shoes, washing cars etc. In exchange for this they receive “protection” food and a place to sleep at night.
The majority of these young people in Guatemala are recruited from rural areas and very poor neighborhoods of the capital. They come from families who are living in extreme poverty and see their children as a way of helping the family survive. The parents agree to allow their children to “work” for a small weekly stipend. In my limited experience there seems that there are two exploiters i.e. the parents who sell their children and the “handlers” who recruit and manage the children – almost always against their wills. In Guatemala, according to a report, child labor has increased 3% between 2000 and 2006.
The majority of the children that I encounter are runaways from their homes and some coming from Honduras or Nicaragua. I know a twenty year old who now belongs to a group of “survivors” know as “Movement of Young People of the Streets” who tells how his family forced him to work and later gave him to a group that enslaved him for 3 months before he was able to escape.
His parents set him out to beg money on a busy highway where he had to gain $25.00 a day. One day he returned with only $12.00 and he was punished by being beaten with a belt and kicked out of the house and turned over to a group. He was 10 years old when this happened.
Thus began his life on the streets and eventually he became incorporated in a large group of street delinquents. This is typical of many who fall under the control of “handlers” who force them into prostitution and crime. The punishment for not bringing back the required amount of money is swift:: no food, sleep on the floor or a beating with a belt that is sometimes lethal.
The role of the families that agree to have their children work is interesting. The handlers will give the families about $3.00 a day for the services of the child. If the child is a good worker he/she will be given about $1.50 for spending money. Many children try to escape and some make their way to non-profit groups that work to try to help these children. Convent House was here in Guatemala but closed about a year ago because of the financial crisis. The Children who where there had to find other arrangements to live and work.
The government is powerless here. There is no money and street children and child labor are not a priority where survival is the main theme The police force and the army are often part of the system that causes the exploitation of children. All in all things are really bad here. I spend time with these children when I can and there are some other religious who do so also. There are two nuns who work with female prostitutes and are known for their work. I know the problem well and try to do what I can to give alternatives to the victims. I have learned to be nice to my friends and my enemies because here they know where I live. Thanks for allowing me to share this reflection.