ASUNCIÓN, Paraguay – Julio, 14, does not know what going to school is like.
What he does know is going to work.
Julio, whose identity is being withheld for his protection, is a shoe shine boy.
He is among the 338,833 Paraguayans between the ages of 10 and 17 who are part of the national workforce, according to the 2004 Permanent Household Survey, carried out across the country by the Statistics, Polls and Census General Direction (DGEEC).
His 10-hour work day starts at 7 a.m. at the corner of Independencia and Luis Alberto Herrera streets, a busy intersection in downtown Asunción. For a day’s work, Julio can make around $40,000 guaraníes (US$9.38).
“I have never been to school,” the youth, who lives in the densely-populated neighborhood of Barrio Obrero, said. “I have been working in the streets since I was 10; I have no time for anything else.”
“Each client pays $2,000 guaraníes (US$0.46) for a shoe shine,” Julio said. “With that money I help my parents and my older brother.”
One of every 7 children or teenagers who work in Paraguay doesn’t go to school, according to the Permanent Household survey.
Andrea Cid, a childhood-protection official at the Paraguay headquarters of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said that if urban conditions are already tough on children like Julio, child labor is even more of a problem in rural areas, because it involves strenuous physical activity.
“In the countryside the conditions are alarming, such as with those children who work in the olerías (bricks and roof tiles factories) in Tobatí, a city nearly 40 miles east of Asunción. In these workplaces they lift very heavy bricks, they toil crouching or kneeling down for hours on end, and in the sun,” said Cid.
According to the UNICEF official, the Paraguayan government has classified these types of tasks as the worst form of child labor, together with the conditions of those children working in the railroad tracks of Concepción (a city more than 300 miles north of Asunción).
“In places like these it is common for a child to lift a bag weighing anywhere between 45 and 65 lbs,” she said. “It’s not only harmful to their lungs when they inhale the lime, but also the excessive loads stunt their growth.”
Statistics from the Permanent Household Survey indicate that in the rural areas of Paraguay, 23 of every 100 people between the ages of five and 17 are involved in some economic activity. In urban areas, the percentage is lower: 13 of every 100 children or adolescents perform some type of work.
Cid said that Paraguay, compared to other countries in the region, clings to the peculiar practice of having children live like “little domestic employees” in the homes of other families. Known as the criadazgo, this form of servitude takes place when the parents hand off their child to another family so the young one gets food and education in exchange for household work.
“This is something you don’t see any more in the other countries of the region, or at least not as much as here,” Cid said. “These children go to those homes, to families that are not theirs, to do domestic chores without any compensation. They do it in exchange for a roof over their head, for food and education.”
According to the Permanent Household Survey, Paraguay has 60,298 “indentured servants” between the ages of five and 17, whose work is recognized by the government as “a danger to minors.”
“As part of what constitutes domestic servitude, the criadazgo should get special attention because it is invisible and dangerous,” warns the report.
Looking for ways to reduce child labor, the government of Paraguay implemented in April of 2005 the “Abrazo” (Hug) Program, which currently operates out of 14 centers around the country.
Today, more than 2,000 children are being helped under this program, which is sponsored by the Paraguayan Secretary for Childhood and Adolescence (SNNA), with support from UNICEF-Paraguay.
After being chosen by a team of social workers, the children are provided meals as well as remedial schooling and recreational activities at the Abrazo centers. Their relatives sign a document stating they will no longer send their children out to work in the streets, in exchange for which they get a monthly stipend in food and money.
“The Open Center [of the Abrazo Program] is an alternative for children so they no longer need to be out in the streets working. In our center, the children eat breakfast, get remedial tutorial help, eat lunch and then go home,” said Julia Tintel, district director for the program’s Open Center No. 3, which is located in Asunción’s Ricardo Brugada neighborhood and now serves more than 60 children in social risk.
Tintel said that the children who get assistance from the Abrazo centers do so in accordance with their school schedules.
“If they go to school in the morning, for instance, they’ll come here in the afternoon,” she said. “To have access to the program, they must attend school and the parents must be committed to fulfilling this requirement.”
The official indicates that the financial compensation given to the parents is proportionate to the number of their children enrolled in the program.
“The maximum amount of assistance they can get comes to $220,000 guaraníes a month (US$51),” Tintel said.
“Most of the children belong to families whose work is combing the streets looking for objects that can be recycled, such as plastics or cardboard, and then selling them,” she said. “The children would go along with their parents, whether it was in the afternoon or evening, to scavenge for these things.”
Tintel added that “these children are also out selling bingo tickets, shining shoes in the squares, or selling soft drinks in the streets”
Tintel believes that among those children participating in the Abrazo Program, the number of hours they work in the streets has dropped sharply.
“In some cases, the children stopped working altogether. There are minors who perhaps have not fully stopped working, but they have considerably reduced the hours they spend doing so,” said Tintel.
Ami Cabrera, of the Abrazo Program’s press office, explains that one of their greatest long-term objectives is to increase the number of children with access to the benefits.
“Last year, Abrazo was declared a ‘model program’ within the government’s Program for Social Development. This proclamation reflects the goal of increasing from two thousand to 5,630 the number of children who receive assistance,” Cabrera said.
“This increase will be achieved incrementally, while the number of centers in operation goes from 14 to 19,” she added.
“Abrazo is a program that respects the rights of children. This wasn’t the case before; instead there was a time when these children were forced to go to some home or shelter. Abrazo is trying to give undivided attention, since it not only provides services to the children but to their families as well,” said Cabrera.
The spokesperson said that in 2010 the Abrazo Program received funding totaling $11,058,416,638 guaraníes (about US$2.5 million).
“To continue with its childhood protection programs this year, the SNNA has a budget of 49,225,428,395 guaraníes (US$11.5 million), compared to the 40,700,141,634 guaraníes (US$9.5 million) it received in 2010,” Cabrera added.
The children who work in the streets are exposed to many risks. Their health, physical integrity, and even their emotional state are compromised.
“When a child works in the streets he’s not only exposed to all kinds of physical violence, but also to skin and respiratory diseases. Almost 100% of children who’ve worked in the streets show skin problems and difficulty breathing,” said Tintel.
Dangers in the city
Juan, 10, can vouch for the dangers of working in the streets of the city.
The boy, who joined the Abrazo Program three months ago, said he used to accompany his dad on the road, collecting plastic, paper and cardboard, which they would sell to recyclers. To gather the objects, he would pull a wagon and walk many kilometers a day.
“We used to walk a lot,” he recalls. “Sometimes, when it was very hot, I couldn’t take it because I’d burn my feet; my sandals weren’t enough protection from the hot asphalt.”
“When it was cold, I would become sick; I coughed a lot and my throat was very sore.”
Juan no longer goes out to work in the streets, and the hours he used to spend walking about to help his family are now spent in the Open Center Number 3.
“I really like coming here, we eat, play, and study every day,” says Juan, who has eight siblings and lives in the Ricardo Brugada area, known as “la Chacarita,” one of the poorest and most densely populated neighborhoods of Asuncion.
But not all children can take advantage of what the Open Center Number 3 has to offer.
Julio said, his eyes looking at the horizon, sitting on the wooden box that holds his work tools: a brush, shoe polish, and some rags.