Francisco had only just finished primary school when his father found him a job. At 13, his daily routine consisted of working at an industrial workshop from morning to night, six days per week. Francisco’s family did not have the resources for him to continue with his schooling, especially because he is the sixth of 10 brothers and sisters. Public education in Ecuador is free, but the state does not buy the uniforms, textbooks, and school supplies that students need to enroll. For many families — especially those with lots of school-aged children — these expenses are out of reach.
Francisco’s situation reflects the reality of 60% of children and adolescents in Ecuador who eventually abandon school due to poverty and limited opportunities offered by the education system. Many of these children and adolescents end up working. Ecuador has one of Latin America’s highest percentages of child laborers; over 660,000 children and adolescents aged 5 to 17 must work. Many who work do attend educational centers. However, their education is of poor quality in comparison to students who do not work because they are tired after working long hours and do not have time to do homework. This usually leads to failing school, dropping out and working full time at a young age.
CRS’ recently-completed Support Our Youth (SOY!) project was designed for children like Francisco. Funded by the United States Department of Labor, the project was implemented by a consortium of organizations led by CRS. Partners included Save the Children-UK, CARE, the Wong Foundation and the Ecuadorian Bishops Conference. Through the project, the quality of education at educational centers improved and transformed these schools into places where children and adolescents could get an education instead of working. Over 5,000 child and adolescent workers in 130 rural communities participated in the project.
In the SOY! model, the process starts by providing scholarships in the form of uniforms and school supplies so that working children and adolescents can afford to attend school. Children also receive necessary medical services, such as immunizations, that improve their chances of staying in school. But it does not stop there. The education that students receive is adapted to the reality of their lives. For example, Francisco’s science and math classes are based on the experience that he has obtained in industrial mechanics; this has even helped him to win another promotion at his job.
In order to sustain the project, all stakeholders – teachers, local authorities, parents and children – are involved in the effort to improve the quality of education and keep child workers in school. This is done through the creation of a school improvement plan, The focus of each school plan is improved quality and greater inclusion of those children who are marginalized within the community, or who, like child laborers, struggle to attend regularly. To implement the plan, all the stakeholders work together on projects that address needs or weaknesses at the school. At the end of the year, successes are celebrated and a new plan is created.
In this way, the project really goes beyond providing education. It turns the entire community into agents of change in the struggle against child labor.
A Brighter Future
“Going back to school has changed me a lot,” says Francisco. “At first, my life was only work, work, and more work, it was the same routine.” Francisco now has other goals. When he thinks of the future, he sees himself as the owner of his own workshop. Dreaming under the light bulb that he installed with the skills he has acquired, he imagines an Ecuador where all boys and girls can graduate from high school. “We learn more in high school”, Francisco says. “Studying isn’t the same as working. Studying is a stage where we get better prepared. It is important that everybody knows that school should come first.”
For more information, contact Anne Sellers (email@example.com), CRS Education Technical Advisor.