Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Colombia's Community Mothers

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Colombia's Community Mothers

Article excerpt

For years 'community mothers' have been helping to bring up children in Colombia, a country plagued by violence and poverty

In the mid-1980s, the Colombian government, alarmed by very high rates of infant mortality and malnutrition, launched a far-reaching programme to protect pre-school-age children, with the help of the United Nations and the Inter-American Development Bank.

The first "welfare centres", also known as hobis, opened in the slums of Cali, an industrial city of almost two million people, in Cartagena, whose 550,000 inhabitants live mainly off the petrochemical industry, and Guspi, a small town in the southwest of the country. They were run by volunteers known as "community mothers" who organized, on their own or with the help of NGOs, education and care facilities for about 3,000 children. The programme initially reached only 7 per cent of the population concerned.

Kindergartens for the children of working mothers appeared in Colombia in 1974. But a new educational model arrived in 1977 with "neighbourhood centres" based on parental and community participation. These centres soon opened their doors to very poor children, with the help of UNICEF and the Colombian Institute for Family Welfare (ICBF), an official body with ministerial powers in charge of policy concerning the family and the protection of minors. In 1987, the ICBF funneled 8 per cent of its funds to the community mothers and offered them an institutional framework. Today, the figure is 40 per cent.

The $55 million ICBF programme now reaches 60 per cent of very needy children in 1,042 towns in a country where, according to figures provided by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), one person in five gets by on less than two dollars a day. It won particular support with its Bienestarina, a powdered mix of milk, protein, iron, and flour made from soybeans, wheat, maize or rice supplied free by the government through the community mothers network.

The "mothers", who now number 82,000, are becoming increasingly important and are in great demand by families disrupted by the violence, which as of January 1998 had forcibly driven 1.1 million people (42,000 families) from their homes.

Each mother takes about fifteen children into her home and gets the equivalent of about half the legal minimum wage (about $130 a month) and the right to social security and a pension. Apart from food for her group (which she can also give to her own children), the ICBF provides utensils and a few staple items. It also grants a small loan to install separate washing and toilet facilities for the children and to improve hygiene in the kitchen, the eating areas, the bedrooms and the courtyard, where the children spend most of their time. About a million and a half children, aged from two to seven, are looked after and socialized in this way before they go to school, while their real mothers are out at work.

The community mothers do their best to adapt their hours to those of the working parents, but as a rule they look after the children between eight in the morning and four in the afternoon from Monday to Friday. They organize their day themselves, guided by the ICBF's educational aims, which focus on making the children aware of values such as solidarity, friendship and respect for differences. Activities are divided into three main categories-conveying general knowledge to children through games, with an emphasis on social skills; using role-playing to familiarize them in groups with real-life situations, like going shopping or visiting the doctor; and allowing the children to express themselves by talking about their personal experiences or even describing their dreams.

An apprenticeship in social skills

The activities vary according to the age of the child, with the older ones being introduced to the main school subjects if the community mother is capable of doing this. Over the past twenty years, the mothers have managed, often with support of NGOs, to acquire more skills and undeniable social recognition, but many have not managed to finish their schooling, and some cannot even read. …

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