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El Salvador: Innovative efforts keep kids safe and out of gangs

Maria with her two children. Photo: ©2012 Heidi Isaza/World Vision

Maria with her two children.
Photo: ©2012 Heidi Isaza/World Vision

This month our country of focus is El Salvador, where World Vision’s Strong Women, Strong World initiative is working toward successful partnerships with communities to mend gender-related dynamics. The following story was contributed by Heidi Isaza, World Vision.

Gang warfare and high murder rates make El Salvador a dangerous county. But, World Vision’s community development and child sponsorship programs help provide a way out of poverty. And now,two communities in El Salvador are also testing an innovative, individual and holistic approach to help curb the spread of violence and keep kids out of the gangs.

“I’m afraid,” says Maria (name has been changed), 27, “especially at night.”

A year has passed since gang violence divided Maria’s family, leaving her to care for her 3-year-old twins, Carols Antonio and Estrella Elizabeth, on her own.

Two gang members attempted to kill her husband, Marcos, because they thought they saw him talking to the police. When their shots missed, they identified his house and found his phone number. They demanded he pay them $3000 within 72 hours, threatening to kill him and his family if he didn’t.

Unable to meet their demands, with few options, and fearful of what might happen to his family if he remained, Marcos fled. He left his family, his community and his country—in search of anonymity and safety in the U.S. But, he was caught trying to cross the border illegally and is currently serving three years in a U.S. detention center.

When Marcos left, life went from difficult to desperate for Maria and her children. Before, Marcos earned $4 a day delivering bread to surrounding communities, just barely enough to meet his family’s most basic needs. “We were poor, but we lived in peace,” Maria says, longingly.

Now, she rarely leaves her home, fearing the gang will take revenge on her or her children. She can’t work. “I don’t have money to provide for my kids,” she says.

The most terrifying aspect of Maria’s story is that it is not unique. The effects of the region-wide gang epidemic are spreading through El Salvador and neighboring Guatemala and Honduras like an out-of-control wildfire, consuming or destroying anything and anyone in its path.

“It affects everyone,” says Marla Gonzales, World Vision’s advocacy coordinator in El Salvador. “Our natural processes of development are being affected. Not just the development of a person, but the development of the whole country.”

The flames of violence, once concentrated in major cities have spread to small towns, like Maria’s and Santa Elena where World Vision’s Sinai program is based. “This used to be a peaceful area,” remembers Genny Ayala, manager of World Vision’s Sinai program. “Now, I am afraid to go to the communities where we work after 5.

“We are being invaded by the gangs,” she continues. “People are afraid. The youth are afraid. And, with gang presence in our community the youth are at greater risk of joining.”

Just a week before, the local police informed her that 7-year-old sponsored boy, was caught working for the gangs, charging “rent” (a form of extortion applied to local businesses in areas where these groups are active).

“Seven-years-old,” she repeats slowly several times, as if she still can’t believe it. The boy’s age hangs in the air. “The future for these kids [if we don’t intervene] is to grow up to be gang members.”

But, World Vision is intervening and implementing an innovative gang-prevention program based on individual child and community needs, as identified by the children themselves.

The program begins by establishing and training a multidisciplinary network of faith and community based organizations willing to partner together with World Vision to promote child protection and help keep kids out of gangs.

This group is comprised of 16 different organizations, including local churches, police, health centers, local government, schools and others. It has taken time and effort to establish the group of local contributors and for them to adopt the vision as their own.

With the network now established, the next step is to identify the 300 children and youth, between 8 and 12, who are going to participate in this pilot program and have them complete a self-evaluation, called a Development Assents Profile (DAP), that measures the active areas of strengths and weaknesses they identify in their personal lives, their family and their community, through questions like:

• I have plans and goals for my future.
• I feel like other people value and appreciate me.
• I feel safe in school.
• My parents spend time with me and we do things together.
• I live in a safe community.
• I feel I am in control of my life and my future.
• I participate in afterschool activities (sports, arts, music, clubs).

“We are going to identify the problems or the areas where we need to work and then I will make a follow-up and monitoring plan for each boy and girl,” says Rosy Quintanilla, program manager for this special project in El Salvador.

Once the needs or weaknesses are identified and the individual plans drawn up, these areas will be tackled, utilizing the strengths of each of the groups in the network.

This approach is very distinct from the approaches that have been taken by the local authorities in the past, which have focused on identification and imprisonment of gang members and sympathizers. The effect of these direct attacks on the flames of gang violence have been prisons at 300% capacity and increased violence and levels of sophisticated by the gangs.

World Vision hopes to create a buffer zone to stop the spread of gangs. If kids feel they are in control of their lives, have a future and there are people who love, care and support them, they won’t need to find these things in gangs. What makes this program so unique is its innovative, holistic approach. “No one has done these things,” says Rosy. “Because it’s individual. And, it’s expensive.”

But, she continues, “if we follow-up, we will be successful.”

Success is defined not only by fewer kids joining the gangs but also by preparing the community for when World Vision will no longer be working in this area—in just over five years.

“This project is also going to help make sure that the faith and community based organizations have the training and tools they need,” says Genny. So that in the future, they can say, “World Vision left, but the community kept protecting the kids.”

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