As a UNICEF Ambassador, I've had the opportunity to travel to some of the more challenging places in the world; Darfur, the Congo, Angola, Rwanda. This was the first time I would be going to South America and I wanted to understand the difference in their needs.
In the first part of my report, I wrote about traveling inside Bolivia and seeing the tragedy of child abandonment that is so commonplace there. At the same time, I was also inspired by the hopefulness of a UNICEF supported school in the rural Andes. Now I would learn about programs for HIV/AIDS and see the conditions of children in a juvenile prison.
I was in Bolivia with a UNICEF team of four from the U.S.. We joined up with the indefatigable UNICEF staff on the ground to travel into the country to see programs they were supporting, find out what the immediate need was and how we could bring attention to those needs.
In Bolivia, the attitude towards HIV and AIDS reminds me of the United States more than twenty years ago. As more and more workers migrate in and out of the country, the cases of HIV are increasing rapidly. The public, especially the poorest, have little information about the disease, often thinking it cannot happen to them. UNICEF works closely with the government to train personnel and help educate the public and bring awareness on transmission and prevention.
We met a 'saint' in the form of the extremely engaging missionary, Aristede Gazzotte, who came to Bolivia from Italy sixteen years ago. At first he worked with children abandoned in the streets. With the help of his parish in Italy, he ended up buying a piece of land. Two years ago, Aristede started Casa del Los Ninos with two children and only one room. Today, he has built 48 houses and supports 168 children, some abandoned, some with HIV and AIDS and others severely handicapped. The sounds of hammering and building were going on around us as we walked the property. Gesturing about him he stated simply, " All this was not possible without God."
Always smiling, his bright blue eyes lit up whenever he saw a child. Seeing him approach, the children enthusiastically called out, "Ari, Ari!" and ran towards him. With obvious affection, he scooped up a child, reaching deep into his pocket for a Kleenex to gently wipe a runny nose, or remove a tear and whisper an encouragement to another. I could feel his tenderness and love as he dealt with each of them. He told us, "I first came here as a missionary. I am now here as a brother."
We stayed to sit with Matilda, a vibrant, young mother. She had contacted HIV from her husband, a migrant worker. When he found out, she told us, he blamed her and abandoned her when she was pregnant. She transmitted the disease to her daughter, Erica, now six years old. The little girl was asked to leave her school. Her teachers were afraid they might catch it from contact with her and threatened to leave the school if she did not leave. Even explanations from the government on transmission wouldn't convince the teachers at the school. They felt the government was lying and finally expelled her. Erica is now one of the many children taken in with warm affection by Ari and doing well in school at Casa del Los Ninos.
Passing through one small bedroom, the size of a closet, I noticed an empty straw bassinet abandoned in the corner. Ari caught my glance and explained, "The baby just died at one month of HIV related causes." He opened up an area curtained off from the wooden hallway, facing the garden. Along a red brick wall, many snapshots of women were taped side-by-side, some held children, some stood with family members, some were alone. The corners on many of the photos were starting to curl up. Ari explained that each of these women had passed away and this was a private place to honor and pray for them. Low stools lined the edge of the opposite wall for visitors to sit and remember. It was a simple shrine, but you could feel it was a sacred spot.
As we said our goodbyes, we asked Ari if funds still come from his parish in Italy. With a mischievous smile he responded, "Yes, along with the capellini and tortellini."
At Vivo en Positivo, a center for women and children living with HIV/AIDS, we stayed longer to sit quietly with Carmen. She rocked her newborn Bianca wrapped in a sling across her chest and told her story through tears. She supports her family by selling second hand clothes in the streets with her seventeen-year-old daughter, making less than thirty dollars a month. She does not know if her baby has HIV and will have to wait an agonizing few more months to find out. She talked about the discrimination she has endured in the streets and the struggle to support her children. Her daughter Selene sat stoically beside her, touching her mothers arm in support when the tears became too much for her to speak. I felt the disease also robbed this young girl, because even though she was HIV negative, she carried the burden for her mother. Each of us gave whatever little money we had and their shock was apparent. They both grasped us in their arms, crying silently in gratitude. Her daughter, Selene, could now return to her studies and they would have enough food, for a while.
We learned that those infected with HIV are mostly young women, and they are often infected during their first sexual encounter. There are 4,000 cases registered but they believe the number could be as high as 10,000. The discrimination against those affected is palpable, often affecting being hired for work. Many men live with the illusion that the disease is the woman's fault and their response is to inflict more violence. We were told there was only one pediatrician in the town who would treat children with HIV, and only one gynecologist who would treat the women.
The moment I entered the juvenile detention center in Cochabamba, I could feel the immense hopelessness and despair. A green metal gate clanked behind us and we were locked in. Surrounded by a redbrick wall that was topped with a high, electrified barbed wire fence, the prison looked forlorn and shabby. An old cement platform covered a part of the yard. This was the playground. At one end, a warped basketball hoop hung without a net and at the other, a torn soccer net sat abandoned. Tufts of stubborn crab grass were interspersed with large patches of dirt surrounding the platform. Pieces of metal junk lay up against the brick walls and garbage piled up in the yard. The low buildings beyond were drab, faded and chipped. The whole place gave off a feeling of gloom.
Mostly teen boys, age thirteen to eighteen, were serving sentences with a few girls in a separate area. The boys whistled and called out as we passed, stretching their arms out to us through the barred window set in a small wooden door. The most difficult boys were locked up together in a large room in another area. Their bunk beds lined the walls and windows. As I passed the barred windows, several boys watched us with little emotion. It was a squalid place, smelling of rotting food, urine, and something else I cannot name. Huge chunks of glass were missing from the windows and a narrow moat of stagnant fetid water filled with garbage ran just under their room giving off a stomach-churning odor.
"We don't let them out. We don't let them mix with the others. Every time we do they have a bad influence and fights break out", explained the very attractive director taking us through the center. She was dressed in tight jeans, kitten heels and a see-through black lace blouse with the rhinestone edge of her bra peeking through. Her beauty and dress seemed jarring in such an environment, and someone expressed concern about it when 90% of the boys were in there for sexual assault.
We sat down in the battered cafeteria to talk. They offered us a hot, yellow drink with ragged peach pits floating in the bottom. It was difficult to consume. After many attempts to find out what kind of rehabilitation was being offered to these kids, we still couldn't get answers. Our interpreter became frustrated. I reminded them we were on their side and we were trying to get the correct information to be able to help. They finally revealed that they lacked both the personnel and the resources; there is only one psychologist seeing each kid every two or three weeks. The outdoor workshop area to teach them a useful trade was made up of tools that were old and rusted. To all of us, it looked like a junkyard. There wasn't a system in place to train the boys in a trade they could use when they got out. It was hard to see where you could possibly start to make a difference.
The problems I witnessed -- abandonment of children and the brutal view on HIV/AIDS and it's victims -- are the outgrowth of the larger problem of extreme poverty. Bolivia is the poorest country in South America and has the largest gap between the rich and the poor. More than 45% of the children and 60% of the country live in on less than a dollar a day, which is defined as extreme poverty by the World Bank. One of the direct effects of extreme poverty is maternal health and child mortality. With more than 15,000 children dying each year under the age of one, 7,500 before they are one month old and 5% of mothers dying in childbirth, it only makes the need to help more urgent.
Through my ongoing work with UNICEF, I have learned about some of the global community's efforts to quell extreme poverty. There is hope on that front. But how can we transfer some of the money in the developed world to little known places such as Bolivia? I look to the G8 Summit to be held in Canada in June of this year. The Millennium Goals will be under discussion at the summit and will address issues such as the eradication of poverty, provision of medical support and education to the poorest countries.
Remarkably, almost every Millennium Goal relates to what is happening in Bolivia today. If Bolivia can be lifted out of such endemic poverty, it would positively affect all of South America. We don't have the luxury to turn our backs. We, as countries, are inestimably intertwined. It behooves us all to help provide the opportunities to the poorer countries, giving them the chance to stabilize and create sustainable internal infrastructure to participate and realize their own potential. As they do, then we too will inevitably reap the benefits.
Goal 1: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
Goal 2: Achieve universal primary education
Goal 3: Promote gender equality and empower women
Goal 4: Reduce child mortality
Goal 5: Improve maternal health
Goal 6: Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
Goal 7: Ensure environmental sustainability
Goal 8: Develop a global partnership for development
To make a difference for the children of Bolivia no matter how small, please log onto: www.unicefusa.org/bolivia