Development & Aid, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

CENTRAL AMERICA-CHILDREN: Olof Palme Award to ‘Casa Alianza’

Thelma Mejia

TEGUCIGALPA, Jan 22 1997 (IPS) - An organisation that has worked to improve the lives of street children in poverty-stricken nations of Central America, is to be recognised for its work on Jan 28.

Casa Alianza which has developed programmes to protect boys and girls in countries with difficult social situations, such as Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico will receive the Olof Palme Award.

Based in New York, the organisation has also worked in other Latin American countries where 40 million children live or work on the streets, according to the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF). The award is given by the Olof Palme Foundation, based in Sweden.

Casa Alianza’s programmes have focussed on reducing the high consumption of drugs, abuse and exploitation that cause a blight on the lives of street children in the countries of the sub-region.

Many children are jailed with common criminals, subjected to sexual abuse and exposed to killings — in Guatemala for example.

Bruce Harris, Latin America director of Casa Alianza, said the Olof Palme award “is, for us, an acknowledgement and a homage to the street children of Central and Latin America. We feel very moved by this acknowledgement, because it is the first time that an organization devoted to the defense of children receives such an important recognition.”

Harris added that the decision of the Olof Palme Foundation was doubtless “a slap in the face” for governments that consider Casa Alianza an organization that protects “delinquent minors”.

Sweden’s Queen Silvia will attend the award ceremony. She will hear a message from two Central American street children who were aided by Casa Alianza. One of them is Antonio Umanzor. Fourteen- years-old, he began his life on the streets at age five. A beggar at first he became a shoe-shiner. He left his home because of parental abuse.

Antonio lived on the streets until he was 12. Today, with the help of Casa Alianza, he has returned home, attends the fifth grade, and hopes to work to protect street children himself some day.

In an interview with IPS, he said “I plan to go there (to the award ceremony) and tell people that we street children are alone and that we need the world’s help”.

“I also want to tell them about all the good things that Casa Alianza does; that it is a place that took me in and to which I owe my own recovery. Thanks to Casa Alianza, I didn’t starve to death, nor did I get into drugs, like many of my friends. I want to say all these things when we receive the award”, said Antonio.

In Honduras, Casa Alianza runs a shelter for homeless street children and promotes the incorporation of these minors into more advanced rehabilitation programs.

Only in 1996, the organization was able to return 138 children to their homes in Honduras. It also gave temporary shelter to 260 children, and served more than 130,000 hot meals.

Casa Alianza’s most difficult battles have been waged in Guatemala where it has been threatened with expulsion and accused of “criminal” acts against “national dignity”.

The confrontation with government authorities stems from Casa Alianza’s demand that countries apply the law to minors and to the defense of their rights as children, and especially from the group’s struggle to prevent children from being eliminated as “social waste”.

A few weeks ago, Casa Alianza denounced the killing of five children in Guatemala.

The Olof Palme Award honors persons or institutions struggling for peace and justice and working against poverty. It is named after the Swedish prime minister who was assassinated in 1986.

Representatives of Casa Alianza pointed out that the recognition of its activities that the award brings with it highlights the tragedy of street children who, in the midst of their misery and abandonment by society and their families, often believe that they can find refuge in drugs, dragging them further down into misery.

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