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LATIN AMERICA: Young People on the Fringes of Society

Fabiana Frayssinet

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jan 8 2008 (IPS) - Seven million young Brazilians and nearly 800,000 youngsters in Argentina swell the ranks of a veritable army of Latin American youths who neither work nor study – a phenomenon that threatens to continue reproducing poverty unless effective measures are urgently taken to integrate them in society, say experts.

In Brazil, those who do not work or attend school make up nearly 20 percent of young people between the ages of 15 and 24, according to a study on youth development drawn up by sociologist Julio Jacobo Waiselfisz.

Jorge Werthein, director of the Latin American Technological Information Network (RITLA), which commissioned the report, said the cause of the situation is “structural and historical inequality” which is “a reality throughout Latin America.”

The problem is reflected in limited access to the labour market, education and health services, high mortality rates, and even the fall in quality of public education, Werthein told IPS.

He also said the increase in the high-risk population generates greater violence. In countries like Germany, Spain and France, there is one homicide for every 100,000 young people, while in Russia or in Latin American nations like Brazil, Colombia or Venezuela the proportion is 50 murders per 100,000 youngsters.

These figures are confirmed by Waiselfisz’s study. Young people are the main victims of homicide or traffic accidents because “they are the most vulnerable, daring and marginalised from society, and they feel invincible, which makes them especially prone to being drawn in to crimes like drug dealing,” says the report.

Due to the lack of prospects, young people have no problem saying, for example, that “I prefer to be involved in drug trafficking, even if I die young, because that way I’ll have the things that other people have, like a motorcycle or brand name tennis shoes,” says the study.

“That is what we are unfortunately seeing in many countries, and reproducing in others in Latin America, with the emergence of gangs,” said Werthein.

His study also found that 9.3 percent of young whites in Brazil finish secondary school, compared to 7.7 percent of blacks.

But Werthein is not completely pessimistic. He noted that programmes developed in Brazil over the last few years have led, for example, to progress towards universal primary school enrolment, which has climbed to 97 percent, and in the fight against illiteracy among the country’s youths, which has plunged to 2.4 percent.

The expert said it must be a top priority for the region to implement long-term education plans, with a 30 to 40-year horizon, as Argentina has begun to do.

He added that although Brazil has not yet done that, “a novel development is that an extremely important conceptual change began to take root” two years ago, when the leftist government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva made education a top priority, and when it more recently launched a 15-year education plan.

Under the umbrella of these long-term education strategies, Werthein mentioned initiatives like the digital inclusion programmes applied by RITLA, “which are incredibly attractive to young people,” and not only improve access to and quality of information but also generate technical and teaching jobs for young people.

Werthein is also optimistic with respect to Argentina, because of what he sees as a special focus on combating poverty and marginalisation over the last four years, under the centre-left administration of Néstor Kirchner, who was succeeded in December by his wife, Cristina Fernández.

But the situation is still serious in that country, he warned. A study by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) reported that 756,000 people between the ages of 18 and 25 in Argentina neither study nor work, and that 76 percent of that group is made of young women who dropped out of secondary school.

Guillermo Pérez Sosto, one of the authors of the report, “Trabajo Decente y Juventud” (Decent Work and Youth), explained to IPS that 70 percent of these young women come from poor families.

“Many of these women had children when they were still in their teens, and they remain circumscribed to the domestic realm, which is why they are so invisible,” said Pérez Sosto.

Many others “drop out of school to work, but lose their job and do not look for a new one,” he added.

He noted that school drop-outs often end up involved in precarious work, in which 62 percent of employed youngsters in Argentina are engaged.

In Argentina, like in Brazil, poor youths are driven by the desire for consumer goods, he said. To obtain them, they “go out on the streets without any clear plan, in search of money, which they find by cleaning windshields at stoplights, panhandling, or taking advantage of people who are absent-minded or have let down their guard,” he said.

Pérez Sosto believes the only effective way to bring about change is by eliminating the causes of the problem, through preventive actions aimed at keeping young people in school. For example, he said, by ensuring that there are guardians or tutors who track them down when they start skipping class and who take an interest in their problems, and by combating teen pregnancy and drug use.

But in the case of young women, it is more complex, he added. “The girls don’t want to work, and it’s not clear that they want to return to their studies, at least they don’t say so in the interviews” carried out as part of the study.

“If the educational system was better at holding on to students and the labour market was less precarious, it would be easier for these boys and girls,” he said.

Although successful programmes have been carried out to improve the situation, “they do not address the underlying problems,” he said.

As an example, he mentioned a plan that began to be implemented jointly in 2006 by Argentina’s Education Ministry and the Toyota carmaker. The strategy focuses on training and insertion in the labour market for unemployed secondary school drop-outs.

While they underwent training to work in the Toyota factory, the participating youngsters received 900 pesos (300 dollars) a month, and when the training course was over, they were hired by Toyota at a monthly wage of 2,400 pesos (800 dollars).

But out of 2,600 youngsters who applied for the 300 spots in the programme, only 60 passed the psychological tests and were found to have the required learning ability, he lamented.

Nor has Uruguay, a much smaller country located between Brazil and Argentina which has traditionally had a strong middle class, escaped the problem of legions of youngsters dropping out of secondary school and remaining unemployed.

According to a 2006 survey by the National Institute of Statistics, around 25 percent of young people between the ages of 18 and 24 fall in that category, which is growing at a rate of three percent a year.

To combat the phenomenon, the leftist government of Tabaré Vázquez, who took office in 2005, launched the Projoven (ProYouth) programme, which is run by the Ministry of Social Development.

Projven carries out skills training programmes with a gender perspective, aimed at getting young people to continue their studies or to enter the labour market.

The programme responds to the needs of the young people receiving the training, while linking them up with the demand for labour power by businesses, says a document provided to IPS by the director of the National Youth Institute’s programmes section, Ricardo Amorím.

However, the proportion of young people who are working dropped from 55 to 52 percent between 2005 and 2006, with the percentage being even higher in slum neighbourhoods and among women in rural areas.

In Mexico, meanwhile, three out of 10 young people between the ages of 20 and 29 are unemployed, and one out of four of these are not studying either, according to the 2006 national survey on employment.

President Felipe Calderón promised to create between one and 1.2 million jobs a year – the total needed to absorb the number of young people entering the labour market every year.

To meet that goal, he launched the “first job programme”, which consists of subsidising, for up to 12 months, the social security costs of employers who hire someone who has never worked before. But as of November, only 12,000 new jobs had been created – in a country of 109 million – through the programme.

Economist Abraham Aparicio at the National Autonomous University of Mexico told IPS that this situation erodes the country’s human capital, foments poverty, and widens the gap between the rich and poor, while fuelling the growth of the informal sector of the economy – depriving the state of fiscal revenues – and driving up crime rates.

Aparicio described as “escape valves” employment in the informal economy, in which some 17 million people are active, and emigration, an option resorted to by 500,000 people a year, who try to cross into the United States.

Support programmes for young people have also been implemented in Mexico City, which has a population of 20 million and has been governed by the leftwing Party of the Democratic Revolution since 1997.

One of the programmes created “social guardians” in neighbourhoods where unemployment and youth violence are at their worst. Their task, financed by the city government, is to get young people involved in different community, sports and cultural activities.

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