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ECUADOR: Like Mother, Like Multi-Tasking Daughter

Gonzalo Ortiz

QUITO, Jul 1 2010 (IPS) - In Ecuador, girl workers conform to universal statistics: they drop out of school less than boy workers, because they learn from an early age to juggle earning an income with looking after younger siblings and getting an education.

Nancy Caicho and Erika Almagro, left, at end-of-year ceremony at CENIT. Credit: Gonzalo Ortiz/IPS

Nancy Caicho and Erika Almagro, left, at end-of-year ceremony at CENIT. Credit: Gonzalo Ortiz/IPS

“The girls, like their mothers, are multitaskers. They work but they find a way to study too,” María Cecilia Pérez, an expert on informal urban work in the capital of Ecuador, where thousands of girl workers are striving to stay in the education system, told IPS.

Nancy Caicho and Erika Almagro, both aged 13, are happily attending the end-of-year ceremony at the non-governmental Centre for the Working Girl (CENIT) in the southern area of Quito, where low- and middle-income families live.

In this city with two million people, 37 percent of the economically active population works in the informal sector – self-employed or under-employed, and always earning less than the official minimum wage – while nine percent is unemployed.

The two girls and their friends fall over themselves to tell IPS how pleased they are to have passed eighth grade of basic education, in spite of working with their mothers as street vendors close to the Chiriyacu market every day.

Their end-of-year project was to make a dress, which they have just modelled in the fashion parade which closes the school year.

Meanwhile, teenagers in ninth grade designed and made street wear and pajamas, and those in tenth grade, the final year of compulsory basic education in Ecuador, made party and gala outfits, including beautiful bridal gowns.

Amid the stage-fright and excitement of a great occasion, the girls themselves model their creations on an improvised catwalk, while their parents and relatives watch with a mixture of wonder and pride.

CENIT runs a crafts training centre, among other programmes, for teenagers aged 12 to 18 who have finished primary school. In three years they can qualify as teachers of tailoring and dressmaking.

In 2009, according to information just released by the National Institute of Statistics and Census, 85 percent of Ecuador’s children and teenagers were studying, a 10-point gain in the school attendance rate in only five years.

In this South American country with 14.2 million people, the child and teenage population – for statistical purposes, aged between five and 17 – was 3.8 million last year, and 9.8 percent were working. For boys in this age group, those working were 12.2 percent and for girls, 7.3 percent.

Most of the child and teenage population live in rural areas, where 17.5 percent do paid or unpaid work, whereas in cities the percentage falls to 5.1 percent. The minimum legal age for working in Ecuador is 16.

But a figure that stands out among the 2009 statistics is that 5.7 percent of boys aged 5 to 17 were working and not studying, compared to only 2.9 percent of girls.

Gloria Camacho, an expert at the non-governmental Centre for Planning and Social Studies, told IPS that in times of crisis and unemployment, families follow two strategies: first, the mother will seek work; then, a child. “The first to be called on to work are the sons in the family,” she said.

In Pérez’s view, this is due to an economic rationale. “Boys, even from a young age, have better chances of earning income and are more able to move around the city.”

“Parents prefer their boys to go out to work. It’s part of building masculine identity. Girls are more restricted by their families,” Camacho said. Elena Sisa, the mother of three girls, agreed with this, telling IPS: “Girls are in more danger, that’s why they stay with us.”

This partly explains why the school drop-out rate is considerably higher among boys than girls. Boys go out with their fathers to seek work, and often become assistant labourers on construction sites, or find similar jobs that take up the whole day.

However, sister Blanca Rosa, a nun in the Catholic order of the Good Shepherd and the director of CENIT, tells IPS that among her pupils there are also bricklaying assistants, domestic workers, gardeners and waitresses. “They are not only helping their mothers as street vendors,” she said.

“Many of them also help their fathers on construction sites, and others have to go out to work alone,” she said, as she also complained of the frequent cases of family abuse and alcoholism the girls face from fathers or stepfathers.

“There are children and teenagers in the streets, and on the streets, and they are different,” said sister Blanca Rosa. “Those who are in the streets have had to go out to work because of their family’s needs, or because of problems and violence at home.

“The children on the streets, the street children, are those who neither study nor work, and have been thrown out of their homes, or their family has broken down completely,” the nun said.

CENIT works with the first group, “the children who still have a family they belong to.” The aim is “to prevent them becoming street children, so that they can begin or continue their formal schooling,” the director said. The centre bases its work in several markets in the south and centre of Quito.

“We approach girls in the streets, without excluding boys, and we encourage them to participate in the educational and training programmes and to spend less time in the street. We also spend a lot of time raising awareness in their families.”

Tailoring and dressmaking is not the only training provided; there is also a furniture-making workshop and a baker; a centre for homework and learning reinforcement; a unit where students can catch up to their scholastic level, and a school where girls aged between nine and 18 can complete their primary education in three years.

“What we want is for them to value themselves as persons, and as women,” sister Blanca Rosa said.

Meanwhile, the fashion parade continues. To everyone’s surprise, several fathers appear on the catwalk, proudly wearing the trousers and shirts their daughters have made for them.

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