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LATIN AMERICA: Short Lives and Unmarked Graves

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Nov 16 2006 (IPS) - The 16 or 17-year-old boy, evidently born into a poor family, was buried Thursday by staff members of Casa Alianza, a child advocacy organisation, in Honduras. His body had been found in the street, stabbed to death, and he was never identified.

“Violence against minors is alarming and, at least in this country, is not lessening at all,” the head of Casa Alianza in Honduras, José Manuel Capellín, told IPS by cellphone from the Durazno cemetery on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa.

Casa Alianza is the Latin American branch of the New York-based Covenant House.

“This young man we’re burying now is like so many others, most of them poor, who have lived with violence since the day they were born,” Capellín said.

“Who killed him? We don’t know. Who are his parents? Again, we don’t know. What we do know is that impunity reproduces violence against children, in a vicious circle,” he said.

There are between 100,000 and 200,000 homicides a year in Latin America and the Caribbean, and 28 percent of the victims are between the ages of 10 and 19. In Honduras, 1,976 people under 23 years old were murdered between January 2002 and January 2006.

These figures were reported by a study on violent treatment of minors in the region, released Thursday in Panama by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

“The level of violence suffered by children at home, at school and in their communities is frightening, and the worst thing of all is that in most cases the perpetrators go unpunished,” Nils Kastberg, UNICEF director for Latin America and Caribbean, told IPS.

Capellín said that in Honduras alone in the last 10 years, 3,350 minors were murdered by youth gangs, police, private security guards, or even relatives.

Kastberg recalled that a Bolivian girl once told him that she preferred “giving sex to the policeman on the block once a week so that he would protect her, than staying at home where her stepfather raped her every night.”

The UNICEF report said that there are high levels of violence within the family setting, and the worst thing was that no one spoke up about it.

Maintaining silence generates impunity that lasts for generations, said Kastberg. Physical and psychological punishment and rape within the family are a passport to a violent society, he added.

The agency also said that sexual abuse is the most under-reported form of child abuse, and that aggressors tend to be male. In eight out of 10 cases, they are parents, spouses or relatives of their victims.

“Sexual exploitation is the fruit of poverty and domestic violence. In Central America, 80 percent of the people are poor, and half of them are under 18,” said Capellín.

But Kastberg pointed out that available research indicates that violence against children in Latin America and the Caribbean is not limited to poor families, but occurs at every level of society and among all ethnic groups.

He also said he found it “incredible” that physical punishment in schools is prohibited by law only in the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Honduras, and Venezuela.

“There is a great deal to be done for children and against violence; things cannot just continue as they are,” he said.

But governments in the region are doing very little, said Capellín.

“Things are not improving here. Witness the killings, like the person we buried today, the children who wander the streets scrounging for food in the garbage, gang violence, sexual violence, and everything that remains unseen and unspoken of,” he said.

Most Latin American and Caribbean countries have in recent years ratified a variety of international instruments which guarantee protection and the rights of children. Much progress has also been made in children’s education and health. However, millions are still victims of violence and have no rights, according to the UNICEF report.

Some efforts by governments and non-governmental organisations are worthy of replication.

In Brazil, for instance, UNICEF is supporting a community photography school located in the heart of a poor and violent neighbourhood of Rio de Janeiro, where young people learn how to take pictures, but also to value their surroundings and those of their neighbours.

In Mexico, a programme called Education for Peace is being conducted in schools. Mothers and fathers together with their children attend workshops to learn how conflicts can be resolved without violence.

In Haiti, a hospital in the capital city identifies children who are victims of violence, to help them and to work with their families, while in Nicaragua a multisectorial government and civil society network has been created to detect and treat cases of sexual violence in remote rural areas.

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