Development & Aid, Education, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

ECUADOR: Child Malnutrition Down, Education Up

Gonzalo Ortiz

QUITO, Feb 16 2011 (IPS) - Major progress has been made in Ecuador over the last few years in reducing child malnutrition and expanding educational coverage.

This was one of the conclusions reached at civil society forums organised in Guayaquil, Quito and Cuenca, Ecuador’s three largest cities, by the Observatory for the Rights of Children and Adolescents (ODNA), a social monitoring body founded by a coalition of non-governmental organisations.

Now, responsibility for protection of children and adolescents will no longer fall only to municipal governments, but will be expanded to the provincial level.

There is concern that the change in jurisdiction might reverse the positive results of recent years, which show a clear decline in malnutrition and child labour and increased educational coverage, according to the First Civil Society National Survey of Childhood and Adolescence, carried out by ODNA in 2010.

Chronic malnutrition, measured as low height-for-age or stunting, fell from 33 percent of children under five in 1998 to 22 percent in 2010. For the same age group and time period, the incidence of malnutrition measured as low weight-for-age or wasting dropped from 11.4 to 6.1 percent.

The survey found that 38 percent of Ecuador’s population are children and teenagers. Three out of four live in urban areas, while 51 percent live in the coastal region, 43 percent in the Andean highlands and the remaining six percent in the Amazon jungle region. According to the study, 83 percent of respondents under 17 described themselves as mestizo (of mixed ancestry), 10 percent as indigenous people and six percent as Afro-Ecuadorian.

The proportion of children aged 11 to 12 not attending school dropped from 7.5 percent in 2004 to 3.4 percent in 2010.

The survey, carried out to assess the results of the Social Agenda for Children and Adolescents 2007-2010, was funded by a group of organisations including Save the Children, Care, Plan International, the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

The study’s results and the challenges it identified were analysed at the forums, along with the changes introduced by the new code on Land Use, Autonomy and Decentralisation (COOTAD), which grants powers at provincial level for protecting children and teenagers, whereas formerly only the municipalities had this responsibility.

“The local level of government is close to citizens, and therefore it is in a position to back the strong Ecuadorian movement for children’s rights,” ODNA technical secretary Margarita Velasco told IPS.

ODNA has been active in lobbying and proposing public policies for 20 years.

Ecuador has 226 municipalities and 24 provinces. “Approval of the 2008 constitution strengthened the state, which was fragmented and in retreat,” Santiago Ortiz, coordinator of the course on local territorial development at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO), told IPS.

Although Ortiz acknowledged that the municipalities have not in fact lost jurisdiction, he said COOTAD has restricted their potential expansion because the provinces have been granted powers to plan, develop and regulate land use, formulate policies and boost the economy. The defence of children’s rights is included within this new authority.

“Children’s rights were already enshrined in the 1998 constitution, but now they have been expanded and given higher stature in the legal system,” said Ortiz, who believes that there are more opportunities today for organising, managing and influencing public policies and planning with a focus on human rights.

However, he warned that the “citizen councils” created for protecting children and adolescents “are at risk of losing their identity, because their role is limited to consultation and making proposals,” while there is no law to support their role in holding the authorities accountable for public policies.

According to UNICEF’s representative in Ecuador, Christian Munduate, the country has made remarkable progress. “When we compare indicators, some of my colleagues in the region are envious of me,” she said, attributing the improvement to “a sustained civil society movement on behalf of children, together with considerable public spending over the last four years of the leftwing government of (President) Rafael Correa.”

However, the country still has some pending issues in terms of protecting the rights of children and adolescents, she said.

Velasco, who presented the results of the national survey, spelled them out.

“Now that coverage has been extended, it is essential to improve the quality of education, in terms of content, which must be relevant to life, as well as methodology, so that children and young people can become active learners; and in terms of the atmosphere in the classroom, where the value of each of the students and their diversity must be recognised,” she said.

The survey found that the percentage of five to 17-year-olds complaining of harsh treatment from teachers increased from 20 to 32 percent between 2001 and 2010.

Patricia Sarzosa, national head of the government Institute for Children and Families (INFA), told IPS: “The proportion reporting good treatment also increased, from 47 to 56 percent, and what shrank was the group reporting neutral answers, but a lot of work needs to be done on the way children are treated.

“The fact that the proportion of respondents who said that when a child misbehaves, the teacher responds with corporal punishment, rose from 20 to 30 percent between 2004 and 2010 is a serious concern,” said Sarzosa, adding that the subject has been raised with the Education Ministry.

The mistreatment is marked by discrimination: while 23 percent of indigenous children and 17 percent of Afro-Ecuadorians reported being hit by their teachers, only seven percent of white or mestizo children made this complaint.

“As a society, we need to ensure we treat children better, at school, among peers (bullying of children who are ‘different’ is frequent), at home within families, and in public spaces,” Sarzosa said.

As for the institutions involved, it has been clarified that the municipal Councils on Children and Adolescents (CCNA), in operation since 2002, will continue to function. However, at the forum in Guayaquil it was highlighted that the municipality of Ecuador’s largest city has never permitted the formation of the local CCNA.

“There is a good argument in favour of letting the provincial governments take a hand in the process: in Guayas (the province where Guayaquil is located) it is the provincial governor who has led the cause,” Velasco told IPS.

“But the provincial governments can play a lesser role where there are strong, active municipal CCNA,” she added.

The issue still requires further discussion, participants at the forums in the three major cities concluded.

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