I recently watched a TED talk, the subject of which was the strange occurrences that seem to all happen at four in the morning. Amongst other things, the speaker referenced the poet and Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska, who wrote: “No-one feels good at four in the morning”.
The painful truth of this was very apparent to me last week – waking at four o’clock on Thursday morning to catch a six o’clock flight from Bogotá to Popyan in the region of Cauca, south west Colombia, which is home to the local Save the Children office. Spare a thought then for the children who go to school in the rural communities of this region, many of whom have to get up at four every morning in order to walk the two hours it takes them, through rugged terrain, to get to school.
Cauca is an Andean region, which in part also borders the Pacific Ocean. This area has been particularly affected by the 50 year armed conflict in Colombia, which has massively impacted the local infrastructure and resulted in ongoing serious humanitarian issues – public health services are weak, school enrolment rates are 25 per cent lower than the national average, and children lack access to quality healthcare. Save the Children is working with vulnerable communities in the region to help protect young people from exploitation, and recruitment into armed groups.
Education, safe drinking water, good nutrition and basic sanitation should be a universal right for children. Confronted with the reality of the situation for young people in south west Colombia, I can’t help but reflect on how different it is from the UK; we take for granted that every child will attend school, usually relatively close to where they live, until at least the age of 16. I am in awe of the determination shown by young people here, who want so badly to go to school, and for whom the simple tasks of daily life can be a challenge.
I joined the local Save the Children team in Cauca, at an event held in the small town, or municipality, of El Tambo, an hour’s drive along winding roads from Popyan. The meeting brought together leaders and representatives from the community, including teachers, ministers from the departments of health and education, indigenous groups, and not forgetting of course, the children of the region themselves. It provided a platform to discuss the state of nutrition, water supply and sanitation in schools in Cauca, with the ambition of creating a roadmap to help address problems and improve the situation.
The irony here is that water is not in short supply in this lush region – it is simply infrastructure that is lacking, confounded by contamination of some water supplies by heavy mining in the area.
Key to the day’s proceedings was the voice of the children themselves. In addition to a brief presentation by local school children, who shared tales of their activities, including their work growing vegetables in the school garden, we were treated to a screening of a short film, made by a group of student representatives in the community known as ‘PACO’ – the participation and communication group. The film, featuring interviews with children on the issue of nutrition in their schools and daily life, as well as the state of bathroom facilities, highlighted how dire the situation is in some areas.
Ensuring all schools have adequate child-friendly water and sanitation facilities, as well as access to hygiene education programmes, was one of the key targets set out in the Millenium Development Goals, soon to graduate to become the Sustainable Development Goals. Working with key partners, including GSK, to develop education programmes and to advocate on behalf of young people, Save the Children’s work in south west Colombia is helping ensure key steps are taken to secure a better future for the next generation here.