According to the Child and Adolescence Protection Network, 70 million boys and girls in South America and the Caribbean live in poverty. Additionally, two out of every three of them suffer some kind of physical or psychological violence on a regular basis.
Violence doesn’t discriminate against race, status or gender. But it has been observed at Dios es Amor, a Compassion Implementing Church Partner (ICP), that overcrowding, abandonment, dysfunctional families, parents working abroad, and grandparents raising grandchildren are some of the situations that increase the risk of children being mistreated and sexual abused.
Montero, the community where Dios es Amor is located, is around 90 minutes away from Santa Cruz. Most people who live there are migrants from the high plateau areas of Bolivia. Fathers tend to work as bricklayers, drivers or harvesters in the fields, and mothers are typically street sellers. The fact that parents work out of the home all day or that children are raised only by their mothers or other relatives is one of the reasons there is not much importance placed on children’s protection.
According to other statistics from the Child and Adolescence Protection Network, 16 girls, boys or teenagers suffer some kind of sexual aggression every day in Bolivia. Globally, 8 percent of children suffer some form of sexual aggression before turning 18 years old. Sadly, Bolivia exceeds the world’s average for childhood sexual violence at 23 percent.
In Montero, it’s normal for these difficult and sad situations to fall on deaf ears, or for people to turn a blind eye – but that hasn’t been the case at the Dios es Amor project. This church partner has 526 sponsored beneficiaries. Andres Olmedo has been the project’s director for over 13 years ago. The increasing number of child abuse cases in the community forced Andres to make agreements with different institutions to look into the legal part of the cases, such as the Ombudsman for Childhood and Adolescence. The ICP also works with psychologists who take care of the affected children and their parents. Andres says, “Previously we worked on our own. We had cases of children disappearing, sexual abuses, and physical mistreatments. Now, any case we have I report it to the Ombudsman, and they are in charge. Anyway, I’m always checking how everything is going and how they are. We want to protect our children’s wellbeing.”
The cases the Ombudsman for Childhood and Adolescence get involved in range from mothers being mistreated to children being mistreated by their teachers at school. However, most cases are children being sexually assaulted by their stepfathers, neighbors or others in the community. Children have been supported, but it’s still a struggle to make the families and the whole community take ownership of these issues in children’s lives. For example, there is a case of a girl who was sexually abused and had to be sent to an orphanage, because her mother doesn’t support the investigation. The girl was so affected that she had to receive a surgery, and the aggressor ran away.
Andres shares, “The pastor also provides informational and reflective discussions and workshops with the parents, and several of them have improved their family situation. Sometimes because of the lack of knowledge, we have these problems and even children can normalize the abuse. But thanks to these sessions, parents have improved. We have even had parents come to Christ through them.”
“I always speak to the children and adolescents. I go to their classrooms to give them advice and warn them about relationships, according to the Bible,” he adds.
Another issue is that in the family context, children are used to parents being aggressive or arguing, so they act in the same way. The pastor has workshops with the parents on this topic too. “It’s a combined effort. I keep track and always ask them how they are, even moreso after the process. We make action plans,” Andres says. Andres gets along easily with the children and teenagers. They go to him for advice, as do several parents. He has gained their confidence, and they know they can trust him.
“If only my desk could speak,” he says with tears in his eyes, as he recalls every difficult and sad situation he has found out about through different testimonies.
Sometimes, he can only cry with them and pray with them; thankfully, they leave with more strength. “I ask the Lord to help them and give them strength,” he says in a breaking voice. This project is like a refuge for the beneficiaries. In other places, they don’t easily open up to share their problems. Of course, in cases that have to be reported, Andres also takes action. “I say that above all, God will protect them. He changes many lives, and I also believe that the churches are to service these children who are so unprotected,” Andres adds.
Andres enters the classrooms and encourages the youth to not give up and to dream because they have a purpose, but children also express how they feel when they attend the church partner. This allows the staff to observe children who are not acting normal or who look affected by some problem. Children express the confidence they have with Andres and the other staff. “I tell the tutors about my problems. I know I can trust in them,” says Carlos Daniel Zeballos Chambi. “We had a problem at home. My mother came to speak with the director, and he helped us,” says Ana Calizaya, who is 14 years old.
There are many stories that remind us why God placed us here. We have to speak on behalf of those who have no voice. Children have to be known, loved and protected, and that’s what we have found in Andres Olmedo and his ICP.He says, “What encourages me to take action is first that I’m passionate about working with children. That passion comes with these actions that we have to accomplish when any child is mistreated or abused. I can’t do it on my own, so there are authorities. I’m the spokesperson to help these girls, boys, and teenagers be treated as people. They are God’s children, and their rights have to be respected.”
“Children have to be protected. I always say that if at home they are not protected and at school they are not protected, where they will find that protection is here at the Compassion project and church,” he adds.