More than three million children, some of them very small children, are being forced to work in Peru where too many desperately poor families depend on child labor for economic survival. Forty-two percent of minors in Peru are child laborers who often end up doing the most difficult and dangerous jobs: from picking coca leaves on clandestine farms to factory work to selling goods on the street-veritable armies of little kids forced to face the perils of the big city on their own.
According to one study published by the Instituto de Estudios Internacionales de la Pontificia Universidad Católica de Perú, coca plantations concentrated in the Apurímac river valley (central Peru) are among the most dangerous places for working minors. Ninety percent of the children in the region work on plantations. These are mostly women and girls, ages six to 17, who live in Apurímac. They get 36 cents for every full kilo bag of coca leaves they pick. Some of the sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds are also used to crush the leaves and others to transport the chemically-processsed paste, for which they can earn between one hundred and two hundred dollars. But this is illegal and extremely risky work. And all that so they can spend what little free time they have in squalid bars where they can easily come to no good. "There aren't any good places for kids that age to have fun, so they end up in the bars drinking and turning tricks," explains Rosana Vega of UNICEF.
The same thing happens in Lambayeque and Piura in the north. Child and sex labor is also rampant in Lima, the capital city, where it's not uncommon to see kids selling just about anything on the street and being used for every imaginable sort of odd job. Just a few days ago a family was arrested in Puno in the south of the country. They had put 17 adolescents to work on the streets, forcing them to stay out all day selling trinkets just to get something to eat. The family is now facing between 15 and 20 years in prison for human trafficking, endangerment, and risking public safety. Outgoing labor minister Manuela García says 3,723 businesses that employed 10,066 minors in deplorable work conditions have been identified and punished. Meanwhile Susana Villarán, the mayor of Lima who has been particularly attentive to social issues, warned that "public authorities and people in the business community are going to have to work to make sure kids are kept out of the workforce-mostly by offering their parents a decent job." She explained that her administration intends to set up new child welfare centers around the city. Known as "Equality" centers, they will include dormitories, courses for parents, violence prevention services, game rooms and libraries. And they will be open to everyone-no exceptions. This may be the first step towards creating a new culture where children's rights are guaranteed. A culture where kids can just be kids.
Translated by Gary Cestaro