See the human faces of Nicaragua's poverty, where thousands of children are forced to work to help their impoverished families.
Sunday, July 3, 2011 - 20:30

Nearly half of Nicaragua's population lives below the poverty line, and it means working has become part of everyday life for hundreds of thousands of children, as their families struggle to make ends meet.

Reporter Danielle Ryan gets unprecedented access to the children, who face the dangers of working at such a young age and the lack of education that could help them get out the desperate cycle of poverty.

And she meets the people trying to find them a better life, but it's an uphill battle amid the need to survive for families in one of the poorest countries in Latin America.

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Now to Nicaragua which has the unenviable distinction of being the second-poorest country in Latin America. With almost half the population living below the poverty line, many families see no other option than to put their kids to work, despite the objections of the Sandinista government. Danielle Ryan with the story.

REPORTER: Danielle Ryan

This is 10-year-old Anibal. He's already spent a year in hospital after he was injured, working at this quarry.

ANIBAL (Translation): We were chipping stones and a pile of dirt fell from up high. It fell on me and injured my leg.

REPORTER (Translation): Really?

MAN (Translation): Can you show her? Show her your injury.

Anibal is one of hundreds of thousands of under-age labourers in Nicaragua - kids put to work by their parents because their own salaries aren't enough to feed the family. The children smash stones into small pieces. The gravel is sold to builders for construction. Officially, child labour is illegal in Nicaragua and the cooperative leader in this quarry is quick to deny that any children are working here.

OFFICIAL (Translation): This kid doesn't work. It is prohibited for children to work as stonecutters. Children used to chip stones in this area before, but thank God, children don't do such dangerous work now. They can injure an eye or a finger. It's much too risky. Children should go to school, not work.

But off camera, Anibal tells me he is back at work here, squeezing labour around lessons at school.

REPORTER (Translation): You work in the afternoon?

ANIBAL (Translation): Yes.

REPORTER (Translation): What time do you start?

ANIBAL (Translation): Midday, when I finish school.

REPORTER (Translation): You go to school in the mornings?

ANIBAL (Translation): Yes, and I work in the afternoon.

REPORTER (Translation): With your mother?

ANIBAL (Translation): Yes.

When the workers here learn that I've come with an inspector from the Ministry of Labour, the kids go out to play. They're afraid they'll be fined if any children are caught working.

JEANETTE CHAVEZ, MINISTER FOR LABOUR (Translation): I don't mean to say that there is no child labour. There is child labour.

Jeanette Chavez is the Minister for Labour in Nicaragua's socialist Sandinista Government.

JEANETTE CHAVEZ (Translation): What happens is that, let's see, when you are poor - when there is extreme poverty, the work the children do does generate an income, and the families see it that way. However, the children's income is so small, they earn so little, that it doesn't add much to the family income, but in fact worsens and increases the level of poverty.

At another quarry it's the same story. The leader here says he is trying to do the right thing but is facing an uphill battle.

LEADER (Translation): The kids who work are the children of parents who are not part of the co-operative. The kids who don't work have parents like me who are organised and have received training. The Ministry of Labour has clearly stated there is to be no exploitation of children, no child labour. So we want to minimise that, but it's not just up to us.

All over the camp, I see children at work risking blindness as chips of rock fly into the air.

MAN (Translation): I decided to come and help these kids chip stones because they are the poorest of the poor. Some days they get to eat, other days they don't.

Each adult worker here earns about two dollars a day. There is a lack of freshwater, no toilets and then there is the hill that these workers have been slowly eroding. The local community is afraid that it will collapse and fall onto the village below. The local government wants these people to leave but this work is all they have.

In the towns it's little better. Kids fly between the cars selling whatever they can. Life on the streets and in the markets can be just as dangerous as any quarry.

JUDITH DEL CARMEN (Translation): My name is Judith del Carmen and I'm 13 years old. The markets are very dangerous. You can be run over by a car, or you can be robbed or kidnapped.

They say what we do is wrong and that we're stupid, and heaps of other things. So the kids feel bad and lack self-esteem.

Judith tells me that the little money she earns in the market has helped her mother to pay off a debt.

JUDITH DEL CARMEN (Translation): I get up between 5 and 6 am and I help a lady sell fruit. I do that until about 9.

DIANA ESPINOZA, SAVE THE CHILDREN (Translation): I don't think anyone knows how many kids are selling in the streets.

Diana Espinoza is the local representative for Save the Children'.

DIANA ESPINOZA (Translation): It's a very difficult situation, because often, here in Managua, I've seen that there's a whole market with child labour at different levels, from kids who sell things to kids who are used for begging for money. There are some women who, as everybody knows, don't have small children of their own, and yet they carry a young child to ask for money.

Here at least, the government has had some success in getting the kids out of work. Minister Jeanette Chavez.

JEANETTE CHAVEZ (Translation): Through a process of talks, we've managed to convince them. Now they work in the markets, instead of the quarry. The women work as dressmakers and the children go to school with help from the Ministries of Education and Health.

This is the Institute for the Promotion of Human Rights', a place where kids can learn and study, and where they can find refuge from their tough world. For Judith from the markets it's a place to escape the grind of trying to earn money.

JUDITH DEL CARMEN (Translation): At least I can spend time reading books. Reading is a good outlet for me.

10-year-old Jose also hangs out here. He is one of eight children and he dreams of becoming a nurse, or an emergency services worker helping other poor kids.

JOSE (Translation): I get up at dawn to help my mum do the washing up. We give all the kids a bath. Two of the kids are sick. Two of them are sick and their mother is dead. She already died. They only have their dad. The two who are sick are our relatives. They were born like that. We don't know what happened, why they were born that way.

But instead of going to school, Jose also works in the markets, helping this woman sell produce. Today, she's angry with him.

WOMAN (Translation): What happens is I give him money for food, but all he does is spend it on video games. He doesn't buy any food. He plays video games and loses all the money. The mother doesn't supervise what he does and she's not strict enough with the boy. She lets him roam the streets alone.

Jose's mother, Fabiola, has tried to get Jose into school but has had little success so far.

FABIOLA (Translation): The principal told me they couldn't take the kids as they don't know their grades. She said to stop annoying her, as they won't take the kids. She just won't take them.

DIANA ESPINOZA (Translation): What might also be happening with Jose Luis is that he's a boy who is quite a lot older compared to the other boys in grade one.

Diana Espinoza from Save the Children' believes Jose is an example of the problems and prejudices that the nation faces.

DIANA ESPINOZA (Translation): Another thing that may be happening is that many schools still put a label on child workers. They're afraid of dealing with kids who work in the streets. They think that they're dirty, that they're vulgar and that they get into fights. They're kids who've experienced a lot of violence and ill-treatment.

Nicaragua's economy is dominated by primary industries, like the coffee plantations - and its here that the government has been forced to take action to try and lift children out of a cycle of poverty.

JEANETTE CHAVEZ (Translation): Our aim is for all children to go to school. We've seen a significant increase in the number of children attending school. We give them as much support as they need to stay on at school. They get snacks, that is, the school provides food. The children get food, and their mums send them along. They receive school supplies and uniforms.

Because the global market increasingly demands that coffee be produced without child labour, a practice known as fair trading', the kids on this farm now go to school.

WOMAN (Translation): When I was 12 or 13, I started picking coffee with my mum. We didn't go to school. Maybe she didn't have the resources. Back then, they didn't get as much assistance. But even now it costs a lot to put your kids through school and give them a good start. I think, and I've told many people this, that a lot of parents make their young kids work. They say it's just for a period of time. And yes, your kids can help you. My eleven-year-old daughter does. She picks three containers of coffee but misses a week or a fortnight of school, quite a lot.

DIANA ESPINOZA (Translation): From my point of view the act of hiding child labour further violates the rights of children. They work without receiving a wage, and they have no protection under labour laws because as workers, they don't exist legally.

Back in Managua, Fabiola has secured a document that might finally help Jose to get into school. It's his birth certificate.

FABIOLA(Translation): I felt happy, because with this they will be accepted into school. It is the most important thing the school asked for, which is why I am grateful.

But when she gets to the school, she finds yet another barrier.

PRINCIPAL (Translation): One section has a capacity for just 60 students. Otherwise, the children don't get the necessary attention. It's completely full with 60 children. They need space too.

Fabiola and Jose will have to come back again next week. But even then, there'll be no guarantee of getting in.

JOSE (Translation): I like working, so I can earn a bit of money and help out. But it's better to go to school than to work. That way you can study, and learn to read and write.















Original Music composed by VICKI HANSEN

3rd July 2011