Find in Blog
A Place of Refuge for Homeless Youth in Bolivia
The term "vulnerable populations" is used by health professionals to refer to people who are hard-to-reach and, therefore, tend to have greater unmet health needs. In Bolivia, one of the most vulnerable populations is homeless children who are living on the streets.
A UNICEF report published in 2013 estimates there are at least 3,700 children and adolescents living on the streets of Bolivia’s major cities. And sixty percent of these children are there because domestic violence drove them from their homes. Others were abandoned by their parents or born to other homeless youth who lacked access to contraception.
“At hospitals we are discriminated against," said Elizabeth, a 20-year-old woman who'd been living on the streets for seven years. “They push you aside because you're dirty and make you wait. I had to sleep two nights in the hospital because I had nowhere else to go. When they registered me, the nurses yelled at me.”
With few support networks, many homeless young people resort to stealing or prostitution to survive—both of which are sources of these children's condemnation. They are looked down upon and ignored, left to fend for themselves.
A young woman named Agar said she dresses as a man on the streets in order to fool the police and considers herself lucky to be able to pass as a man. “[My friends] were afraid they might sexually abuse me since the police had done to them," she said. "Every time they grabbed you, you had to either give them 50 pesos or give yourself to them.”
Sexual violence is a common reality for children who live on the streets. A US State Department report says 70% of Bolivian women endure physical, sexual, or psychological abuse during their lifetimes. But five years after a report is made, only 9% of rape and domestic violence cases have been legally resolved. This climate of impunity is multiplied for homeless youth since they have no financial means to seek legal recourse for abuse, and there are few options to prevent or terminate an unplanned pregnancy that results from rape.
CIES, our local partner in Bolivia, has established programs that attend to the needs of homeless youth in ten of its clinics. Instead of simply addressing young people's health needs, they also have services that fulfill social and emotional needs. For example, their clinic in Cochabamba organizes neighborhood soccer games so the homeless children have an outlet for fun and a way to bond with other young people in their community. As a result of their efforts, homeless children feel safe going to CIES, where they know they will be welcomed without judgment or cruelty.
“Sometimes when I need something, I don’t know where to go,” said José Mollo, a young man who cleans cars to make enough money to eat and get an education. “But I can always go to CIES. I go there for health care, but sometimes I just need to talk. The staff at CIES are there for me.”
Of the three million services CIES provided in 2013, a third of them were to youth. While children living on the streets may not have a home to go to, they are always able to find refuge at CIES.