Honduras: Promoting humanitarian values in schools
The neighbourhoods of Los Pinos and Altos de San Francisco, on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, are among those worst affected by organized violence. This violence does not stop at the school gates; it hinders the work of teachers and the learning of their students. The Creating Humanitarian Spaces project, launched in 2010 by the Honduran Department of Education and the ICRC, strives to reduce the impact of organized violence.
Altos de San Francisco school sits on the side of a steep hill. It is a low building, surrounded by a high wall, setting it apart from the simple houses in the vicinity and offering some protection from the violence in the neighbourhood.
The seventh grade class was the first to embark on the Creating Humanitarian Spaces project in 2011, with 30 students. This year, in eighth grade, there are only seven students left. "A lot of parents decided to send their children to safer schools," says Karen Canales, a civic education and social studies teacher who is in charge of the Creating Humanitarian Spaces project in the school. Others moved the whole family to less violent neighbourhoods.
Jorge* and Daniel* are 14 years old. They live close to the school. Like many children around here, their parents are out at work all day. When they are not in school, they stay at home with their brothers and sisters.
They say that they do not leave the house because they are afraid of the organized violence that is rife in the neighbourhood. At the same time, they seem strangely accepting of the situation. "We know the groups, and they don't do anything to us any more," says Jorge. "If they break into our house, they don't steal anything. They just do it to be a nuisance."
In the neighbourhood of Los Pinos, María Rivera teaches Spanish at the local school. She highlights the same problem. "Most parents work and the students are left to their devices at home." She adds that "some come from broken homes. Their parents don't pay them much attention. They just enrol them for school and forget about them."
María Rivera's voice betrays her anxiety as she recounts how gang members regularly enter the school grounds. She too has had to adjust. "They stand there, next to the classrooms, and of course they distract the students. You can't say anything to them, for fear of reprisals. So we try to ignore them and carry on with our work."
It was in light of these problems that the ICRC and the Department of Education launched the Creating Humanitarian Spaces project in 2010, with the support of the Honduran Red Cross. The project encompasses introducing security measures in schools, providing training in first-aid and emergency psychological support, and teaching humanitarian principles and values. Classes devoted to Creating Humanitarian Spaces endeavour to change young people's behaviour by raising awareness and instilling respect for human life and dignity.
The project is under way in 20 schools in the five departments of Honduras that are worst affected by organized violence. Some 7,500 students and 80 teachers directly benefit from the project.
María Rivera confirms that it has made a difference in Los Pinos. "The Creating Humanitarian Spaces project has improved students' safety. We explain that they have to stay at home and obey their parents." As a result, the project has successfully reduced their exposure to the risks out on the neighbourhood's streets.
There has also been a shift in the students' attitudes. "Since starting the Creating Humanitarian Spaces project, we have noticed that the students are more aware and have more confidence," explains María. "They have become more responsible, more sure of themselves and more communicative. They are also more disciplined, which makes our job easier as teachers."
Students at Altos de San Francisco school also testify to the drop in violence. Thirteen-year old Adriana* is one of the students who participated in the first year of the Creating Humanitarian Spaces project last year. She describes how "students used to fight at the drop of a hat. That doesn't happen any more."
Jorge, who is in Adriana's class, used to be one of the school's most disruptive students. "I used to climb the grapefruit tree, pick the fruits and drop them on the heads of the youngest pupils. I also stole their food and threw water at them. That all changed when I started participating in the Creating Humanitarian Spaces project. I also used to fight a lot with my brother but I decided to stop." His friend Daniel believes the project "helps young people avoid getting caught up in stealing and muggings."
"The most rewarding aspect of all this is to see them grow as people," says María Rivera. "We talk to them about human dignity, about violence, and we see the change in them. There used to be a lot of selfishness. They fought over every little thing, but now they help each other out more and there's less violence." The students in her class say that they have learnt that "violence doesn't solve anything".
Adriana says that the most important thing she learnt was respect. "For example, he's black and I'm white, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't respect each other." With her blond hair and fair skin, Adriana stands out from her classmates. You can tell, from the way she talks, that she was probably one of those who sometimes suffered discrimination.
From the laughter and jokes echoing around the classroom when she talks, it is clear that there is still work to be done to tackle such discrimination. To cement the ideas of respect and dignity among the students, the Creating Humanitarian Spaces project will be extended this year to the eighth and ninth grades in the 20 participating schools in Honduras.
* The students' names have been changed.