You can only beat a dog so many times before it bites you or dies, or you can only beat a girl so many times before she commits suicide. This is what comes to mind when confronted with the harsh reality of young adolescent girls living in the edge of crazy actions, or simply close enough to death thoughts that lead them to end a life that has become a burden to them.
Three girls made it to the headlines this month when they jumped from the steep hill of Faro Murillo in the city of El Alto, in La Paz, Bolivia, heart of South America, dying instantly and being discovered the next day by strangers. As the second highest city in the world, El Alto’s cold wind blows over a plateau uphill, and the neighborhood of Faro Murillo, in the border of the big mountain, gives a great view down to the city of La Paz, which shows off a beautiful skyline of tall buildings, avenues and new flowers starting to blossom welcoming spring.
Flowers don’t blossom in El Alto though. It is very hard to keep plants alive there, and trees grow shorter and smaller, just like girls and boys, who happen to be shorter here than anywhere else in Bolivia. Youngsters’ faces show how cold and harsh the wind is, as their skin is darkly colored and wounded by the merciless high plateau sun. The same wounds are present in their hearts and souls, and are shown to us as the highest rate of suicidal attempts this year, as every other year.
The three girls were reported lost on Monday, and found dead on Wednesday. Griselda Vera Quiñones (13), María Elena Laura Mamani (13), and Wara Carolain Choque (15) had left their homes under false pretenses, and were hanging around near the edge of the cliff. Initial police investigation says they were exploring the idea of suicide due to different family problems, when one of them jumped and the other two followed her. The bodies don’t show external violence signs.
Several weeks before, another girl, Karen Mamani (15) said to her friend Sofia: “This is my favorite scarf. It has the color of the ocean and the sky. Please have it”. “And you dear Maria, can have my bracelets; oh, here are some stuffed animals for you too, please take good care of them”. Sofia and Maria didn’t understand the good bye action. These eighth graders were not capable to guess.
Neither was Carmen when that Monday afternoon Karen told her it was the last time she would see her. “‘Why do you say that Karen?” “ Because I am going away with daddy, to have a better life, free of abuse and scolding.” “‘Don’t talk like that, how are you going to go to where your father is if he is dead. Maybe you are going to your mother’s home…” “ No”, answered Karen without hesitation.
The strange good bye didn’t make sense, as nor did the act of kindness the day before. Karen was in a good mood, in contrast with her usual sad and bitter behavior when telling about how her aunt Martha beat her constantly for bad grades. She wished her dad was alive and her mom didn’t have to migrate to work.
Sofia saw Karen that fatal night, walking around the border of the steep hill. She and other friends asked what was going on. ’I will jump’ said Karen. ‘Please don’t, life is a marvelous trip’ the group told her. A stranger and an aunt of hers were passing by and stopped to make her change her mind… ‘Karen doubted, cried and walked further away, kneeled, and jumped, like diving into a pool, into the nothingness, a mile and a half down the hill’, said an eyewitness .
Young Karen jumped near 11 pm, her friends and neighbors called the police. An hour later, the special rescue group of the police arrived. It took them three and a half hours to take the body out, at 2:30 pm of Tuesday. She also made it to headlines in the media.
Preliminary forensic doctor report states that Karen died from head injury. Police stated that Karen had attempted suicide several times before, as she had written a posthumous letter to her aunt a week before she passed away.
Accidents in traffic, suicides and violent acts are responsible for nearly one fourth of the death of young people between 10 and 24 all over the world each year, according to a worldwide study published on September 11th this year by the medical magazine ‘The Lancet’. And one out of four deceased committed suicide. In El Alto, one of every two deaths in this age range are attributed to suicide. This doubles the world rate.
Adolescence is associated with a period of prosperity, vitality, power, and definitely good health. Despite these facts, experts state that every year more than 2,6 million youngsters die in their first two decades of life and point out that 97% of the deaths occur in the developing world. The study has been carried out by Australian universities of Melbourne and Brisbane, the University College London (United Kingdom), the University of Geneva (Swiss) and it was backed up by the World Health Organization. It notes that this is the first time that the scientific community has looked at youngsters’ suicide in depth.
The report explains how richer regions have as few as 3% suicides, while poor regions in Africa, Asia and South America have topped 12%. El Alto, the city of these three girls, has reached 24% of youngsters’ deaths due to suicide, according to the Pan American Health Organization (PHO). This means that for every kid who commits suicide in the poorest parts of the world, two young lives are lost to suicide in El Alto.
The worst part is that three out five kids lost to suicide are girls. Interestingly enough, the three girls whose bodies were found on August 26th at the foot of Faro Murillo’s hill were aged 13 to 15 and studied at the same school: Juan Capriles. Karen studied at Faro Murillo school. They have not been the only ones to take that bitter step, as in the last semester, four other girls had done the same, in the same spot.
The community reacted after September 11th. It was not enough to mourn the girls, but to do something about it. They realized, finally, that the option young kids are taking in this extreme city, with the highest rate of drug factories and dealers found in the last three years, where crime rates are the highest in Bolivia, and poverty is far more than only financial, is the last option their families, their society, their community, is leaving to them.
The city council put a wired fence around the edge of the slope after the neighbors got together and demanded it, as the first measure to prevent girls from jumping. The most important happening has been the reunion of parents, teachers and the community in general to confront the tragic reality.
It took place at the Juan Capriles school in Villa Dolores, El Alto, on September 20th, less than a month after finding the girls bodies. 140 people attended, including parents (from the school and others), school council, representatives of Education Ministry, people from the Child and Adolescent Defense Office, NGOs, and high school students. The workshop was called ‘Parents and Teachers together for a better education’.
Hail was hitting the roofs, and a heavy rainfall welcomed the attendees. They had come to face the tragedy, to try to understand it and take the necessary steps not to have similar incidents. The school community, after many interventions, came to the conclusion that parents and teachers had neglected the kids and forgotten about the consequences of this, ending up in this tragedy.
One of the girls who died had bad grades, and this fact is supposed to have led her to end her life. Rafael Salcedo, former director of urban education in El Alto, said that education needs to be a triangle: teacher, parents, student, as “this is not about registering the kid at school and forgetting about teaching values at home”. A teacher said “We are with them for five hours, while the parents are with them 19 hours a day, for that reason parents have more time to educate them”. The debate grew bigger with every argument.
Norah Quispe, from the NGO Centro de Promoción de la Mujer Gregoria Apaza (Gregoria Apaza Center for the Promotion of Women), put the emotional note into the meeting. Before starting to talk, she played Franco de Vita’s ‘It’s not enough’. The song went on ‘…It’s not enough to give them all there is, when of love you have given them so little’, she began to sing and parents followed. The emotional moment reached a peak when parents turned around to see their kids, sitting to their right, to express how they felt through that look of love. Quispe told them to speak with their children, to give them values, respect and heighten their self esteem.
“When parents see a low grade, they call their kids ‘donkeys’ and ‘dummies’, lowering their self pride”, she went on. But in that moment they should give them support “because the world doesn’t end because the kid has failed a subject, because that has a solution, but death doesn’t “.
Lucy Coaquira, mother, said she accepts that it is a mistake to berate their children and asked the teachers to help them in the education process of the minors. She also asked the teachers to report when they know about any mistreatment to the youngsters by their parents, although she knows the Child and Adolescent Defense Office is not very helpful in El Alto. The answer she got from the Organization representative is that they work hard and silently, and parents need to remember that there are only six offices for one million inhabitants.
Another theme of the discussion was the type of evaluation that students have. Some parents asked to have qualitative grading, as quantitative one did not work with their kids. The proposal is to grade discipline, good friendship, behavior and punctuality with ‘satisfactory’ and “unsatisfactory”, as this would help students avoid deaths or school dropouts, the worst two problems at the moment.
Nevertheless, another parent pointed out that if evaluation is like that, the kids would end up not mastering the basics, but being good friends. What about the knowledge? He asked and said that kids would regret this when they cannot pass admission tests at local universities.
Both opinions served to make teachers think about their evaluation methodology and how they can help each student through the betterment of this issue.
Then came the testimonies. “Sometimes I feel my parents don’t love me, because they are doing their stuff all the time and are not with us (three brothers and her). I have to drink (alcoholic beverages), even just to get my parents to scold me. I am fed up, I feel that maybe it is better that I begin to work and take care of myself, and not take care of my brothers”, said Marlene, a junior.
Cecilia, also a junior, said: “‘I have two younger brothers, and my father abandoned us, that is why my mom has to work really hard to raise us. I know we need the money for food, but we also need love. My mom is never home, she works from Monday to Saturday, and on Sunday she washes our clothes”’.
Maria, a senior, said: “This workshop helped me realize that I have to be more trusting with my parents; even knowing it will be a bit hard, I will try it. It is just that they come from a very old age and think a girl my age (18) cannot have a boyfriend and the only thing she has to worry about is homework. That has changed.”
Ricardo, a freshman said: “I flunked the course last year and my father almost killed me. He made me work and study at the same time. He never thought it also affected me. It is just that parents think that giving you the money is enough; I don’t blame them for everything, but they are also responsible in this flunking. I only need more attention. I know I will get better with some help”.
From the testimonies, the numbers, and the workshop results, we know that this community has been hit really hard by the pain of losing such young lives to suicide. But the suicides are only the tip of the iceberg. Taking the workshop as an example, we can draw some conclusions that will help analyze the topic from other points of view.
Most of the girls and women have to work and live within a harsh environment, with lack of money biting their backs and leaving the kids home to be educated by either themselves or the television. There is no guidance for doing homework, or for overcoming hard times.
El Alto society is not very ‘loving’. It is an aymara cultural tradition not to talk to children very much, and to consider spanking as a way of educating. Besides, when a child falls and cries, they spank her because she was not brave enough not to cry.
Aymara rural communities don’t treat children as persons, but as a workforce. As part of the family they must obey silently and go sheepherding in the vast fields. Girls must bring water to the house everyday and cook besides sheepherding and cattle raising. But they are free. They run, they play… they live. In the urban area of El Alto there are no herds. No freedom. Only hard work in open markets, or filthy small businesses. Girls are left… by themselves. Until it’s too late.
Most of the inhabitants come from rural areas into this young city, leaving their families behind. This is a big change for them, and many never adjust, as in rural areas extended families help taking care of babies, and community work is the usual task. In the big city, no one knows the neighbor, there is no help from the family to raise kids, and newcomers are not welcome.
In the last 30 years, men have lost their will to work for their families, and in the last four the only growing jobs are in coca leaf plantations, about 70% of men work for their own needs: to eat out, drink and have sex at brothels, so women have become the ones to work in the house and out, to feed the family, educate the kids and … forget about themselves. Depression in girl children comes from seeing their mother’s helpless lives come apart day by day.
The workshop is a great beginning. More is wanted. It is the beginning of hope. International organizations can help through changing the target from empowering women to empowering families. The turnaround needed doesn’t come easy, but conveying that every step taken towards the change of the survival strategy counts, will lead El Alto to the right road. This is extremely necessary.
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