Spotlight interview with Hortensia Moran (CNT – Paraguay)

"Some children are no longer going to school because they are hungry"

"Some children are no longer going to school because they are hungry"

Brussels, 22 May 2007: Hortensia Moran heads up the Children’s Council at the National Centre of Workers (CNT), one of ITUC’s three affiliates in Paraguay. Drawing on her experience as a teacher, she pushed her union to develop education centres better suited to the realities faced by Paraguayan children. Thanks to this project, 1,500 children are now at school.

What prompted you to become a trade unionist?

I started out as a teacher. But as soon as I started to take classes, I realised the children’s tremendous needs, which went way beyond their need to learn. Many of them do not receive adequate food, for example. So I took up the struggle aimed at improving not just schools’ classrooms, but also working together with communities to enhance their living conditions. This got me into trouble with the Ministry of Education, which found it bizarre that I wanted to take things beyond the school level. It was these problems that urged me to contact colleagues who were driven by the same motivation as I am. Together we set up an association of 350 teachers in our community. That was how I became involved in trade union work, because we as a group went looking for a national organisation to team up with, to give us more clout and greater influence. So we became members of Paraguay’s national teachers’ union, the CNT affiliate UNE.

How does this association of teachers help the children?

The children in question come from very poor families without social protection, fixed employment or decent housing. Outside school hours they work or beg. Some of them aren’t even going to school any more because they are hungry. Starting out from this group of 350 teachers, we’ve developed a full-blown community education system for these poor children. We’ve set up a community education centre that gives them the answers not provided by the traditional education system. They attend the centre from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and as well as being educated there, they also receive daily meals, help with their homework, care and so on. The centre’s construction was financed by the Social Action Secretariat of the president’s office, on a plot of land we got from the local authority. Human resources (like nursery-school teachers, carers, cooks, etc.) and food are paid for by various ministries. The centre also offers the kids protection, because in addition to feeding them and providing them with an education, we take steps to prevent them from working and to keep them off the streets (in many cases nobody is home to look after them until late in the evening because both their parents work).

How many children are benefiting from this approach?

The first centre was set up in 1988 in Capiata, a town 19 km away from Asunción, the capital of Paraguay. 45 boys and girls and 8 babies are registered there. But our experience there had a multiplying effect, and now there are 36 full-blown community centres throughout Paraguay, taking care of 1,500 children. Whilst the initiative to set up the first centre came from our group of teachers, we strove to get it included in the national programme of the Ministry of Social Affairs’ Social Welfare Institute (the Ministry of Education did not envisage such a possibility right from the outset). These types of education centres are now a part of the basic public education system, which is mandatory and free. The unions are monitoring the programme and keeping up the pressure on the political authorities to keep them going.

What conditions do people need to fulfil to have their children accepted by a centre?

The children at the centres must have active parents, working as travelling salespeople, gardeners, servants, and so on. Covering the basic needs of a medium-sized Paraguayan family costs at least €185 per month, but the earnings of the parents in question vary tremendously (from €1.5 to €4 a day), and they have neither medical nor social insurance. This shows just how badly they need support to give their children an education.

What are the most tangible results achieved by these centres?

A higher level of education and better results achieved at school by children from poor families. The centres also offer women greater possibilities of working outside the home and giving their family economic support, which presents them with an opportunity to break out and change their lives. This applies in particular to single mothers, many of whom were prostituting themselves to meet their children’s needs. Now they have more dignity.

Does being a woman make it more difficult to make your voice heard in a Paraguayan trade union?

Yes, but we are hoping this situation will change. In November 2004, the fifth CNT Congress set up a National Committee of Working Women. That body contains the female representatives of 11 professional sectors affiliated to the CNT (peasant farmers, public sector workers, textile workers, wood and construction workers, and so on). It was important to carve out a specific space for women, because although there are very many of us and we are extremely active at grass-roots level in the unions, our militancy isn’t duly recognised for what it is at the top echelons of union management, which we don’t have the same chance of reaching. The CNT’s management team only has one woman among its 25 members. One aim of the National Committee of Working Women is to change this state of affairs, influence trade union decision-making and foster gender equality in all work-related domains. The committee also has a structure called the National Council of Children, Adolescents and Youth, where I am in charge of the Children’s Council.

Interview by Samuel Grumiau and Kattia Paredes

Founded on 1 November 2006, the ITUC represents 168 million workers in 153 countries and territories and has 304 national affiliates.

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