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SOS Children's Villages began working in Guatemala in 1976 following an earthquake which totally destroyed the Indian town of San Juan Sacatepéquez, 30 km from Guatemala City. Five wooden houses were built to provide homes for children who had been orphaned. Today, SOS Children's Villages has five Villages in the country … more about our charity work in Guatemala

Children in Guatemala missing school

According to data from the United Nations, 95 per cent of children are enrolled at primary school in Guatemala, with around 40 per cent in secondary education. But the Guardian’s Jessica Shepherd this week reports on an estimated 1.5 million children now missing school in order to help their families earn a living.

These children are often employed on the streets, selling produce such as fruit and vegetables. The reporter came across 13-year old José selling fruit along the aisles of the buses in Guatemala city. He has been earning money this way since he was six, bringing home about 6 pounds per day. José’s mother and grandmother also sold fruit at his age and view this as normal, though they worry about the increased dangers. But since José’s family lives in extreme poverty, occupying a small shack with no running water, they rely on his earnings to buy food.

It isn’t possible to know with any accuracy how many children like José are missing out on their education, but some experts believe he is just one of a growing underclass of street children. In one of its publications this month - Education for All Global Monitoring Report - UNESCO estimates that 1 in 28 Guatemalan children are missing out on school. High rates of poverty are mainly to blame as the country struggles to recover from years of civil war. Guatemala is also plagued by a rising level of violence in society, as drugs cartels move here from other South American countries.

Non-governmental organisations, such as the charity Pennat, have set up informal school sessions which street children can attend at the start of the day. Classes begin at 7.30 am and end by 11 am so that children can go back onto the streets to ply their wares during the busy mid-morning period. The UK-based charity Toybox is also working with a local partner to set up another informal school and to visit families of street children in order to persuade parents about the importance of lessons.

In 2008, the Guatemalan government set up an incentive programme – ‘Mi Familia Progresa’ (My Family Progresses) – which gives poor families a small cash handout if their children regularly attend classes. The education department says this has helped persuade an extra 800,000 families to send their children to school. As in other developing countries, the government understands that education is vital if people are to have the chance of raising themselves out of poverty.

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