Belén is a small town in the Concepción Department of central Paraguay, and is home to approximately 12,000 people. Though it is relatively small, this rural area suffers from many of the same problems that exist in the rest of the country.
The department's economy depends primarily on agriculture, forestry and growing “mate”; a herb used to make a drink that is widely consumed throughout South America. Unfortunately, it is becoming harder and harder to make a stable living as a farmer and this has pushed many families into poverty.
It is estimated by the government that nearly 50% of people in rural Paraguay live in poverty. This is extremely high and is one of the main reasons why the country is one of the poorest in Latin America. The main cause of the current situation is the concentration of land in the hands of a few large transnational companies, which has robbed many of their only source of income.
The inequality in land ownership is indicative of wider inequalities, with the wealthiest sections of the population earning 30 times more than the poorest. This has led to a deeply divided society where large portions of the population get little chance to fulfil their potential.
The importance of education
As it stands, 55% of people who live in extreme poverty have no education above primary level. This is indicative of the link between limited education and economic marginalisation. Large portions of Paraguay's population do not get the opportunity to achieve everything they are capable of and this can be traced right back to their childhood.
When families are struggling to stay on their feet, they often turn to any source of income they can find. This has led to over 50% of children working in some capacity or another, mainly in the homes of richer families. Working means that children are unable to get the education that would help them break from the cycle of poverty and further entrenches the existing inequality.
What are we doing in Belén
We began working in Belén in 2002 and our SOS Children's Village here has already helped hundreds of the most vulnerable children in the area.
SOS families provide a home for over 100 children who cannot remain with their parents. They are all cared for by a loving SOS mother and get all the support they need to grow up into happy and successful adults.
The Children's Village has a large garden where the children are able to grow a range of vegetables and keep animals like hens and rabbits. This helps contribute to the self-sufficiency of the village and it begins to teach children how to shoulder responsibility.
When they are ready to leave their SOS family, young people are given special support by the SOS youth programme to help them make this transition. Shared accommodation is available to them and they are offered the advice of qualified counsellors as they embark on the next chapter of their lives.
With vast inequalities leaving half of all Paraguians in poverty, our presence is vital in poor towns such as Belén.