11-year-old Anderson rests his head on his hands while sitting inside his home in El Salvador.

Many children in 11-year old Anderson's school did not attend due to the threat of gang violence. Photo credit: Victoria Zegler / Save the Children, 2016. 

In El Salvador, the Pandemic Only Puts Children at a Higher Risk of Violence

For years, a complex crisis of violence, gangs and crippling poverty has driven families to flee El Salvador and seek safety in the United States. By all accounts, the country is one of the world’s toughest places to be a child.

Data collected prior to the COVID-19 pandemic showed that the country's child homicide rate was one of the highest in the world – 18 in every 100,000 children is murdered. The pandemic only put children at a higher risk of violence. 

Other protection risks, including violence in the home, child marriage and child labor, have also been heightened by the pandemic and school closures that followed. 

Save the Children's decades-long presence in El Salvador puts us in a strong position to develop and scale up initiatives to address the root causes of the current migration crisis. And since the earliest days of the pandemic, we’ve been on the ground,  doing whatever it takes for children – on the front lines, in the world’s hardest-to-reach places, where it’s toughest to be a child. 

Here is the story of one such child.

Healing the wounds of gang violence in El Salvador

Anderson, 11, began school in El Salvador in the first grade. Around that time, his school became a middle ground between two gang territories. Children’s lives were threatened on their way to school and some children were murdered. As the violence worsened, families left the community or took their children out of school in fear they would be hurt. School enrollment dropped from 1,400 to 600 students. 
Save the Children joined in the school’s efforts to create a safe and engaging environment for children to learn. We introduced a series of 21 workshops to help children heal from chronic stress and exposure to violence. The session focus on art (painting, music, crafts, etc.) and science (robotics and renewable energy) to improve communication, leadership, participation and entrepreneurship skills.
“I used to think and act differently. I didn’t have a positive attitude and I didn’t want to participate,” Anderson said. “I found out I was able to do many things."
Anderson has become a leader in his school. He is a member of the Child Rights brigade and he also sits on the Children Rights Advisory Board within his district. “I want to set a good example for my friends by respecting them and I expect that in return,” he said. “When my friends are name-calling me, I tell them not to do that because it is disrespectful. And I don’t name-call others either.” 
“In our country, we do not have a lot of leaders so it is important to invest in children early for a better tomorrow,” said the school’s principal, Joaquin Ortiz. “Anderson, like many other children at this school, has improved his leadership skills. The youth workshops have the most tangible impact. You can see them develop skills that they can carry with them their whole lives."

Adapting to needs made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic

According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Carribean, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the region's economy could result in an alarming rise in poverty. The number of people living in extreme poverty could rise from 67.4 million to 90 million. 

As well as being a key factor in undermining the economic growth and social capital of a country, child poverty stops children from having access to vital services including health and education. Poverty can also result in them being at a higher risk of violence.

What's more, the closure of schools mean that children do not have access to the critical safe space they can provide, which can protect children from various forms of violence. 

Already a world leader in child survival, health and nutrition, Save the Children is now adapting and expanding our programs to address children’s needs made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Learn more about our work at the U.S. Southern Border as well as our global COVID-19 response, the most sweeping humanitarian response in our 101-year history.


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