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new internationalist
issue 320 - January-February 2000

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The sins of the parents are visited on their offspring. STEPHANIE BOYD reports on a children's war against debt in Peru.

'People are growing tired of waiting
for a conclusion to the never-ending
economic crisis'

If she were President of Peru, 13-year-old Liz Egoavil already knows what her priorities would be: ‘To find work for everyone, and schooling too – education for all, and to make it all possible by not paying the debt.’

Liz currently works with her grandmother for a few hours every morning selling rice and frozen juice sticks in her neighbourhood market in Lima. Although she was not yet born when the world’s lending organizations enticed her country’s government into what has become an insupportable debt-trap, Liz is well aware of the mistakes made by both lenders and debtor.

She and the nearly 5,000 other child workers belong to Manthoc, a Peruvian workers-rights group organized and run by its young members. They believe that debt has locked them and their country into a cycle of poverty. In response, the group’s members have taken to the streets, marketplaces and schools of their communities throughout the country to spread the word.

‘Every child that is born owes $1,200 – each child,’ fellow Manthoc member Jovana Cruz Condor chimes in. Jovana is 16 and works under-the-table, buying bread wholesale and selling it back to small stores. The debt affects her and all Peruvians, she says, through the 18-per-cent sales tax on all goods and services.

‘I tell my friends: “Each time you buy even one candy, you’re paying part of that debt.”’

For the past two years Manthoc has been educating its members about the links between debt and poverty in co-ordination with Peru’s Jubilee 2000 anti-debt coalition. With their powerful slogan ‘Life Before Debt’ the coalition staged a massive public campaign during the first half of this year to gather signatures calling for cancellation of the country’s $30 billion debt.

Arturo Francia, who heads up Manthoc’s anti-debt campaign, says that Peru’s 1.8 million signatures made it the country with the most per-capita support in the worldwide Jubilee 2000 campaign. ‘We at Manthoc collected 18,000 signatures throughout Peru,’ adds the 12-year-old with pride.

Manthoc started in 1976 as the Movement of Working Children and Youth, Children of Christian Workers. A decade later the group concluded that large-scale social and economic changes were necessary before child-labour issues could be resolved. The next step was to form an activist wing alongside their local community-development projects. Their major focus has been on defending a child’s right to work – but under dignified and safe conditions that allow time for education and recreation.

Just four years ago Arturo was washing car windows on a polluted downtown Lima street-corner and collecting tickets on crowded buses. Now he earns $30-$50 a month designing greeting cards with a dozen friends, 12 hours a week in one of Manthoc’s small projects.

Arturo admits he’s one of the lucky few. And that’s why he believes a remodelling of Peru’s economic system, beginning with debt-forgiveness, is necessary to improve conditions for child workers. ‘If children were not forced by poverty to work, they would have more control or choice over their jobs,’ he says. ‘Our debt affects all Peruvians, our health, our working conditions and our education,’ he adds with shy intensity. ‘We will continue to pay, the interest will continue to rise and we are never going to be able to finish paying, not if we had all the money in the world.’

According to the World Bank, twelve million Peruvians live in conditions of ‘extreme poverty’, while President Alberto Fujimori claims the figure is just over four million.

Statistics aside, people like Jovana, Arturo and their families are growing tired of waiting for a conclusion to the never-ending economic crisis. ‘Instead of paying interest,’ stresses Jovana, ‘we could improve education, pay teachers more and have a better health system.’ This notion of ‘debt for development’ is being pushed by Peru’s post-Cologne Jubilee campaign. Organizers hope the wealth of public support for the signature campaign will entice lenders into swapping debt paybacks for investment in social programmes.

Liz and other Manthoc members are already busy devising a plan to improve the basic infrastructure in slum communities on Lima’s southern fringes, things like clean water supply, electricity and better health facilities.

And hope persists that the group’s larger political efforts will bring about positive change in their own lives. Jovana wants to study early-childhood education and Liz also dreams of becoming a ‘professional’ though she’s not yet sure what kind.

As for Arturo he’d like to be an aeronautical engineer. ‘But university costs a lot of money,’ he says, shrugging narrow shoulders already burdened with the weight and legacy of debt.

Stephanie Boyd works for Latin American Press in Lima and is a regular contributor to the NI.

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