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Photo by Tom Pablo, South America Semester.

Our Day with the Child Laborers of Connotsop

This past weekend in Potosi, we had the priviledge of learning about an amazing organization called Connotsop. The organization works with child and youth laborers that are fighting for their rights as workers. On Saturday we had a talk with Luz, the backbone of the organization for the past 17 years, who informed us about the organization and their main purpose which is to support and help the 642 youth to develop skills. During the talk, she mentioned that most of the children go to school however the cost of school supplies and family needs often forces them to work at a young age to provide money for these essentials. The Bolivian govornment provides schooling for these children however they have strict rules, such as uniforms and are often not provided food. Luz made it clear that child labor was not a perfect solution but is a result of the faults in the economic system in Bolivia and many other parts of the world. She expressed that the goal of Connotsop is not to stop child labor or provide overprotection but to provide opportunities and resources to help the youth move forward in education and with their goals in life.

She gave us the opportunity to shadow some of the children involved in Connotsop this past Saturday. We were all involved in helping the children sell their goods in the market. Here are some of the reflections from the group on this experience:

Chris – I remember from my first job in 8th grade, I sold sodas at my middle school at a markup after buying them from a CVS. I thought I was so cool. Then I visited the mercado, and shadowed a group of children, essencially doing what I had done, except at the age of 10 and out of necessity.
It was eye-opening to see what working was to these kids – not cool a thing to do for pocket money, but a necessity. It broadened my view on the world and gave me a deeper understanding of child labor issues.

Libby – Our time with the girls at the market was a powerful and humbling experience. When we first arrived at the market, the girls were quiet and shy, whispering to each other and pointing at us as we stood awkwardly in a group. Once we started talking to them and asking questions, however, they opened right up. Becca, Chris, and I walked up and down the main aisle of the market copying the way the kids yelled ¨bolsas¨ (bags) and ¨forforos¨ (matches) as we held up the items. Most of the time, the woman selling things at the market laughed at us gringos, but with the encouragement of our 11 year mentors we made a few sales. It was amazing to watch the maturity and experience of the girls when they were working, but also the way they made their own fun and wanted to play with us like any other kid. It was tiring for me to walk back and forth in the hot sun, but the girls seemed to enjoy the work. Ovbiously these girls had to grow up much faster because of their economic circumstances, but they are still kids and they have that same energy and curiousity as any 11 year old. Before meeting these girls and learning about the child labor union they are apart of, I viewed all child labor as negative. After working with them for the day, however, I saw that rather than eradicating child labor all together, what is truly needed is protection and rights for child laborers. By working to help their families now, it is more likely they will be able to help their future families so that their own children won´t have to work at such a young age.

Teresa – Our time spent shadowing the children was a great experience and truly dispelled the notion we have in the West that “child labor” is purely negative. Talking to Alejandra who is 10 years old I learned that she enjoyed working at the market selling plastic bags so that she could earn pocket money. Allthough I was able to help her sell 30 bags, I was able to understand the difficulties and vulnerablities of her job which gives me a greater appreciation for the girls and their work.

Charolette – I was such a brat as a child. If I wanted something, I got it because my mom was always there to provide my desires at the precise moment I had them. My childhood was filled with unicorns, too much candy, and a princess themed room, and I had no struggles with money or responsiblities. Basillio´s childhood might have been filled with laughter on Sundays, but he faced more pain, worry, and responsibilitiy than I have in my entire life. His dream of being a teacher echoes mine but his has a different context and reason. Bassilio wanted to be a school teacher because it is an achievable profession that pays the bills – one that can aid his family significantly. I wanted to teach because I thought that I could do it better than Ms. Spencer, my second grade teacher. Alejandra wants to be a civil engineer so she can move to Korea just because she has never been. Elde works because ¨Me gusta¨. All of these things inspired me to work harder at my own job, and opened my eyes to just how privledged I am to work under such easy conditions, such short hours, and a high minimum wage

Asa – I was struck by how collabrative and well organized the kids were. While obviously everybody was trying to sell their own stuff, they all worked together and offered to support. Girls stood together selling, gave supplies to each other when one ran out, and kept a watchful eye out in the busy market. This level of maturity and collective enterprise was really impressive to see.

Mary Ren – Walking with Reina through the Potosi market was an uplifting experience. Reina is a citizen of Potosi who is 15 years old and has been working for 4 years in the market every Saturday. Of all of the girls I met, Reina seemed to be the oldest, and had an air of being the leader. The girls walked in pairs, calling out to potential customers, “¡Bolsas negras, espongas, phosphoros!” Their lightheartedness and clear joy of spending time together and working in the market made me smile. When asking if Reina liked working every Saturday, she replied ¨Sí, claro,¨ with a smile just as her cousin ran up to her, whispered in her ear, and they both broke away laughing. At 15, the prospect of working from 8 in the morning until 6 or 7 o´clock at night would have brought a sense of dread. Reina´s joy and responsibility astounded and inspired me. I am so happy and grateful to have met such a hard working and kind person.

Victor – After having worked with these girls in the streets of Posoti, it was difficult not to notice how responsible and caring they were for each other, something a lot of grownups aren´t even able to do. It was inspiring to see them at work while still having that youthful and joyful smile.

Izzy – At first, our time in the mercado was very awkward. All the girls, (raging in ages 11-14) tittered at the site of us. Most of us are tall, white, and fair haired. For our part, or at least for my part, I didn’t know what to do. Thankfully, as we walked up and down the main isle of the mercado, selling our black trash bags and getting to know each other, I started to relax.

Juana, the ten year old girl I was assisting, was an adorable young girl with sweet smile and a self-assured disposition. I learned she had been working here since she was eight, selling items such as trash bags, sponges, and matches in order to pay for her schooling. Before this trip, if you asked me if I was in favor of child labor, I would have answered with an emphatic no. But after seeing Juana being so proud of her job, and knowing if she didn’t do this she literally would not be able to got to school, my answer has changed. Yes, child labor in it of itself is bad, but it isn´t right to punish these children for the sins of a society that has forced them into this position.

Becca – It was an eye-opening experience to be able to shadow 11 year old girls during their daily job. During my time a few girls help sell matches, bags, and sponges I kept thinking about the differences between my childhood and theirs. I never had to think about making money to help support my family in comparison to these girls who are working to help their family financially. I walked up and down the market strip many times trying to sell 3 bags for 1 Boliviano or a 3 pack of matches for 10 Bolivianos which took so much energy out of me due to the strong sun beating down on me which left me (after 1 and a half hours) extremely tired. Trying to put myself in the girls shoes as an 11 year old working in the sun unimaginable and makes me look up to them for their determination and strength.

Jack – My day with Norma, a child laborer in the market lasted only a few hours, however, the image I have of child labor has forever changed. Seeing how the group of girls was able to turn a day of selling matches and plastic bags, into a day spent with friends mucking around (whilst making money), was encouraging and very different to my initial impression of what a day walking around in the intense sun would look like. Norma was only 12 years old, but as the oldest child in her family, most of her day was spent in the market walking up and down the row of shops, selling her goods, and the other in school, which she enjoys greatly. Spending time with her (and probably losing her some money) was a fun but tiring experience. The police did not make our day any easier, constantly asking us to move on whilst we took breaks from walking. This day has instilled in me a great respect for Norma and the other girls, and I hope one day that I can embody the strength of these children.