UNICEF in Latin America
by Mary Ruberry, MAIC
As part of the United Nations system, in 1946 UNICEF began providing emergency aid for children impacted by war in Europe and China. Since then, UNICEF has implemented programs worldwide to help children in need through their eight regional offices. In the Latin American region, UNICEF focuses on four "problem" areas: Colombia, Panama, Nicaragua and Guatemala, and also aided El Salvador until 1994 during its post-conflict contamination.
According to Ms. Nidya Quiroz, Regional Adviser for Emergencies in Latin America and the Caribbean (UNICEF-LAC), children are more vulnerable than adults to landmines because of their natural curiosity, and also are injured more severely by mines than adults because of their physical proximity to the ground. Where an adult might lose a limb in a mine accident, mines usually kill children, especially under the age of five.
UNICEF-LAC describes its work thus: "In the context of each affected country, UNICEF has supported different kinds of program that combat the consequences of these artifacts. Basically, these have been prevention campaigns among the population in situations of risk, with the participation of teachers, social workers, local governments and numerous NGOs.
Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean
UNICEF has no political power and hence functions as a facilitator for activities, more like a consultant. According to Ms. Quiroz, "We have the knowledge, experience and lessons learned" to help implement programs in countries affected by landmines and UXO. "In Central America, the conflicts are now finished. Now the problem is demining"—and prevention, which is achieved through mine awareness programs.
Financial constraints pose the largest obstacles for UNICEF in Latin America. Because demining is such an expensive process, UNICEF cannot engage in demining directly but instead works with volunteers and other international organizations to raise mine awareness. UNICEF begins by determining where landmines are located. Either military records or information gathered from communities provides essential knowledge for preventing mine and UXO accidents. Working with the Red Cross, UNICEF creates prevention programs that recruit volunteer youth who post signs where landmines are located. UNICEF programs disseminate information through schools and health centers in each aided country.
UNICEF also identifies "mine action strategies" as a means of ameliorating the effects of landmine contamination. "Strategies" include addressing landmines on a diplomatic level, as well as championing advocacy for mine action through local, regional, national and international channels. Additionally, UNICEF creates a variety of partnerships in its many programs, joining with organizations of all kinds to carry out mine prevention and assist mine victims.
Ms. Quiroz cited Colombia as UNICEF’s greatest focus in the region regarding landmines. The problems in Columbia are more acute because they majority of the population—including farmers—uses landmines. UNICEF includes all groups in its efforts. Ms. Quiroz says that UNICEF uses the "elements of children" to work together with armed factions.
During 2000, on average a child was wounded by a mine or other explosive device every five days in 2000. Yet UNICEF Colombia believes these numbers represent "only a small part" of the actual problem. Obtaining adequate information on victims is not possible in Colombia, and often news of mine accidents reaches authorities months after occurrence.
Faced by such a complex and extensive mine problem, UNICEF’s approach to preventing mine injuries has been to develop mine awareness programs coupled with information gathering as an approach to preventing mine injuries in Colombia. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) helps with UNICEF’s information campaign by researching mine incidents and gaining data made available to the mine action community.
At present, UNICEF is putting together a video that contains testimonies from victims about how people are affected by landmines. The tape contains personal stories with the goal of sensitizing the public about mine hazards. The video’s creators hope to achieve greater credibility with the population by using personal accounts rather than appeals from outsiders.
In UNICEF’s initial involvement, activities were concentrated on raising awareness through the production of education materials. However, since Colombia ratified the Mine Ban Treaty, UNICEF has identified additional strategies for addressing mine issues involving communities and local municipalities in defining concerns and implementing solutions. UNICEF considers participation by local communities to be a "crucial component" of an effective response to the threat of landmines.
UNICEF works with 15,000 children in Columbia on three different activities:
The Future in Colombia
UNICEF Colombia’s strategy for 2001—2002 is based on a three-pronged approach to mine action. First, to actively support mine awareness education with national civil and governmental allies. Second, to provide information about mine locations and effects of mines "to the government, local authorities and communities." Third, UNICEF will be working with other national and international organizations to urge the Colombian government to "attach [a] high priority" to the issue of landmines and support mine action activities such as survey, minefield marking, clearance operations and information gathering/dissemination. For the first time, the Colombian government has made a contribution from this year's national budget for a pilot program on mine awareness, data collection, and victim assistance.
Though the number of incidents involving landmines/UXO is relatively low in Guatemala (there have been approximately 15 casualties since 1994), UNICEF faces a unique challenge for mine action with the high number of Guatemalans left disabled from the 10-year war. The peace treaty between the Government of Guatemala and Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemaleca (signed in 1996) mentions that "as a result of the internal armed confrontation, there exists a section of the disabled population, considered among the most vulnerable and affected by the conflict, which requires specific, prioritized attention within the program described in the present Treaty." In its 1999 report, the Guatemalan Ministry of Health and Social Assistance claimed that 64 percent of the population is disabled "due to consequences from armed conflicts." Though the estimated number of landmines in Guatemala in the mid-1990s was low (around 1,500), the number of UXO is estimated to be considerably greater— between 5,000 and 8,000.
Since 1998, UNICEF has supported the rehabilitation of Guatemala’s mine victims by providing training to the Ministry of Health in "prosthetics/orthotics, occupational and physical therapy and vocational rehabilitation and reintegration." For the present year, the Mine Victim Assistance Program plans to create a national rehabilitation registry containing helpful resources for victims along with developing community-based education and training.
Nicaragua’s high number of AP mines threatens a particularly impoverished segment of the population, especially children who are often unable to interpret warning signs even when mine fields are clearly marked. Due to the high level of contamination, many farmers have been forced to engage in amateur demining in order to recapture their land for sustaining life. UNICEF has identified the trend towards amateur demining as a serious problem in Nicaragua, along with an apparent lack of fear towards mines by adolescent and adult males.
Without a fully-integrated mine action program, efforts in Nicaragua have centered on clearance, leaving development of other aspects of mine action such as mine awareness education and victim assistance, lagging behind. According to UNICEF Nicaragua, the weakest component of mine action in the country remains the social reintegration of victims.
The aftermath of war has left not only landmine deposits but also a variety of UXO, including bombs, fragmentation grenades, mortars and ammunition. According to UNICEF Nicaragua, "one of the main reasons for accidents to children is that children do not know the potential danger of picking up, manipulating or playing with landmines and UXO." In conjunction with the Nicaraguan Red Cross, UNICEF Nicaragua has implemented the "Child-to-Child Prevention Project," which trains youth to raise awareness among other young people in Nicaragua about the dangers of landmines through workshops held in the five areas of the country with the worst mine infestation (Somoto, Ocotal, Jinotega, Matagalpa and Rivas).
Last October, UNICEF signed an agreement with the OAS to implement joint mine awareness activities. UNICEF also plans to develop a "community liaison" project as a way to ensure effective communication between demining units and local residents, and to build trust in the National Demining Plan, thus contributing to a decrease in amateur demining. The "community liaison" project (titled "Landmine and Unexploded Ordnance Awareness Education in Nicaragua Through Community Liaison) will also gather information about mine locations from community members to continually update the national plan.
In Panama, UXO—not landmines—threatens the population. Particularly, almost half of the land the United States returned via the 1999 Panama Canal Treaty was used as shooting ranges by the U.S. military. Infestation of the locked and marked acreage results in UXO detonations when locals retrieve scrap metal. Together with NGOs and the Ministries of Health, Education and Foreign Affairs, UNICEF has developed a UXO awareness program designed to address affected communities.
UNICEF’s involvement with mine action in Panama began with support for a study conducted in 1998 by the Ministry of Health to determine the socio-economic and cultural makeup of the former ranges’ neighboring communities. Since then, UNICEF’s goal has been to lessen the risk to local populations by raising awareness and educating the affected population on "safe behavior patterns." The partnership awareness program (called "Unexploded Ordnance Awareness Education in Panama") continues this year to "sensitize" 100,000 inhabitants within the 15 affected districts.
Other Affected Regions
In Peru and Ecuador, children have had to alter their daily routines because of mines planted along the border. And in Argentina, 30,000 AP mines remain where they were laid 10 years ago in the Malvinas Islands during the conflict with Great Britain.
As the U.N's "focal point" for mine awareness education, UNICEF pursues programs that reach affected populations with an aim to educate those at risk about the dangers of landmines and UXO. UNICEF professionals recognize that children are the most vulnerable segment of the endangered population because of their natural curiosity, mobility and usual inability to read. The programs in Central America disseminate information about landmines and UXO through public service channels and strive to gather information from local communities that can be used to prevent future tragedies.
UNICEF’S national efforts are designed to address the particular situation found in each country. Working collaboratively with a gamut of organizations, UNICEF supports and creates projects that assist mine victims, helping to reintegrate them into society, all with an eye to aiding children. For as Ms. Quiroz says, "it is so important to save the lives of children."
*All photos courtesy of UNICEF.