Bernard van Leer study discusses reducing violence in El Salvador at its root


Alliance magazine


Over the past 50 years, The Bernard van Leer Foundation has invested over half a billion dollars to benefit early childhood development around the world. Through partnerships, the Foundation has played a pivotal role in influencing public policy, providing both financial support and expertise. Recently, Bernard van Leer commissioned journalists to write a series of six case studies discussing the organisation’s impact. Each article focuses on a country where the Foundation was once active, but no longer has a strong presence in, highlighting the work of funded partner organisations.

Violence, breaking the cycle: How one of the world’s most dangerous nations stops brutality from spreading by Jean Friedman-Rudovsky is one of the articles included in this series. This piece describes the impact that the Bernard van Leer Foundation has had on improving the upbringing of children located in one of the most violent countries in the world—El Salvador. With an average of 18.2 murders per day, gang violence affects the nation’s youth, even starting as early as preschool. The organisations working in El Salvador to reduce violence have a preventative approach of targeting the root of the issue—focusing on early childhood exposure.

Marisa de Martínez noticed the need for a childcare center to help working mothers . ‘She had become increasingly concerned about the conditions faced by children of the women who worked in the markets or on the streets of the poorer neighbourhoods of the capital city,’ who clung to their mothers backs during the day because they had nowhere else to be. Martínez imagined a centre where mothers could drop their children off to receive safe care—to play, learn, and develop.

Friedman-Rudovsky reports, ‘All over the country, children’s programmes strive to counteract the aggressive tendencies bred by the wider environment. The Bernard van Leer Foundation was at the root of this effort…’  Despite the growing awareness for improving early childhood conditions in El Salvador, “Anyone trying to advance a political or human rights agenda that wasn’t directly related to the conflict was told ‘now is not the time’,” Martínez told Friedman-Rudovsky.  As a result, advocates turned to the funders such as the Bernard van Leer Foundation for support.

‘She first connected with the Foundation in 1988, when they sent staff to explore investment opportunities in Central America. At the time, Martínez was arguably one of few people in the country who were thinking about early childhood learning in a systematic way: although she was not working with children in her day job, she had started planning a child development centre as a side-project.’ The Foundation agreed to support Martínez with a small grant to bring her idea to life, and CINDE (Centros Infantiles de Desarrollo) was born. Within half a year, Martínez got her centre up-and-running. Within six weeks, the centre cared for 75 children, and today has grown to include multiple locations across the country.

How does a day-care prevent violence in El Salvador? ‘From very early on, what made CINDE different, said Martínez, was the realisation that her childcare programme needed to become a violence-prevention tool,’ says Friedman-Rudovsky. Martínez expanded her idea to eventually include home visits to assess living conditions, as well as parenting classes for participating families.

‘CINDE’s growth paralleled an evolution in the early childhood development sector nationally. Starting in the mid-1990s and continuing into the following decade, several other organisations were established with centres similar to CINDE, and working groups and advocacy networks began to advance a child-friendly agenda in the country. This effort was bolstered by an international consensus that brought the rights of children to the fore, including the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which started to gain real traction during the 1990s in the developing world.’

The Bernard van Leer Foundation also awarded grants to many similar organisations, such as FUNDASAL, a non-profit that supports low-income families with affordable living communities. Within the communities, ‘A youth group was formed to take care of younger kids on Saturdays, those from 4 to 12 years old. The idea was to try to counteract school truanting, which was on the rise in that area,’ comments Friedman-Rudovsky.

To read more about the efforts of early childhood development foundations supported by Bernard van Leer in El Salvador, click here.

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