In this interview-series we want to shine a light on some of the incredible work being done ‘behind the scenes’ at LAFF. We’re speaking to staff who work directly with our young people and, without whom, we couldn’t help 100s of children in the Cusco region each year to build a better future.
Our first interview is with child psychologist Eliana, who works across LAFF’s projects to support vulnerable young people.
In this powerful interview Eliana talks about the vulnerabilities and challenges facing many children and families. The difficulties for young girls and boys growing up in a machismo culture, the need for more emotional education and mental health care in schools, and how charities like LAFF can help.
“Our way of being means we don’t value children as people. Children aren’t ‘half-people’, they are complete, with opinions, dreams and fears and they feel, just like adults do.”
Tell us a bit about your life and work?
I was born in a small town near Puno. My parents were teachers. When Peru went through a difficult moment of terrorism in the 80s they decided to move to Cusco. I have been here ever since.
I am married and a psychologist and have worked with children for as long as I can remember; when I was younger I worked in church groups and that was part of my motivation to choose this sort of career.
What was your motivation for working with children?
I believe change in any society starts with children.
In Peru, especially in the Sierra we don’t invest enough in the ability of our children. Our way of being means we don’t value children as people. Children aren’t ‘half-people’, they are complete, with opinions, dreams and fears and they feel, just like adults do.
“I have discovered, in some cases, that girls believe that they will suffer in adulthood, purely because they are women. We need to change this mentality”
So you think work with the family is important?
The struggle is always with adults. When you work with a child the ideal situation is to have the families involved in your work too, but it is very difficult to change attitudes in adults.
In my experience with children in a state of vulnerability things are more difficult. There isn’t only a lack of income, but a lack of emotional support and education amongst the parents. This makes it harder for adults to understand their impact on children overcoming difficulties.
There is also a difference between mothers and fathers, mothers are more passive, more submissive, but fathers will come at you and say ‘no, it’s my son, and I know what’s going on’. This is our reality in the Sierra, especially within people who have migrated from the countryside where men have the voice.
Is Peru a very male dominated society?
Yes. Women won’t express their opinion. They haven’t been taught how to communicate or listen to their own opinions.
I have focused a lot on this mentality in girls and I have discovered, in some cases, that girls believe that they will suffer in adulthood, purely because they are women.
I have listened to women in hospitals for example, who will say, ‘how sad, she’s a girl, she is going to suffer later in life’. We need to change this mentality in women and children. Girls need to grow up understanding that the female condition is not a bad one.
They accept that violence against women is normal?
I worked in a school where a mother who has a violent husband told me something incredibly heart-breaking. She told me her husband had come home drunk and had hit her daughter ‘as if she was his wife’. It’s as if she thought that violence against her was completely normal, but towards her daughter was not ok, but only because she was so young. I want to show the ways in which women believe that they are destined to be victims.
And for boys, what do you think are the most important issues?
The Machismo culture creates ideas of victimhood within girls, and creates within boys the idea that women are worthless. So it’s the same struggle of changing this mentality. It has the same bad effect for men, men don’t cry, men are strong. It can be a very protective, caring quality but the message is that he is stronger than she is.
What are the biggest challenges faced by children in vulnerability?
First, we need to change education. We focus too much on content and less on value. In schools they completely ignore emotional education. There are schools that have psychologists and a tutor that will talk about this area but there will be one psychologist for 200 students.
Another issue is the access to mental health care within the health sector. They never prioritize children. They don’t think children need this sort of orientation.
The only places where children receive this sort of attention are through social projects and NGOs.
Are there any problems with NGO or social projects in Cusco?
A big issue is funding. Also volunteers, although they are normally people you can count on, their work with a project does not always bring the stability that they want to offer. There should be protocols for this, but for every volunteer it takes time to adapt to a new space, and once they have adapted they often leave and there is someone new to come and take their place. I think its an issue that really affects the continuity of work.
There is also an issue within the kids who these organisations work with. These children often believe that foreigners who come and help are here only to bring something material. For example in Azul Wasi volunteers often bring sweets or come and play with them and the boys start to think that support from foreigners only comes in the form of a gift.
Do children in vulnerable positions have a feeling of inferiority?
I think children are only products of their upbringing. A child with a family could be emotionally neglected and grow up with issues of self esteem. A child without a family could have every opportunity thrust upon them by their carer.
In general I have worked with kids from homes where what they lack, and have not developed, are skills like decision-making. They have always had things decided for them, including what they are going to do in their free time.
They have also not developed a way to resolve conflicts as they have always had an authoritative figure who will resolve it for them.
I think that these boys have a small tolerance for frustration, and that is a key issue in their aggression, they look for different ways to defend themselves. I think its a natural state of vulnerability.
Is there more training on this in Universities?
There has been a more human approach to the subject over the past few years that values children more as intelligent people, but it is not enough. Especially when it comes to implementing change. In schools we are only told to work on educational psychology and not emotional psychology. These are rules that come from the state and trying to change these is very hard.
We have talked about difficulties and challenges, what are the good moments in your work?
In reality the gratifying moments are qualitative not quantitative. I get to see the changes in children, in their way of thinking, in their emotions and emotional responses. For example, when a child tells me ‘today I could control myself and it felt good’, I know they have learnt something.
Also I get to see when children educate their parents. It’s amazing to see when they have the capacity to say to their parents that something isn’t right.
Finally, what do you think about the work LAFF does and what would you change?
I have worked with LAFF since 2013 and I think we are on the right path. We are taking small steps because of the funding issues, which is something faced by most NGOs, but it is the right path.
What would I change? I think that we need to work with Peruvians more as they understand Peru, our culture and how we are.