The two boys couldn’t have been more than seven years old. Not neat, but not too scruffy, each of them dressed in worn out knock-off running shoes, dusty track pants and faded hoodies. Each clutched a small tray of fruit chews, the taller of the two had a brown purse strapped tightly around his tiny waist, protruding from underneath his baggy jumper.
The smaller of the pair, although otherwise perfectly self confident, glanced up to the other for some direction. Having announced themselves loudly in high-pitched voices to the hundred or so rush-hour commuters on the packed Quito city bus, they began their charade.
Their ease with the crowd, their rehearsed routine and act, had won us over in no time. We laughed at their songs and innocent kid jokes, we roared when one suggested that a woman buy some sweets as a present for her husband, and many people dug into their pockets for 25 cents as the boys tottered through the bus aisles afterwards.
I wasn’t one of those people reaching for small change. Not because I didn’t find their act amusing, nor because I didn’t want to part with a measly 25 cents for a handful of fruit chews. Actually, all I could think about was that back home in Australia, these kids wouldn’t even be in Grade Two. Yet here they were, alone but for each other, in Ecuador’s capital city consisting of over 1.5 million people, selling sweets to strangers on the bus.
And here is the moral dilemma: some might say that in order to help, we should buy, right? Obviously these kids are out working for their families because of desperate circumstances leading to them not being able to support themselves financially. While 25 cents is nothing to me, perhaps making the purchase could lead to a little more food being put on the table when they finally make it home that night.
Of course, there is the other side of the coin. That being the school of thought that suggests when we buy from street children, or even donate to those children begging on the streets, we encourage the system to continue operating in this way. Perhaps by putting more money in the hands of children, we are sending a damaging message back to parents forced into this terrible position. It certainly isn’t the sort of question I want to be asking myself as a comparatively obscenely rich gringo.
Despite the Ecuadorian government increasing the number of labor inspectors in 2010, the country still seems under resourced to effectively pursue such measures. Consequently, the scourge of child labour in urban and rural areas persists. This report from 2010 outlined some of the most depressing figures, with a calculated one in ten children aged 5-14 engaged in some form of work without official schooling. More recent accounts (like this article) reveal more promising figures, but there is clearly still a long way to go.
Cenit Ecuador is one organisation providing a practical solution-based approach to the problem. I particularly liked this honest explanation from their Frequently Asked Questions:
Why does CENIT allow their children to continue working?
‘Our children are some of the poorest in Ecuador. Most of their families believe that there is no alternative to their working. Because education is secondary to survival, many parents are not willing to put their children in school if it means that they cannot work. For this reason, many of the parents will not even discuss education with us if it means that their children cannot work. We believe that it is better that the child work part-time and also go to school than work full-time and remain uneducated, so we would rather not scare the families away by saying their children cannot work at all.’
For anyone interested in volunteering, I strongly recommend finding their website via the link above.
Once again, being exposed to another culture, in this case that of a developing country like Ecuador, has given me pause for thought and made me think again about just how lucky we really are. I just wish I had a few more of the answers.
[Title photo credit: Nasim Fekrat, Flickr]
What are your experiences with extreme poverty in other cultures? Share them in the comments section below.