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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 October 2007, 12:30 GMT 13:30 UK
Bolivia's abandoned children
By Lola Almudevar
BBC News, Bolivia

In Bolivia, a weak economy and a shortage of jobs means some parents are moving abroad to find work and earn money for their families. But, in many cases, their children are being left behind with no one to care for them.

There are telephone shops all over Bolivia, places where people - often too poor to have a phone of their own - go to make their calls.

They are full of rickety plastic booths and are abuzz with the sound of locals calling long distance.

Carla Cinthia Carrasco with other children
The parents of these children work abroad or in another part of Bolivia

Frequently, they are calling the people who clean houses, look after other people's children, pick fruit, and work on construction sites in countries like Spain, Italy, Argentina and Britain.

These migrant workers are the fathers or mothers of youngsters like Carlita.

Her mother left their home in Santa Cruz a year ago and now works as a domestic servant in Madrid.

"She is going to send for me as soon as I turn 18," Carlita says as she leads me towards her home along a dusty path where bin liners blow in the warm breeze.

Carlita, who is 17, seems a typical teenage girl with a shy, awkward smile.

But her childhood ended some time ago.

Domestic abuse

Until recently she lived with her grandmother and aunt who promised to take care of her.

But it seems what they cared for most was the cash her mother sent from Spain each month.

I do not know where I found the strength to defend myself

Carlita felt ignored, began to fight with her aunt, and before long the rows became violent.

When Carlita telephoned her mother to tell her she wanted to leave, her aunt feared the remittances would be lost.

Her reaction was to beat Carlita until she was black and blue, and could hardly move.

"She used a belt," Carlita tells me, glancing towards the psychologist who is here to check on her progress and is sitting in on our interview.

"I do not know where I found the strength to defend myself, because I did defend myself.

"But I know that if I had been younger and smaller, I would not have been able to put up a fight," she says.


Carlita now sleeps on the floor in another aunt's ramshackle house.

Psychologist Carlos Perez from the Plan 3000 Integrated Justice Centre
Carlos Perez estimates he sees six cases like Carlita's each week

There are 17 children staying here, many of whom have a parent working abroad or in another part of Bolivia.

The scene is nothing unusual for psychologist, Carlos Perez, who sits on a broken chair in the yard.

He sees cases like Carlita's all the time. But normally the children are younger and the maltreatment more severe.

"The mother leaves and the child is effectively left in the care of no-one," he says.

"They show signs of neglect and become rebellious. It is tremendously frequent and it is creating a generation of children who do not know how to behave in society."

Carlita is old enough for her experience not to have too much lasting impact on her character.

Others are less fortunate, with many suffering irreparable psychological damage or falling into drugs and delinquency.

When we get back to the justice centre where Carlos works, he is immediately bombarded by people who want his help.

Children living in the same house as Carla Cinthia Carrasco
Seventeen children live in the same house as Carlita

Although he seems to respond completely professionally, his frown shows that he feels tense and beleaguered.

"There are babies just one or two months old who are being left behind," he says.

"And when their mothers come back they can not recognise them. One boy told me 'I don't want these shoes or clothes I have been given. I want my mother here to comb my hair and bathe me and tell me a story'."

The psychologist is clearly troubled.

A better future?

Migration is a world phenomenon, caused by globalisation - it is up to us to contain the social consequences in the countries of origin
Juan Ramon Quintana, government minister
The Bolivian government's answer is to try to strengthen the economy and create jobs so that people will stay here to earn money for their families rather than go abroad.

They want to create more than 360,000 jobs by 2010. But those jobs, if they do come, will come too late for the generation to which Carlita belongs.

And as Juan Ramon Quintana, a high-ranking government minister, tells me, you can not blame people for wanting to find a better future. It is their right.

"Migration is a world phenomenon, caused by globalisation - it is up to us to contain the social consequences in the countries of origin," he says.

I board an early morning bus to leave Santa Cruz and watch as vendors scramble on board at each stop.

They sell fizzy drinks, chicken, ice cream, lollipops, chewing gum, whatever they can lay their hands on.

Their earnings are pitiful, but in a country where jobs are scarce, you do whatever you can to survive.

I remember Carlos's final words to me.

"Behind so many immigrants in your country, are stories like Carlita's. Behind their lives over there are all of these children left alone here."

As my bus heads off into the countryside, I reflect on the sad reality that until there are dignified jobs for Bolivians in Bolivia, many children will follow the same path as Carlita: growing up for them will be a very lonely road.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday 18 October, 2007 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Bolivia
18 Sep 07 |  Country profiles

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