Schoolchildren in the central Bolivian settlement of Mineros San Juan pretend to inject each other with straws protruding from water bottles that they have decorated with brightly coloured strips of paper bearing words such as “friendship”, “help” and “respect”.
They are recapping what they have learnt in a series of lessons on how to treat others well – a new concept for some of the pupils who are accustomed to frequent outbreaks of violence or aggression in their families and in the wider ex-mining community on the fringes of Cochabamba.
Living in small houses that often have only one or two rooms, the children at René Barrientos Ortuño School witness everything when their parents fight physically or become verbally abusive, often after a drinking session.
Rossy Libertad Castro Ascarraga, the psychologist in charge of seminars at Proyecto Horizonte, says alcohol is one of main causes of violence in the community. Men who only have occasional work often drink out of boredom and frustration while some of the men with fixed jobs consume excessive amounts of alcohol at weekends, especially if they are attending weddings, birthday parties or religious festivals, she said. “They don’t control themselves and they hit the women. It’s the women who suffer the most because the men mistreat them and insult them and the children see that,” she said.
In addition, many of the children are left to their own devices while their parents are out at work all day and so watch violent television shows when they get home from school or play aggressive video games and then copy them.
Remberto Franco Rojas, who teaches 9 to 11-year-olds at René Barrientos Ortuño School, said the children were also used to being mistreated or insulted. “That’s why we’re teaching them about mistreatment and violence so they can reflect on these things and come to know a different reality – the reality of truth and how to behave and live like good Christians and good people,” he said.
For 10-year-old Jose Luis Arias, the lessons proved fruitful. “I learnt to respect my friends, my parents and my teacher and to be kind to my friends and not to insult them,” he said.