Dienstag, 6. November 2012

Chunchi, the town of suicidal kids

The scourge of emigration for those who are left behind

By Sara de Melo Rocha   

Suicidal kids Ecuador

In the remote region of Chimborazo, a central-Andean province of Ecuador, the town of Chunchi has one of the world’s highest suicide rates among kids and teenagers; Chunchi is known as the ‘village of the suicidal children’. In five years, 63 young people ended their lives. Many others tried it unsuccessfully.  The common denominator: all of them grew up without their parents, who emigrated to the United States or Spain.

Chunchi, has no more than twelve thousand inhabitants, a decreasing number due to the migration flow to the U.S. or to Spain. Known as “Ecuador’s Andean chair”, Chunchi provides a watercolor landscape due to the red sunset, especially during the summer. But if the Andes give Chunchi beautiful sunsets during the warm months, the winter mist is dense and the mountains isolate the town and its people. Chunchi has one hospital, three schools and the 30 rooms available in the Hotel Chunci Imperial are more than enough to receive the town’s visitors. There are more leaving than coming.

Everyone has one or more relatives that have emigrated, and the story repeats itself: a young couple - or at least one of them - decides to look for a better life in the United States or in Europe, leaving their children behind and entrusting them to relatives, godparents, neighbors or to sometimes hastily appointed legal custodians. Besides sending money for their offspring’s education, they promise they will - one day - come back to pick them up. Most of the times, the return is delayed or never happens.

Wagner Sárez, a psychologist in the hospital of Chunchi, believes that emigration is the main explanation for the suicides. “This leaves the emigrant’s son or daughter feeling lonely and lacking affection, which in turn leads them to stress, then depression because he or she is not getting any moral support from anyone. It sometimes leads these children to start drinking at an early age, which leads to further loneliness and makes them contemplate the worst. It is a tremendous and shameful situation”, he regrets.

In Chunchi, close to 41% of youths have a least one relative living in the U.S. or Spain. These numbers, provided by national census statistics, do not get better: between 1980 and 2010, 20% of the city’s population has emigrated. It is a town of grandparents and grandchildren, but the generation in the middle is gone. According to Eduardo Espinoza, the coordinator of Chunchi’s Communitarian Development Office, emigration leads to a process of disintegration among the affected families. “The man or woman that leaves makes a new home for him or herself upon arrival and simply forgets about his previous life. Close to 75 % of those who leave don’t come back. [The man or woman] who stays behind eventually looks for another partner and ends up abandoning his or her previous children, which are left with no parental and emotional point of reference and no motivation. They feel rejected” he adds.

 Desperation or heroism?

“There used to be, on average, six suicide attempts every month until recent times”, says Wagner Sárez adding that, recently, the number has gone down to roughly one or two. He remembers an extreme case that occurred in 2009: a ten-year-old boy who committed suicide. His parents were living in Spain and left him and other two sisters living with the grand-mother. He preferred to stay at home on the uncle’s wedding day and hang himself in one of the many trees around his grand-mother’s house.

Eduardo Espinoza finds another reason: “They look up to those who have committed suicide in the past. They see this as a form of heroic gesture, which they decide to emulate”, Espinoza explains.

Welcome to Europe. No children allowed

In 2003, a migration agreement between Spain and Ecuador permitted to legalize the stay of Ecuadorians interested in working in the country. A bilateral commission was created to submit job offers by Spanish businessmen to Ecuadorians. It was expected to deliver about 30 000 work visas each year. The U.S. remains the ‘promised land’ but many Ecuadorians started seeing Spain and Italy as a better and easier option.

The working fathers and the mothers were more than welcome. Children, not really.  “Many people from rural areas went to Spain to work in the fields. There was a big European demand for care services so women could start working. In Spain, there is a small birth rate because the state gives little support to working mothers. So, Ecuadorian women could not emigrate with their children”, explains Rosalia Cortes, an Argentinian researcher at the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO).  From the 441 thousand Ecuadorians living in Spain, 41,4% left at least one child behind.

Mi querida mamita

According to a UNICEF’s study about children and migration in Ecuador, female migration exceeded that of males in 1999. The researcher, Gloria Camacho,  explains that “when  the  father  has  migrated,  the  family  is  not  quite  affected  since,  from  a  cultural point  of  view,  the  mother  has  always  been  responsible  for  the  household. On the contrary, when the mother has migrated, the family is strongly affected and its vulnerability levels depend on whether the father directly takes over the care of their children, or he has the support from other women in his family.”

The role of mothers in Latin American households is particularly important and, with the migration of the female figure, the lack of attention and the feeling of rejection can be even bigger. Besides that, there are other risks involved, says Gloria Camacho: “Many  of  these  children  and  adolescents  are  subject  to  physical  and  sexual hazards. On this regard, the Special Rapporteur of the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission, observed during his visits of Ecuador that  “girls  are  exposed to physical,  psychological  and  sexual  maltreatment  by  their  relatives  or  neighbors in charge of them”.

Rosalia Cortes disagrees with the sexual abuse hypothesis. She states that “in the remote areas of Ecuador, with no good schools, no good education and health, what do you do with the money from remittances? These kids do have money so they can spend it on drugs. They get money but they have to face several problems. Money does not replace family guidance. It is only in theory that these remittances will help to develop the kid.  But receiving money with no familiar and cultural environment, these kids go a straight.  The risks are connected with the belief that money brings development to a family. How? ”, she emphatically asks.

Suicides are going down

In 2006, the town set up a program to fight malnutrition and to help inculcate the values of education. The center was partly funded by UNICEF and the European Union. Eduardo Espinoza gladly informs that the numbers of suicides among young people are going down in Chunchi. The program might be partly responsible: “We also want to help compensate for the lack of recreational activities in Chunchi. We do this through the Appropriate Use of Spare Time Program. We want to give these youngsters a healthy hobby, like learning a new dance or doing sports. We want to give them a greater sense of belonging to their community, which is crucial to fend off the feeling of loneliness that has driven some youngsters to commit suicide.” The program works with 180 children aged between 6 and 17 and also aims to fight malnutrition, as well as, inculcate the values of education and help them these kids with their studies and encourage them to go as far as university. The problem is that the employment prospects for those who do not migrate are scarce. Most of the population in the rural areas works in agriculture. 

It might be the efforts of the city council helping, but the decrease of emigration, itself a consequence of the current economic crisis, plays a role too. “Families living in the U.S. are returning because of the dire economic situation in America, and the Ecuadorian government is now helping with that process. The government created the National Office for Emigration, which is helping to finance the return of those who wish to come home and even granting cheap loans to help them start new business when they return”, Espinoza explains.

Rosalia Cortes sighs of relief when the words “migration flow is decreasing” come across during the skype conversation. For the researcher, migration is never an answer: “In general, NGOs want to be politically correct and they do not want to say that migration is bad but migration can be very bad for children. I see migrants’ household’s workers here in Argentina who did not bring their kids. They send money back home, they speak on the phone. Maybe they will bring the children to live with them in 8 or in 10 years and these kids are strangers.” Some Latin American researchers prefer to study the positive aspects of migration. It is not Rosalía Cortes case who points out two negative ones: “First, the cultural impact of migration - what happens to kids and teenagers that remain in an empty place? – and second the psychologist level - what happens to the family? Migration is never a solution. Migration does not bring improvement in living standards for a better family life. It destroys everything.”

Even with the decrease of the migration flow, the American and the European dream still exists among Latin Americans. Rosalía Cortes asks: “How do you stop what is in the imagination of the people? Migration is part of our culture and history. Migration responds not only to money, jobs but also to the demands of the society that those people come from”.

The last suicide case with a link to emigration in Chunchi occurred in 2010. A girl aged 18, whose parents were living abroad. In 2011, a 17 year old girl living with her parents killed herself; she was exploited by them, and forced to do several chores. “This year, fortunately, we have not yet seen a case”, Espinoza concludes.

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