Warmi Huasi: Establishing a Safety Net (Part 1)

30th August 2018 - by Fr Ed O’Connell

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When the women of San Benito voiced their concern over their children’s future saying, “The children, the young children, we have to do something about the children, they are at risk”, Columban Fr Ed O’Connell and the Warmi Huasi team decided to do something.

Warmi Huasi is a small civil association (NGO) I set up with others twelve years ago to accompany families, and especially children at risk, who live in situations of poverty. The name Warmi Huasi comes from the Indian Quechua language meaning ‘Women’s House.’

We began in 2006 in the parish of Our Lady of the Missions, where I work as parish priest, with health and non-violence programmes supporting families, especially women, in the area.

Then I was asked to visit Lomas de Carabayllo, some fifteen miles north from the parish, by the government’s Human Rights Office, to help interview people displaced by the violence in Peru of the 1980s and 1990s for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That was when I got my first look at San Benito, the largest of the townships in Lomas de Carabayllo, where many lived in extreme poverty.

San Benito was a settlement which started up some 21 years ago on the foothills of the Andes, on the extreme northern side of Lima. It has now developed into a township with a population of 12,000 people.

When the Warmi Huasi team and I helped in the interviews with the displaced, we were moved by the plight of the people, and decided to run two projects responding to the greatest needs of the families, that of malnutrition of young children and family violence, these were the years 2009 to 2011.

Over these three years we got to know the community well, especially the women and key local leaders in the townships. When at the end of 2011 we evaluated our work with the community and shared our thoughts on what would be the most important need to work on in the following years. What we heard back, especially from the women, was the same thing over again: “the children, the young children, we have to do something about the children, they are at risk.”

In San Benito, they were saying, there is a large number of families where the mother is the main breadwinner or where the father works far away from home. These women have to go out each day to make enough money to cover their families’ basic needs. This results in young children being at risk, left alone to fend for themselves and even looking after toddlers by themselves.

The risks faced by the children were fivefold:
1. Accidents either at home or in the rocky hillside that is their neighbourhood;
2. Poor health due to inadequate diets and lack of adults to supervise the preparation of meals;
3. Poor school results with no one to help with homework or no time to do homework;
4. No time for play and no safe facilities in which to play
5. Having to face situations of violence of all times, physical, psychological and sadly sexual abuse.

Where were we to start, in the effort to accompany the working mothers in reducing the risks faced by their young children?

We began working with the mothers, organising workshops on self-esteem, basic first aid for their children, healthy diets and child protection. But we soon found out that the mothers had little time for such orientations, mostly because they lacked time or were so tired they had little energy for anything more than just survival.

That is when the Warmi Huasi team – a social worker, an obstetrician and a psychologist – decided that the best way forward was to trust the children themselves, let them be the architects of the project, that getting through to the children was the best way to get through to the parents.

Six years later, we are looking at some amazing results.

Read part two of this article from 31st August 2018.

Columban Fr Ed O´Connell began his mission work in Peru in 1973.
First published in the August/September issue of Columban Mission.

Watch six new videos showing the work of Warmi Huasi

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