Late 2013, a mission group from a cluster of UCC churches from Missouri came to Chiapas to visit INESIN and witness what was happening. Every single person in this group came up to me on the last day and thanked me for the great experience. They said that this trip had transformed their lives in more ways than they could even imagine. One woman reminded me of an experience that happened to her earlier that week that she believes changed her life.
One day, as we were walking around looking at different shops, this woman parted from the group and bought a bottle of Coca-Cola from a small shop. She stepped outside of the shop, opened the soda, and took a few refreshing drinks. Then she looked down and noticed a small little girl trying to speak to her. This woman knows very little Spanish so she called over to me to help translate. I leaned down and asked the girl, who wasn't older than six, what she needed. She replied, “tengo sed.” Tears filled my eyes as I stood back up and told her that this little girl was thirsty. This girl had to walk up to a total stranger, who didn't speak her language and was of a different nationality, and ask for a drink of her soda to help meet one of her basic needs. My sister teared up, hugged the girl, and gave her the entire soda bottle. The girl said "gracias" and she quickly ran over to her little brother and shared the soda with him.
It is a hard thing to see children having to take the initiative to meet their basic needs for life. This little girl had to ask this woman who didn't speak her language, dress like her, or look like her, just get a drink to meet a basic need. But why? Why are children forced to ask strangers for basic necessities like food or drink?
It's a common site in Latin America to see children, especially in busier cities and tourist sites, dressed in traditional clothing specific to their community, selling various merchandise such as scarves and bracelets. These children are more than often separated from their parents, and at times, the eldest child of the family has to take care of younger siblings while selling this merchandise. I have heard from many people and read many blogs stating not to buy merchandise from these children because it will help contribute to child labor. Poverty-stricken families feel as though they are forced to send their children out to the streets to sell merchandise to help provide for the family.
How can this be stopped? One answer is through education. The child labor rate in Mexico has decreased 40% in the last 10 years, but child labor is still a very present reality. It is estimated that 870,000 children under the age of 13 are working in Mexico. Out of this number, an estimated 199,000 children work in the state of Chiapas. Thankfully, due to social and religious organizations in Mexico, the child labor rate has decreased due to education.
INESIN provides many educational workshops on campus and out in the communities. Parents who attend these workshops and receive education, be it general, theological, or economic, are more likely to send their children to school and stress that an education is more important than working. It is projected in the years to come that child labor will continue to decrease as even more receive education. INESIN will continue to provide accessible workshops to help with this cause along with their other mission priorities. One such workshop focuses on youth leader training and is held four times a year. Youth (ages 14-25) learn various marketable skills, as well as have discussions about their own spirituality. These workshops provides an opportunity for the youth in Chiapas to understand their worth in the world.
I have assisted in providing more education, as well. Last year, I started a free English course at INESIN offered to anyone who wanted to attend. It is shown that a person who speaks more than one language understands the value of education and will continue to seek new avenues to learn. Providing this free class gives parents, young adults, youth, and children the opportunity to gain additional education and skills.
As I now ponder on what this woman witnessed during her visit here in Chiapas, I can smile knowing that she was educated on this issue and can now share this story with her friends. Education is a powerful thing. It changes worlds. It changes minds. It changes lives.
Lindsey Mercer is a Global Mission Intern serving with the Institute for Intercultural Studies and Research in Chiapas, Mexico.