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Sunflowers and Pathways: how strengthening employability is expanding opportunities for Costa Rican youth

Catégorie(s): Children’s rights, Training, Groups in situations of vulnerability, Costa Rica, 2019

The author, Diana P. Carvajal, is a volunteer legal adviser. She was deployed in Costa Rica as part of the project "Protection of Children, Women and Other Communities in Vulnerable Situations" (PRODEF). The project is currently being implemented by Lawyers without Borders Canada (ASFC) and the International Bureau for Children's Rights (IBCR), thanks to the financial support of the Canadian Government, provided through Global Affairs Canada. In Costa Rica, she supported the Paniamor Foundation in promoting and raising awareness about children's rights and the prevention of violence, abuse and exploitation of children.

January 11th, 2019. Costa Rica enjoys quite a good image as a peaceful and tourist paradise. The decision taken decades ago to not have an army and the omnipresent environmentalism reinforces this image. Personally, I admire the decision to reject mining projects that the country authorities have seen as involving risks of damage to the environment and potential grave health consequences for people.

My volunteer post as Legal Advisor included strengthening the skills of the IBCR’s partner, the Paniamor Foundation, while promoting and raising awareness about children's rights and prevention of violence, abuse and exploitation. My role allowed me to work on issues most would not recognize in such a paradise. Even though Costa Rica is known for having a stable economy and ranked globally as an upper middle-income country , inequality persists. This inequality directly affects young adolescents as youth from marginalized areas face a greater vulnerability. Indeed, they face major difficulties getting access to a job. The opportunities that exist within the tourism industry do not turn into jobs for this population. This relates to employers who are reluctant to hire local youth and would rather give jobs to foreigners with better skills.

Knowing the importance that social structural changes has on human rights, I am convinced that the two remarkable projects from Paniamor (Girasoles and Youth Pathways) will positively impact young lives. I had the opportunity to meet and interact in November and December 2018 with more than one hundred teenagers and, I saw first-hand how development programmes motivate youth to change their future.

Overcoming the imminence

The Girasoles (Sunflowers) project focuses on women’s empowerment, social leadership and professional insertion in the labor market. It addresses the situation faced by young female teenagers, between 15 and 21 who are neither studying nor working and living in contexts characterized by social exclusion and conflict in vulnerable areas. The model project was started in the cities of Santa Cruz (province of Guanacaste) and Garabito (province of Puntarenas), two cities with vulnerable populations, at the North and Central Pacific coastline of Costa Rica.

As part of the project, these young women participate in workshops on employment skills such as customer service, tourism, food handling and ICT skills, among others. Physical artistic training is also part of the curriculum in order to prepare the participants for job interviews. In addition, the participants get to learn and practice teamwork, understand the gender gaps, ideal work environments and labour standards. Last, but not least, the girls learn soft and emotional skills, which play a big role in being employable.

After two years of different workshops and complementary training, from the 154 participants, 69 have obtained an internship, 21 have been hired (mostly in the tourism industry), 46 have resumed their studies and 10 have launched an entrepreneurial project.

As for the Youth Pathways project, it is an initiative where both boys and girls can participate and that will run as a pilot model project until 2020 in the Caribbean city of Limon (province of the same name). The adolescents follow a first trimester of soft skills training, after which they complete a 3-months internship, where they are trained in the workplace.

A first brief visit to the project center, where the workshops are held, allowed me to chat with some admirable young people. The teenagers attend daily classes, despite the difficulties of motherhood for some students and the lack of resources for transportation or food. Eager to learn, these young people were particularly interested in how different life in Canada is, our bilingualism, and of course, how to deal with the inclement weather.

Afterwards, I had the privilege of participating in the selection of the individuals who will take part in the second cohort of the project. Participating in a complete “challenge week”, the young aspirants demonstrated their desire and capacities to follow the whole programme with discipline. The impossibility of offering the programme to an unlimited number of teenagers forces Paniamor to implement standards to select candidates. The challenge week along with an individual interview seek to guarantee that the chosen young people, have the required skills to finish the programme and best use the offered opportunities.

These projects offer opportunities to participate in vocational training, aiming to help young people “overcome the paradigm of imminence as a way of life” (in the words of Gilda Pacheco, director of Paniamor) and understand the advantages of planning, in order to access better opportunities. With the purpose of making these projects sustainable in the long run, the model projects are offered to the government, so that they can be scaled up across the country. The State could benefit from proven strategies, using them to better comply with its international obligations to effectively ensure children’s rights.

The changes

Most of the young participants describe the process as a transformative experience. They highlight how the workshops have been helpful, not only in identifying their own abilities and competences, but also in overcoming self-confidence problems. This is especially recurrent in the case of young girls who are learning to recognize themselves as valuable and influential.

For instance, Lorena, an 18- year-old graduate from the first cohort of Girasoles quickly stood out as a creative and dynamic individual and was able to obtain a job within a regional well-known hotel chain.

Another case is that of Francini, a 17-year-old teenager who is also the mother of a five-year-old child. She struggled against prejudices and overcame her own shyness to become one of the leaders in her cohort. Her career and life inspirations include developing a personal entrepreneurship project and becoming an instructor in the technology field. To that end, she currently receives support of Girasoles to access educational training in technological skills.

Lastly, Tania, a 21-year-old girl who has just completed her development with the project in Limon. She recently shared with us her excitement of receiving a scholarship from Veritas University in San José (Costa Rica) following her participation in Youth Pathways, where she studied photography.

Continued strengthening

In the upcoming months, I will be facilitating workshops on the protection of children's rights, prevention of child marriage and trafficking of persons with the participants of the Youth Pathways second cohort. For myself, it is a great source of gratification to be invited to participate in this process and contribute to this commitment to build a more inclusive Costa Rica. That being said, it requires empowerment and socio-economic integration, especially in areas where exclusion and social conflict are rampant. In conclusion, capacity building for youth, and particularly for young women, is a step towards the elimination of poverty, a goal to which Canada contributes through the Volunteer Cooperation Program.