El Alto

The Aymara city of El Alto is in a state of crisis – but its people will not give up hope

Kinder in den Straßen von El Alto (Foto: D. Sansoni)

El Alto was once a suburb of La Paz, but today it is one of Bolivia’s fastest growing cities. Located at an altitude of around 4,000 meters above sea level it has a population of over 900,000, the majority of them indigenous Aymara. Two thirds of the population arrived here after 1985 when changing economic policies resulted in a trend towards mass urbanisation.

In October 2003, El Alto was at the heart of the uprising that eventually ousted then president Lozada and made way for the new socialist government of Evo Morales. Life has improved in Bolivia since then, especially for the previously marginalised and excluded indigenous population. But the struggle is by no means over.

Children need protection and support in order to become healthy, successful adults  

El Alto is Bolivia’s youngest city in demographic terms, with 77 per cent of the population below the age of 24. It is also one of the country’s poorest cities with the highest number of people living in poverty, lacking basic facilities such as sanitation or running water. Because El Alto is a migrant town, it lacks planning and infrastructure. Waste is a big problem and poses a health hazard. Traffic and pollution are out of control, crime rates are high and brothels are common.

Most people here do not have formal work; they sell merchandise or homemade food in the streets. Consequently, they lack security and a regular income, which makes ensuring sufficient food for their family impossible at times. Often, children are expected to contribute to the family income by working, e.g. shining shoes or selling sweets on the streets.

A childhood spent in such poverty can seriously hinder the physical, mental and cognitive development of a child. Young parents and single mothers in particular, need support so that their children can break the cycle of poverty and look forward to a healthy and secure future.

What we do in El Alto

A smiling young woman from El Alto (photo: F. Espinoza)
SOS Children’s Villages began its work in El Alto in 2003. Our social centres here provide a family strengthening programme that aims to alleviate hardship in the community in a holistic and sustainable manner. The programme includes a day-care centre for toddlers and a childminding programme that allows working parents and single mothers to leave their children in safe hands while they are out making a living.

For children in El Alto who are no longer able to live with their parents, twelve SOS families can provide a loving home for up to 108 children. They live here with their brothers and sisters and are affectionately cared for by their SOS mothers.

When young people are ready to leave their family home in order to pursue further education or vocational training, our SOS Youth Programme makes shared accommodation available to them. With the support of qualified counsellors, they can plan their future, take on more responsibility and prepare for an independent life.