Subsistence farming or informal work – for many, these are the choices in life

SOS Children's Villages provides spaces where children can be children (photo: F. Espinoza)

Ipiales in the Nariño department has a population of roughly 139,000. It is located about 3 km from Colombia’s border with Ecuador. The main economic activity in the city is commerce, and a significant proportion of it is informal in nature.

Living conditions in the surrounding rural areas, where most people are indigenous subsistence farmers, can also be extremely tough, and people here still feel excluded from economic and political processes in the country. When the new Free Trade Agreement between the USA and Colombia was signed in 2011, around 7,000 people flooded the streets of Ipiales, protesting what they perceived as a threat to their livelihoods.

A steady stream of migrants in a city that never stands still

Due to its border location, the population of the city is always fluctuating. Many people from the countryside, especially young people traveling on their own, come to Ipiales in the hope of finding work here. In many cases, however, they cannot find any, leaving them no option but to eke out a living by informal means, e.g. as street vendors. At least 40 per cent of the commercial establishments in Ipiales are not officially registered.

Many people in this area have been forcibly displaced due to the violent conflict in Colombia. The trafficking of persons, including children, is also a problem. Young mothers are offered money to give away their babies, or young children are sold to traffickers and are taken to other countries to work, e.g. as domestic employees.

All in all, this border region, where people are incessantly coming and going, can be a very unsafe environment for children and young people as often, the parents themselves are in very vulnerable circumstances where they lack security, steady incomes, health care and education. It is these families and their children that SOS Children’s Villages aims to support.

What we do in Ipiales

An SOS family playing a board game together (photo: SOS archives)

SOS Children’s Villages began its work in Ipiales in 2003. We currently work in various locations throughout the Nariño department.

Strengthen families: Today, our social centres here offer a family strengthening programme, which aims to alleviate hardship in the community in a sustainable manner. Its services include day-care programmes, and a paediatric dentist and doctor are also available to the community.

In addition, the social centres host information events on topics such as nutrition and other health issues. Given the high occurrence of domestic violence, supporting women in the community is also a central concern. We offer further vocational training, allowing them to gain qualifications and thus increase their income and improve their societal status.

Care in families: For children in Ipiales who are no longer able to live with their parents, families provide a loving home. There are also foster families who provide short-term care for children; while the children are in our care, we work with their families of origin so that they can be reunited. Many of these families live integrated in the community.

Support for young people: When young people from the children’s village are ready to leave their family in order to pursue higher education or vocational training, our SOS Youth Programme provides shared accommodation for them. With the support of qualified counsellors, they learn to take on responsibility, plan their lives and prepare for independent adult life.

Advocacy: SOS Children's Village works with other organisations to improve the situation of families, and to offer appropriate care to children who can't live with their parents.