More than 46 percent of Mexico’s population lives in poverty, according to UNICEF. Close to 53 million people lack access to education, healthcare, transportation and even the most basic necessities such as food and shelter. Youth in the country face a higher rate of poverty at more than 53 percent which accounts for twenty million children and adolescents with five million of those living in extreme poverty.
In Mexico City, the country’s capital, poor residents lack safe drinking water and sanitation. Incidents of crime and violence are high within the region. Many young girls and mothers face severe dangers living on the streets including the prospects of human trafficking and sexual exploitation, crime and gang violence. According to UNICEF, close to 240,000 abandoned children live on the streets of Mexico City and up to 90 percent of those have faced sexual exploitation by an adult.
Salesians working in Mexico City are directing their efforts toward the country’s at-risk population, including the girls and mothers living on the streets. Innovative programs are preventing poor youth from dropping out of school and are providing them important educational and training opportunities.
Through the “Yolia” program, girls and young women are able to spend their days at a Salesian center in the city where they can have meals, receive tutoring, obtain therapy and learn job skills such as jewelry making and hair styling. Some girls choose to live in the residential area where they receive additional education and services while finding a renewed sense of dignity and self-worth.
“Access to a program such as this helps to break the cycle of violence and poverty for these young girls,” says Father Mark Hyde, executive director of Salesian Missions, the U.S. development arm of the Salesians of Don Bosco. “They are able to live safely while getting the emotional support they need and the education that will help them live independently.”
Most of the girls in the program are adolescents but some have been as young as three years old and abandoned by their families. Salesians work with the young girls to provide for their basic needs so they are better able to focus on their studies. Salesian staff, including Salesian Lay Missioners, teach English classes and bring the girls to and from school. Additional tutoring is offered to help the girls with their studies as well as vocational programs to provide older girls with skills for employment. In addition, therapy is available to help face the emotional challenges resulting from the violence and exploitation the young women have endured.
The “Yolia” program empowers young women to overcome the discrimination they have faced while giving hem a greater awareness of their rights. It focuses on building character while allowing the young women the freedom to make decisions that affect their lives, improve their health and boost their work prospects.
“Girls education is important to the overall community,” adds Fr. Hyde. “Through education, these young women can change their lives. They can help bring their families out of poverty and contribute back to the communities in which they live.”