It’s natural to have your own personal reservations about what charity to choose when applying to volunteer abroad. The press doesn’t exactly promote a kind image of young people wanting to work in international development, marketing them as ‘third world groupies’, saving the world one ‘gap yah’ at a time. But after being here for just over a month now, it is clear to me that this is not another voluntourism fad. 

ICS only works with well-established national NGO’s who have requested support, and who plan projects according to their own objectives. Having an in-country understanding of what is needed allows the work of ICS and Progressio to be directed to positive and concise action. In our case, the partner-NGO is FUMA (Fundación Maquilishuatl), an organisation working towards economic empowerment and social justice. One of the key challenges currently in El Salvador is a lack of opportunity for young people, often leading them into a life of crime. 

A culture of crime and violence has unfortunately led to high levels of exclusion of young people in El Salvador’s public sphere, preventing them from participating in the socio-economic and political development of the country. Combined with high youth unemployment, there is mistrust among young people towards authority and institutions of governance due to this neglect, and their potential positive contribution to society is too often overlooked. This social exclusion only increases gang membership as a way of seeking alternative stability and identity; it’s estimated that between 20,000 and 35,000 young Salvadoreans belong to youth gangs, with an average age of 20. 

The social infrastructure across smaller rural towns in El Salvador also leaves young people with few opportunities and a lack of access to their rights. After education, there is limited progression for 18 to 24 year olds, and high levels of poverty, inequality, and dysfunctional family structures means a life of organised crime and violence becomes the more viable route. Here in Santa Catarina, it is more than likely that our host families will have at least one family member working in the United States, sending money back home, purely due to the fact that job opportunities are rare in these types of communities. For us volunteers, our centralised position in the town means it is highly unlikely for us to play witness to gang crime and violence, however drug and alcohol abuse is a very real problem, and the ambitions and goals of young people in the community can only be tainted from this becoming the norm.

It is for these reasons that for the past three cycles, Progressio has chosen to work alongside FUMA and MIJUDEM (Mesa Integral Juvenil), the local youth group. In February 2015, FUMA came to Santa Catarina Masahuat to engage with the community in the hope of creating an established youth group. By delivering different workshops on youth rights, leadership and sexual health for example, the aim was to not only give them transferable skills and prepare them for further employment, but to also build an understanding of their rights and inspire them to be active citizens in the community. 

After three months of this engagement, MIJUDEM was created. As it stands, there are 40 members who regularly meet and are trying to develop opportunities for themselves and each other, and to change the perceptions of youth in Santa Catarina. They run a popular theatre group who have performed in neighbouring towns, there are rap and hiphop dance groups, and they are currently working on their youth policy to help get financial support from the town Mayor.

The objective of the past three cycles of Progressio volunteers has been to strengthen and support MIJUDEM in their long term goals. Currently, Progressio is renting an office space in town that has been perfect for MIJUDEM as it has given them somewhere to host all their different activities. They have also had use of the old clinic building, which has been a great place for them to rehearse for their upcoming theatre productions. However, when we leave at the end of June, MIJUDEM will not be able to afford the rent of the office space, and shortly afterwards the Ministry of Health are taking over the old clinic building.

To resolve this, one of our main projects in this cycle is to build a meeting centre alongside the bio-park built by previous Progressio volunteers. Using bio-construction techniques, the building will be big enough to hold meetings to share ideas, workshops, and classes, and it will have a lockable storage room and a small paved outside area, all sheltered from the inevitable monsoons. 

We want to give MIJUDEM longevity so that when our cycle ends in a couple of months they are able to continue working with young people and helping them to build an understanding of their rights. The impact that organisations like MIJUDEM has on communities like Santa Catarina is irreplaceable; not just for physical opportunity, but for inspiring young people and allowing them to be involved in something positive for their future. 

Written by ICS volunteer Martha Baker-Woodside