Last month Dr Miriam Stoppard made an emotional journey to Colombia to meet a very special girl and hear inspiring stories
I’m sitting in a truck driving across the city of Cartagena in Colombia, South America.
I’m here to visit Mariana, a little girl of five years old, who lives in a very poor community 12 miles outside Cartagena along unmade roads and often rutted tracks.
I’ve been sponsoring Mariana since she was a baby through the charity Plan UK and I’m very excited at the prospect of meeting her for the first time.
Over the years I’ve collected photos of Mariana and letters her mother has written to me – in Spanish and translated – and I reckon Mariana’s mum has collected my letters for her.
I’ve imagined many times how this meeting might go. I’m a stranger to Mariana and she could reject me. But I underestimate her.
As I step from the truck she rushes towards me, arms outstretched and leaps into my arms. She hugs me and laughs. I hug her and cry. It’s a very emotional moment for me.
She doesn’t leave my side, sitting on my knee or holding my hand. The family have pinned up welcoming signs written in English and Mariana has compiled a book for me, “Mi Albun”, containing her life story and drawings.
In her tiny house with earth floors, her mum serves drinks and a big bowl of fruit, which I’m duty-bound to consume. Fortunately, a cousin and a neighbour’s child help me out.
And then to Mariana’s school where her classmates and their parents are waiting to greet us. Her teacher gives us a slide show about Mariana, all the class sing a song, Mariana does an animated solo and it’s time to say goodbye.
Mariana has given me an experience I’ll never forget.
She’s one of seven children, all girls, that I sponsor with Plan UK in different parts of the world. Thirty years ago, I joined Plan and have sponsored almost 30 children.
With Plan you not only change the life of a needy child but also her family and her community. Your sponsorship goes towards clean water, schools, books, school meals, health education and clinics.
It’s wraparound care and I like that.
But mainly it’s about transforming children’s lives – breaking the poverty cycle, opening up their options, widening horizons, giving them a chance for a better life.
Meeting Mariana, who told me with great self-confidence that she wanted to be a doctor, I realised her care has to be continuous. I have to be there for her for the long haul, even after I’m gone.
Mariana is my reason for being in Colombia, but there’s much more I mean to see. Firstly, here’s some background.
Abuse of girls and women is widespread in Colombia, be it physical, sexual or within the family. Every two hours a child is sexually abused in Colombia. It’s a mammoth task to counteract this culture and stop girls feeling and behaving like victims.
Another aspect of child sexual abuse is the high number of teen pregnancies in Colombia: one in three girls gets pregnant in adolescence.
I visit a project where teenage boys and girls are educated specifically in how to protect themselves from violence and exploitation.
After six months of this training the teenagers can consolidate their independence by taking a course at a technical college in cooking, beauty, IT and jewellery making. Students embrace this chance for a future career with enthusiasm.
I meet four trainee jewellers who have joined up to work together, under the careful eye of a volunteer master jeweller.
And they’re successful. They’re fulfilling a contract for a Canadian gift catalogue for 500 pairs of silver earrings and I watch as they expertly fashion the silver wire into gorgeous shapes.
They’ve managed to start a sustainable business and they’re courageously trying to escape the forces that have trapped them and their families in poverty and to forge a new life.
In Pozon, another very poor community near Cartagena, I visit a centre for teen mums. None is over 18, the youngest is 16.
They meet for companionship but also for teaching on nutrition, antenatal care, hygiene, home care, breast feeding and baby care. They start the day with “Breakfast with Love” and are taught to cook healthy meals.
The mums are industrious, expertly sewing baby clothes as we chat, and they breast-feed their babies on demand throughout the morning. The babies are contented and hardly cry.
All the mums are well-nourished. None are fat. They don’t smoke. In the UK, almost six out of 10 teenage mothers smoke during pregnancy to the detriment of their babies.
And when I speak to them they’re universally positive and eager to return to school. I’m really impressed with their maturity and determination to make something of their lives. They are breaking the bonds of deprivation.
Girls like these teenage mums are supported by a scheme we in the UK would do well to emulate: “communitarian” mothers, who are mature family women with training in health, pregnancy, breast-feeding, baby care and nutrition.
They see all the pregnant women in their community once a week for a chat and a check, giving advice and heading off potential problems.
They help with labour and birth and make sure breast-feeding becomes established. Then they see the babies weekly up to six months to make sure they are thriving.
After my meeting with Mariana, the high spot of my visit to Colombia turns out to be a school in Camino De Luz, another deprived community outside of Cartagena.
This is a school with a difference because it provides wraparound care for preschool children and it’s the brainchild of Plan.
It’s a regular part of daily life to over 100 children coming from neighbouring communities. When we arrive playtime is in full swing and we’re greeted by crowds of joyous children clamouring for attention.
Crucial to the success of this school is the close involvement of parents, particularly mothers who I meet and chat to.
These mothers are eager to give their children what they never had and will do anything to ensure a better life for them. They’re wistful about chances they missed but are nonetheless bent on improving their own lot with study and hard work.
What this school does is a revelation. Lessons, it turns out, are remarkably similar to those my grandchildren have in the UK but there are special elements.
In one classroom, children are having a lesson in self-expression and creativity – dancing, laughing, banging things together and singing. There won’t be a problem with these confident children standing up for themselves.
There’s a library and there are two four-year-olds looking at books – one is Where the Wild Things Are. A great scheme has sprouted from this tiny library. It’s called the Moving Bag of Books.
Each child takes home a bag of books for their parents to read and to look at together. Next morning the books move on to another child.
Lunchtime arrives and kids line up by the basins for lessons in hand-washing before eating, which, hopefully, will become a lifelong habit.
The kids get three meals, plus milk and fruit from 9am-3pm at school. They have to. There may be little food at home.
This school is a trailblazer. That morning before school started, there was a workshop for mothers on defending themselves from sexual abuse. It was in the form of theatre with characters acting the roles of abuser and victim. Much more powerful than a lecture.
My trip ends with a glorious event in Bogota – a celebration of the United Nation’s Day of the Girl, being marked all over the world. In London, the Eye was pink for the day, as were the pyramids in Egypt and the Empire State building in New York.
We are treated to a stunning concert by Ilona, the Rihanna of Colombia, who’s joined on stage by girls of 10, 11, 12 who Plan has plucked from poverty and changed their lives with education and love.
These girls are irresistible, full of spirit and hope. A 10-year-old tells the huge audience gathered to celebrate girls, that, to her, respect feels like love. Any 10-year-old in the UK would say the same.
I started my trip with Mariana, embarking on her transformational journey out of poverty. On the Day of the Girl, I see Colombian girls transformed. I’ve come full circle.