April 2021, Article written by A.S.Adventure, translated by Claire Dewberry.
The next time you see our house brand Ayacucho® hanging in your A.S.Adventure store, think about the strong social projects behind it. Every product sold generates funds for Solid, the Belgian non-profit organisation that works on sustainable community development in underprivileged areas in Peru, Kenya and India. With the local opportunities and products, they try to get people in poverty to work. For example, most of the knitwear in the Ayacucho collection is made in the region of the same name in Peru in the dedicated knitting workshop. The past year of COVID-19 was particularly difficult there. "There are barely 18 beds in intensive care, for a region where more than 600,000 people live", says Céline Drijkoningen from Solid.
Who is Céline Drijkoningen?
31 years old
Working for Solid since: May 2015, before that she was a volunteer
Function: Social Projects & Communications Manager
The partnership between A.S. Adventure and Solid is a sustainable one. For years, part of the sales of the Ayacucho collection has gone directly to the non-profit organisation. Thanks to this support Solid was able to set up social enterprises and projects in Peru, Kenya and India. The objective? Empowering the local population to get out of poverty by paying an honest wage and providing additional support to vulnerable groups. In the Peruvian region of Ayacucho, for example, Solid coordinates a social project that supports teenage mothers and the organisation set up a knitting workshop.
In Peru, the coronavirus pandemic turned the entire society upside down. "Seventy per cent of Peruvians work on the informal market," says Céline from Solid. "This means that they sell all sorts of things on the street. From chewing gum to coat racks. They live from day to day. With the arrival of the coronavirus, many of those people lost their income and ended up in poverty."
White flags have appeared here and there in front gardens in recent months. "That means: 'We have no food, we can't take it anymore'," says Céline. Harrowing situations, which made it difficult to maintain a lockdown. "The economic emergency was simply too great to strictly follow all the measures. The restaurants and shops therefore quickly reopened. Simply because people could not survive otherwise."
To the poorest, the government gave a one-time grant of 85 euros. "Solid also gave a boost to those who needed it. And we handed out food parcels. A more sustainable solution for some was to return to the countryside and live off the land."
Ayacucho in seven facts
Ayacucho is located in the Andes, between Lima and Cuzco, and is 2,760 metres above sea level.
The province of Ayacucho is 43,000 km2, which is slightly larger than the Netherlands. Approximately 616,000 people live there.
The city of Ayacucho is also called Huamanga.
Ayacucho means 'the corner of the dead'. This is because the last Peruvian war of independence against the Spaniards took place there in the 1820s.
In addition, in the 1980s and 1990s, Ayacucho was severely hit by the terrorist organisation 'the Shining Path'.
There are no less than 33 churches in Ayacucho, including the oldest in South America.
How many covid victims there were in Ayacucho is not quite clear. "The figures there are less reliable", says Céline. "All our team members know someone who died of the virus. That is painful."
Queuning up at the oxygen plant
There are far too few hospital beds in Ayacucho, and the vaccination campaign is slow to start. "There are about 300 ordinary hospital beds and barely 18 in the intensive care unit. There are waiting lists for all beds. It is also striking that many Peruvians become seriously ill from the virus. Respiratory and weight problems may have something to do with it. There are many diabetics in Peru.
For a while, there was an acute lack of oxygen tanks. "You can be in intensive care, but if there is no oxygen, it doesn't help you much," says Céline. The solution? An unusual initiative. "Through crowdfunding, which we at Solid contributed to, a so-called oxygen factory was opened." People are now queuing there to buy oxygen that can be administered at home. "It is about the only medical assistance that covid patients get there. Hospital beds, oxygen, medication, tests ... There is a shortage of everything."
The contrast between Belgium and Peru is striking. "You feel that the people there are in a very different situation than we are in here in Belgium. Vaccinations, for example, are much slower to be administered there. With Solid, we therefore chose to buy oxygen and employ a doctor. He follows up on all infected Solid employees and people we assist.”
Eleven years old and pregnant
Solid does everything in its power to play a positive role in a difficult situation. The organisation has thus also completely adapted its social project for teenage mothers in Ayacucho. "Teenage pregnancies are a well-known problem in the region," says Céline. "There is a lot of sexual violence. In addition, there is a lack of knowledge about contraception, because the education system does not offer it." Many children grow up in poverty and with domestic violence. "Young girls try to escape this by finding a boyfriend and leaving home. They yearn to get or give care and soon they get pregnant."
Solid focuses on prevention of teenage pregnancies and counsels about one hundred teenage mothers. There is also a shelter for victims of sexual violence. There is room for fifteen adolescents and three teenage mothers. "This year we are feeling the effects of the pandemic that started last year. And it is worse than we expected. We see that the age of the teenage mothers is dropping. While it used to be girls between 14 and 17, now children as young as 11 sometimes get pregnant. These are often girls who can no longer go to school because of corona and who end up sitting at home with their unemployed father. I don't have to draw a picture. It is harrowing."
Back to school
At this time with the pandemic, it is also less obvious than usual how to give these girls the right guidance. "Normally, we do home visits to the girls and inform them about everything related to pregnancy, childbirth, vaccinations and the health of their baby. But because of the pandemic, we cannot organise home visits and the teenage mothers can no longer easily go to the health posts for their medical follow-up or contraception.
So the team of ten midwives and nurses try to reach them mainly by telephone. They put extra emphasis on the girls' emotional well-being, both as teenagers and as mothers. "That is necessary to let them build a positive bond with their child. These girls have difficulty trusting and are not used to having someone listen to their concerns."
Schools have been switching to online education for over a year now. This is often a major obstacle for families who do not have access to the Internet. "Fortunately, thanks to our support and that of our partners, the teenage mothers in our project can continue their education online," says Céline. "With the help of a Dutch foundation, we were able to buy mobile phones to distribute to the girls. This way, we can still reach them now that home visits are difficult. And it gave them the opportunity to watch educational videos about teenage pregnancy. A great success!
Stereotypical role patterns are still very dominant in Peru. The woman is responsible for the household and the children, even when they become mothers as teenagers. "Many partners or parents of these girls expect them to stop their studies and take on full time childcare. The shift to online education was an opportunity for many of these girls to show that, in addition to caring for their child, they want to fight for a better future. With an extra push from Solid, for example by offering a mobile phone, internet and educational guidance, many girls are still able to continue their secondary education through an online weekend program."
"In Peru, sexual violence is still very present," Céline explains. "It was also a weapon for the terrorist organisation the Shining Path in the 1980s and 1990s. Out of fear of losing income - for example when the perpetrator is a breadwinner in the family - a complaint is rarely filed. And if it does happen, it is too often dismissed. It is assumed that the girl has consented or that she is old enough.”
To earn money, many teenage mothers used to work as cleaners or street vendors. "Because of the pandemic, those jobs are gone. A lot of girls had no choice but to go to the countryside and live with their grandparents or other relatives, to try to survive there. Keeping in touch with the teenage mothers is also difficult because of this."
Solid and A.S. Adventure: working together
Since 2009, every product sold from the Ayacucho® collection by A.S.Adventure has generated new funds for Solid's ongoing projects and new initiatives. This Belgian development organisation is committed to sustainable community development in underprivileged areas in Peru, Kenya and India. We owe the name of our private brand Ayacucho to the region of the same name in the Peruvian Andes, where Solid's story began. But also in Kenya and India, the NGO wants to give the local population a helping hand with intensive training and guidance for vulnerable groups, so that they can take their fate into their own hands.
Knitting at home
It was not only for the project concerning teenage mothers that things changed drastically last year. The same goes for the knitting workshop, where the hand-knitted items of the Ayacucho collection are made. "On average, one hundred and eighty knitting mothers work for us," says Céline. "Their exact number varies depending on the season." In normal times, those mothers work from Solid's knitting studio. But that's where the organisation has to limit the number of attendees these days.
"Some of the knitting mothers now knit from home and only come to the workshop to pick up wool and for quality control of their knitwear." The pandemic meant that many materials arrived late, resulting in less production time. "In addition, knitting from home was slower because the children were home-schooled. It was all hands on deck to get the orders done."
For two months, the workshop was completely closed. "During that period, many knitters moved to the countryside to make a living from the land. Most of them have a field there, so fortunately that is a safety net," says Céline. "But it is not easy. We have some agricultural projects with Solid in which we encourage young people to make a living out of agriculture, instead of looking for underpaid jobs in the city. Now, during the corona crisis, we notice that these young people are doing very well and that their products are flying out the door. So it is logical that others are also moving to the countryside to survive."
Returning to the countryside means losing income and living off what they can grow. "The living conditions there are really basic," says Céline. "They live in small, mud houses. They cook on the ground and sleep next to the cooking pots. The potatoes or grains they grow fill the stomach, but there are not many vegetables or fruits in the typical diet. A vitamin deficiency is common."
Wearing masks, washing hands, keeping your distance ... In Peru it is even less evident than here. "A large proportion of the knitters did not finish primary school and have difficulty understanding the entire pandemic and all the measures that need to be taken. With sufficient information and the provision of masks and soap, we try to get everyone on board in the prevention of the virus. For some there are practical obstacles, for example due to no running water in the house."
Despite everything, the knitting mothers managed to get the ordered knitwear ready on time. And that without compromising on quality. "Everything we had to produce, we got done. All our customers were satisfied." A boost in particularly difficult times.
Even in a severe pandemic, beautiful things can occur. "I see a lot of resilience in our teams, the young people and the knitting women," says Céline. "The pandemic brought connections with other partners, so that together we could help those in need. The first lockdown also brought more connection within many families. In the knitting workshop, we saw even more fighting spirit to deliver quality products and thus create more jobs." And the teenage mothers? "They are extremely grateful that they were able to be part of the project at this time and form a network of girls in a similar situation. The opportunity they were given to receive online education, they have grabbed with both hands."