For children living in Paraguay, home is anything but a place of comfort.
Sleepless nights are not unusual when they face not only domestic abuse, but child labor and sex trafficking as well.
According The World Bank Database, as of 2015, more than 22 percent of Paraguayans live below the poverty level.
Due to the level of poverty in Paraguay, many people use a practice known as Criadazgo, in which young boys and girls from low status families are sent to families of higher means as servants.
The children fulfill needs that can range from cooking and cleaning to physical and sexual abuse. Often times the places in which they stay are small and dilapidated, making for poor living conditions.
The U.S. Department of State estimates that as of 2018, 46,000 children were working as domestic servants in Paraguay.
Paraguay is known as a destination country for sex trafficking and forced labor of young men, women and children, according to the U.S. Department of State 2018 Trafficking In Persons Report.
The report also states that many young Paraguayan women and girls are victims of sex trafficking within the country. The limited nature of the Paraguayan reproductive health care system leads many of these victims to turn to abortion as the answer to young pregnancy.
Although abortion is illegal in Paraguay, it attributes to one third of maternal deaths, according to the Pan American Health Organization.
“Paraguay is a country of neglect and it’s been handed down from generation to generation,” Michelle Kvandall, founding member of Su Refugio Ministries said.
Su Refugio Ministries is an orphanage that started in Paraguay in 2007 and expanded to become a non-profit organization in 2013.
Through the ministry, Michelle and her husband Scott Kvandall started caring for orphans in Paraguay, many of whom have faced some form of abuse.
“We see a lot of sexual abuse and lack of care,” Michelle said. “There were several cases with children in our care where parents have sex trafficked their children to provide for their alcohol and substance abuses.”
Having worked with the children in Paraguay for the past 12 years, Michelle noticed many of them wouldn’t even lift their eyes up to make eye contact with her at first. They were traumatized from their past experiences.
“My heart is broken for these children that did not ask to be put in this situation,” Michelle said. “It’s wrecked me. I’m not the same and I see the world so differently.”
Over time, she said the children started to warm up to her and felt free to relax in a safe environment for the first time.
“It’s wonderful to see their transformation...one child at a time,” Michelle said.
Another member of Su Refugio Ministries, Charlotte Mishler, is a retired teacher of 40 years who now teaches english to the children of Paraguay through an english academy she started there.
Simple things such as reciting the alphabet is a daily struggle the kids face. Mishler even had a 13-year-old who hadn’t finished second grade yet.
“We try our best to help them feel safe, feel loved and understand that they’re there because we care,” Mishler said. “I just hoped I was able to make that [education] important down there.”
Mishler is the sponsor coordinator at Su Refugio Ministries and relays messages between the kids in Paraguay and their sponsors here in the United States.
One way that people here in the States can help is by becoming the sponsor of a child from Paraguay or donating to similar organization. A little bit can go a long way.
“The amount of abuse that goes on seems to be so accepted. It happens so much people seem to be a little callous about it,” Mishler said. “I want people to understand that it makes a huge difference in these kids lives knowing that people from another country could care about them.”
By Morgan Therrien