Peer Outreach

The Fénix Model of Peer Leader Outreach

Fundación Social Fénix is a Colombian NGO that, on the one hand, is a peer support group for socially excluded young women in transition from adolescence to adulthood, from institutional life to independence and from high school to university education in caring professions and health sciences. Fénix organises funding for those with no or inadequate families so that young people with no resources but with strong motivation and capacities, can become outstanding practitioners.

At the same time they train in mentoring and leadership and each becomes responsible for guiding a new member.

Their own experiences of neglect, abuse and exploitation turn into strengths.

Through agreements with other voluntary and state organisations Fénix members begin to repay the benefits they receive by using their growing knowledge and skills with far more vulnerable young people who are still on the street.

Members work under a Bogotá Health Department agreement to contact, motivate and counsel girls in high risk street prostitution, drug use and all the associated problems of early pregnancy, violence, malnutrition, psychological damage, self-harm and exposure to sexually transmitted infections and HIV.

The Fénix model is effective, low-cost and replicable because it uses peer leaders who can use the same language and codes, know from the inside what it means to be an outsider and can feel a street girl’s pain and understand the constant crises, dangers and obstacles in their everyday lives.

The Fénix model of peer leader outreach is based on:

1)  Participatory intervention;

2)  Sharing their lives and spaces;

3)  Fighting for their rights;

4)   Signposting their pathways back into society;

5)   Cultivating sustainable street-corner leadership;

6)   Developing networks of mutually supportive organizations.

The outreach group is currently working in the areas of San Victorino and Calles 18 to 24 in Santafe, in the centre of Bogotá, and opening up contacts in three new areas of San bernado, Las Cruces and Los Mártires, where there are intensive drug dealing and consumption, prostitution, delinquency, severe poverty and violence, for which latter reason there is no community work by state or voluntary organisations.

To help engage the most vulnerable girls a strategy of psychotherapy in situ is proposed, as well as attention in another, safe, location, contracting a psychologist who already attends some girls in the street programme. The majority have been victims of childhood sexual abuse, with serious psychological consequences especially post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression which need prolonged therapy that cannot be obtained through any government body.

The process of engagement and motivation for change require handling the whole range of needs of each child – identity documents, health care, etc. – with intensive and constant guidance and assistance through paperwork and establishing their rights.

Fénix has built up a support network of institutions and has capable and motivated members, but needs further resources to increase our capacity to attend more girls in situations of extreme risk.

To provide a more detailed description of the gravity of the situation of these children two short documents follow

Extract from the field notes of Timothy Ross, 29 09 09.

Key informant Andres, a dread-locked old hippy and street drug dealer from Carrera 7a offers to accompany me through "La L",  six blocks of crowded central city open air crackhouse and dope market, stalls selling sacks of marijuana, loose joints, basuco, pills, cheap alcohol and restaurant leftovers, jammed between labyrinthine slums. Stumbling hollow cheeked desperate men try to sell broken pairs of shoes and stolen cellphones for the price of a packet of basuco or beg for a 100 peso coin. Most have head lice, scabies, skin infections and the encrusted filth of long term rough sleeping. They are constantly huffing glue from bags, sucking on base pipes or smoking marijuana spliffs, some are passed out in the mud, others squat tossing dice and quarrelling incoherently. Older women wrapped in blankets smile hopelessly through splintered brown teeth.

A gaunt teen girl with yellow skin offers herself to me in exchange for drugs. Andres introduces me to other girls aged 14, 15 and 17 who prostitute for cocaine. Diana is obsessively scraping out the ashes from her basuco pipe. Juliana, her lips dry and split from smoking basuco, pulls up the leg of her jeans to show me a half-healed bullet wound. There are no dogs: they have been eaten.

I call out to Maribel from La Mariposa as she runs through an alley but she is too busy on some drug errand to stop and talk.  Ana Milena is on the corner, four months pregnant but not in ante-natal controls so we arrange a date to take her to the Hospital La Perseverancia. Maria Nairobi is sitting behind a table covered with baskets full of marijuana, her smile and green eyes wide in surprise at seeing me. She has more tattoos than last time I saw her.

“ La L” backs on to an army barracks but is quite cut off from any other world, a ghetto for the helplessly addicted, a distillate of pathologies.

Imagine a mixture of Hogarth, Hieronymus Bosch and bedlam, violence you can almost feel and a stench that clings to you hours later.

There is more concentrated squalor than the old Cartucho and it is one of the vilest places I know.

Summary of the case history of a recently contacted 15 year old girl:

“Ana was brought up in a south Bogotá barrio by her mother, sporadically employed as a domestic servant and in street sales. She had a series of step-fathers, the last of whom raped her repeatedly from the age of 9 to 12. Her mother never listened to her complaints but eventually accused her of seducing him,  and threw her out of the house. With only primary schooling and unable to find any work in order to survive she soon learned to sell her body She was twice taken by the police to state institutions, where she could not bear the authoritarian atmosphere and ran away. She began to consume glue and marihuana at 13 and at 14 was made pregnant by her ‘boyfriend’, in reality a pimp who took her money and physically abused her to force her to prostitute herself.  On leaning that she was pregnant he vanished taking her documents, belongings and clothes and leaving her with debts to pay for the rent. Ana made a suicide attempt and increased her drug use and prostitution.”