Sr Mary Ann Neylon returned to her home in Peru this week after her recent visit to Clare. Before she left, she spoke to The Clare Champion about the fundraising efforts of her home parish of Inagh and the surrounding areas and her work combating family violence in Huaycan.
For 25 years, Sr Mary Ann has lived and worked in Peru. Before that, she worked in the Phillipines for eight years, having joined the Columban order 50 years ago.
For the past four years, she has been working on “the prevention of family violence with youth, to help build self-esteem and awareness skills with young people”.
Sr Mary Ann explained, “We have a project working in two secondary schools and one in the community. This is a project with male and female youths and together they learn values, mutual respect and awareness.”
Sr Mary Ann trained in social sciences and tries to upskill, particularly in the area of family and gender violence.
“I have been looking at the position of women and violence against women, just because they are women. How do you bring an alternative to that and show that women are equal? But there is no immediate solution and we have to look at different approaches and about how women and men learn together and change together and look at roles and positions in society,” she said.
Huaycan is located in the foothills of the Andes, about 25km from Lima. There are some local businesses but much of the population travels to Lima early in the morning each day for work, while others are in unskilled, casual employment. According to Sr Mary Ann, the family and economic structure of the area results in children being vulnerable to negative influences.
“Huaycan is an area that started 30 years ago and we now have a lot of single-parent families, mainly run by women. Because the women go out to work to raise a living, to feed their children, so many children are left by themselves.
“Our programme gives them something positive they can do, a programme of self-esteem, awareness, education, formation, drama. The young people love to do socio drama, they love to reflect on their reality,” she explained.
“One problem for youth is the traffic of persons. The most vulnerable are teenagers who are lulled into jobs, where they are promised good salaries, and it is all false or the jobs are abusive. They could be trafficked within the country or to other parts of South America or to Europe. They are vulnerable to anything. Some have been rescued by agencies after having lost their freedom, either lured by drugs or the enticement of salaries, or just an escape from their situation,” she added.
Much of the Huaycan population is made up of people who have fled political instability and violence in the mountain areas and Sr Mary Ann notes there is “quite a lot of domestic violence” evident there. The programme she works with is aimed at teaching mutual respect between young men and women.
“I had been working in the area of violence against women, gender violence, and seeing the family situation and if one could prevent this violence. The earlier one starts with this, the better. If boys and girls together become aware, they can work together and use drama, music and dance – the youth who have been involved have said this has helped them immensely to become aware that there are other ways of communicating.
“You can have respect and be assertive, not aggressive. The youths who have taken part have greater self-esteem, they know themselves better, they communicate better and they can plan their future in a way which, hopefully, is non-violent, respectful of themselves and of others. And hopefully they can live without the use of drugs and alcohol,” she outlined.
Like in many rural areas, boys are seen as a better investment than girls so their education is often prioritised.
“One big thing is the opportunity for education, whether that be formal or informal education, where people have time to reflect on their reality, look at their values, their situation and analyse it. People, especially in poorer areas, haven’t got that opportunity,” Sr Mary Ann explained.
“On this side of the world, there is more opportunity for education and further education. That exists in Peru too but, in Huaycan, many do not have the opportunity to go to school. Children are working at a very young age to try to help the family, so that opportunity doesn’t exist fully. There is a need for a project to help people to reflect and grow and get education informally,” she added.
Sr Mary Ann believes her 25 years in Huaycan have been worthwhile, not just because of the impact she has had there but also the impact her work and the people there have had on her.
“I see a growing number of people getting into better positions and even the youth, people have mentioned, they feel more confident, they can go into drama or write or enhance their musical skills or whatever means of social expression. They also have more confidence in group situations. They know that people together can learn,” she said.
“I am learning a lot too,” she continued. “It is not giving. I am facilitating and learning and we are trying to see where human beings working together can improve each other’s lives. There is an amount I have learned from the people because they are very community-conscious. They support each other, especially in times of tragedy and family problems because, really, there aren’t social services to the same extent as here,” she said.
Sr Mary Ann believes, “What is important is looking at what people have to offer and not what they lack, especially in terms of community and wider family and inclusion of people in spite of differences.”
Sr Mary Ann paid tribute to all in Clare who fundraised to enable her to continue her work.