from IPS News
By Marcela Valente
BUENOS AIRES, An ambitious new programme for training health agents to help reduce infant mortality in small rural communities and indigenous villages, launched by one of Argentina’s best-known human rights groups, drew many more applicants than the organisers had hoped for.
"We expected 500 people to register, but we had to expand the programme to 800, and many health professionals even signed up," Oscar Natalichio, extension secretary at the Popular University of the Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo, told IPS.
The University was created by the Madres (Mothers) of Plaza de Mayo, a group founded during Argentina’s 1976-1983 dictatorship to demand that their sons and daughters, who were "disappeared" by the military regime, be returned to them alive.
The formal name of the health agent project, which has the backing of the Ministry of Social Development, is "’Mothers’ Territory’ National Labour Plan for Promotion and Training in Child Development", better known as "Territorio Madres".
It was launched in mid-April with introductory workshops in Chapadmalal, a village in the southern part of the province of Buenos Aires.
"We are going to put an end to poverty and ignorance, and improve the health services, all of us working together," promised the president of the Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo, Hebe de Bonafini, at the start of the programme, accompanied by Minister of Social Development Alicia Kirchner, President Cristina Fernández’s sister-in-law.
Professors from the Popular University and universities in the provinces will provide the applicants with training in areas like primary health care, child development and social work. The students will be split into two groups of 400. The first group begins the course in May.
"The participants have at least a high school diploma, and we especially asked for experience in community work with small children. They will be trained to detect problems that can be referred to professionals in the health sector, social work or education. Many of the people who signed up are actually doctors," said Natalichio with evident surprise.
Romina Colachi, secretary of extension at the psychology department in the National University at Mar del Plata, 400 km south of Buenos Aires, told IPS that in her region, applicants included psychologists, social workers, students of psychology and social work, and members of indigenous communities.
"This is a very heterogeneous group that shares, nonetheless, a common experience and objective: working with children," said Colachi. In her psychology department, students have already been working with children in the areas of sexual abuse and domestic violence.
"Now our work will expand, because we have joined a nationwide programme that has support from the state," she said enthusiastically.
According to the latest Health Ministry statistics, child mortality stood at 13.3 infants under the age of one for every 1,000 live births in 2005. But that average conceals huge disparities between provinces. In the northern province of Formosa, for example, the rate climbs to 25.1 for every 1,000 live births, compared to just eight in Buenos Aires.
Reducing infant mortality is one of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted by United Nations members in 2000. The fourth MDG is to cut the mortality rate among children under five by two-thirds by 2015, from 1990 levels. In addition, Argentina has committed itself to narrowing the gap between any two regions to no more than 10 percent.
"What we want is not for people to earn a diploma to hang on their wall, but for them to go and get involved, on the ground," said Natalichio.
Colachi agreed on the need to live up to that challenge. "The plan must then move into a second stage, in which the trained agents are hired in the communities, and become, in turn, trainers," she said.
For the training programme, "Territorio Madres" divided the country into 10 regions covering two or three provinces each.
The students will take the courses at a university or social agency with experience in working in children’s health issues, in the main city in each of the 10 regions.
Besides the Mar del Plata and Madres de Plaza de Mayo universities, training will be provided by the Autonomous University of Entre Ríos, in the eastern province of that name, the University of Río Cuarto, located in the central province of Córdoba, and several social organisations that work with children.
The health agents will later be hired to work in indigenous communities or rural towns and villages with populations of less than 2,000. Financing for scholarships has come from the Ministry of Social Development, and the organisers hope the government will continue to provide support for the agents’ fieldwork.
The course itself is tuition-free, and students who must bus in from other towns will be given free housing and meals for the one week a month when the classes are on, as well as a monthly scholarship of 100 dollars for travelling costs and other expenses.
At the introductory workshops held earlier this month in Chapadmalal by the Ministry of Social Development and the Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the participants were presented with the subject matter to be studied, and the final objectives of the course were explained to them.