Life is not easy on the streets of the so-called “risk zones” of San Salvador. For years, youth gangs, or maras, have controlled these areas to mug, threaten and extort locals, and as recruiting grounds for new members. For a long time, residents there were at the mercy of the gangs.
Bryan, a twenty-something Salvadorian, knows these “hoods” all too well. “It is quite a dangerous area…” he says. So much so that “we began to think we wouldn’t survive to see another day,” says Cristina, a student who lives in one of these hot neighborhoods.
Hope for a safer future, though, is in the air: melodies and tunes from the apt fingers and vocal chords of these young Salvadorians taking up music lessons to keep away from trouble.
To offer kids an alternative to gang life, a Bank supported project attempts to keep at-risk youth busy through cultural and musical activities. The initiative also encourages them to develop skills in music and the arts.
The program ambitious goal: is to create a music academy and a choir for young people. Plans are also in the making to form a youth symphony orchestra and to implement participatory cultural dissemination activities in San Salvador risk zones.
Similar initiatives are all the rage in neighboring Honduras and Guatemala, where violence prevention programs are key elements of the region’s strategy to address rising citizen insecurity. Averaging 14,000 homicides per year, Central America is one of world’s most violent regions. Security and health costs associated to crime and violence can be as much as 8% of GDP.
The success of these initiatives in keeping youth safe is music to experts’ ears:
"We are committed to these children and young people who are transforming their present for a better future. The music has helped them all to have discipline, motivation, self-confidence and, above all, a perspective of life. Their young teachers are true leaders who make a difference in the lives of these students," said Maria Gonzalez de Asis, World Bank senior public sector specialist and leader of this project.
Since 2010, the Japanese Social Development Fund has donated nearly US$1 million to the project, enabling 175 young Salvadorians to take up music classes and learn to play a musical instrument. These after-school workshops fill the youth’s free time, keeping them out of trouble.