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“Diminishing social inequality is the most urgent challenge of our societies”

One of the most frequent sentences to define what they do is “professionals that help lessen human suffering in all its expressions.” They are, in any case, those who discover the gaps by which societies may be at risk of disintegrating at any given moment.

A few days ago close to 400 social workers met at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia (UNal) to celebrate the “XXII Latin American Seminar on Social Work”, organized by the National Education Council for Social Work and the Latin American Association of Education and Research in Social Work.

What is the vision of social workers of Latin America today, how much on their transverse and direct intervention, such as in teaching, supervision, mediation or prevention perceive the changes that societies are living on a daily basis? UN Periódico Digital spoke to one of the participants of the event, Silvana Martínez, Ph.D. in Social Studies and M.Sc. in Social Work and current President of IFSW.

UN Periódico Digital (UNPD): From the social work perspective, which is the greatest change that Latin American has?

Silvana Martínez (S.M.): The privatizations of certain public utilities have endured in the last decades in Latin America has had an important transformational effect because this has meant a change of the idea we have of our rights.

These forms of suffering that we frequently encounter in our societies (poverty and ignorance, for instance) do not have an adequate response as companies that provide many of the public utilities have a merchant vision and the government does not ensure the most vulnerable population access to fundamental rights (healthcare, education, housing).

The predominating and standardized notion is that only those who have the economic resources can “consume” determined services. Therefore, there are no rights, but privileges.

Concentration, exclusion, and inequality

UNPD: Which are the most oppressive issues in our region?

S.M.: Social inequalities, which are many, are the first and these cross with another large issue, which is social exclusion. This does not come only as a consequence of poverty but also due to gender issues and political positions.

Along with wealth concentration and the increased gaps between the rich and the poor, we also need to mention gender violence, which continues to characterize us as patriarchal societies.
Social workers also encounter violence which now is more frequent in broken-down urban areas and the violence coming from the work environment.

UNPD: What does social work contribute to solving these issues?

S.M.: Our contribution, in the first place, while shedding light on these situations, which our society many times ignores, are not perceived as social issues susceptible of a response by part of public policies. This is why the protesting character of our research and our practical work is many times the basis for other actors to begin to take action. Often we can begin to explain the causes and consequences of the problems we’ve been identifying. Recognizing and explaining are fundamental to create awareness of the rights and build and organize the work necessary to demand compliance.

In order for these rights to be acted upon we require active social policies. However, in our region, just a small percentage is devoted to this, only 15% of the gross GDP, 20% less than in Europe and 10% less than in the U.S. for social policies.

UNPD: What challenges are there to social cohabitation due to the accelerated urbanization process of our countries and the demographic change evidenced in a fast-growing aging of the population?

S.M.: An important challenge is democratizing housing processes and city growth. Therefore we need more fluent relations between the communities and the government to avoid social crises situations which are the product of compulsive relocations, which produce identity crises as there is a rupture in social networks.

Especially when people are taken away from areas where urban development is disorganized and led to places completely different from their normal environment.

If integration programs do not exist, the elderly will be a serious issue, as only 30% of the people older than 65 have a pension and in women the issue is greater as only 21% have some type of pension protection.

But this cannot avoid us to forget another very vulnerable group and which is still a very important part of our population: children and youngsters. According to data of the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLA), 63 and 45% respectively live in poverty.

Violence as a product on inequality

UNPD: Why is Latin America so violent? What response is there from the social work perspective?

S.M.: The most powerful explanation is because we are in the most unequal part of the planet. Where we have the highest wealth concentration and there is not an equal distribution of the goods produced socially by our people.

There is a lack of opportunities for most of the population. This is why we see the jail full of poor people. However what generates violence is not poverty but inequality.

UNPD:  Besides domestic and social violence, what other problems should we take into consideration more urgently in Latin America?

S.M.: Democratization and wealth distribution to diminish social inequality is the most urgent challenge in our societies. No society can be sustained with such a concentration of wealth.

In the second place, the environmental impact is producing a predator development economic model which impacts the most vulnerable and most impoverished.

And thirdly, support a de-colonization of subjectivity. This is essentially to look for an answer to why many citizens vote against their own interests and end up electing administrations which deepen their own scarcity situation?

UNPD: Critical positions are overwhelming in the negative judgments against liberal governments, but what about alternative and popular projects which have produced great social crises in the region?

S.M.: We needmuch self-criticism, as corresponds to all improvable political projects. However, I do not want to generalize from what is happening as many news come from manipulating news outlets. We need self-criticism, but we also need to understand that there may be corrupt public officers who delegitimize governments and this does not mean that these political projects may be defined for producing corruption processes. We need to remember where we come from and social workers also have the mission of building this social memory.

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