Elena Duron
Ashoka Fellow desde 2011   |   Argentina

Elena Duron

Elena Durón is attacking the serious, yet hidden problem in Argentina of forced child labor. By engaging children, families, schools, and other local community partners, the poorest, most vulnerable…
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Elena Durón fue convocada por Ashoka por su modelo de abordaje en la lucha contra el trabajo infantil. Se trata de una intervención múltiple e interdisciplinaria que incorpora el problema desde el enfoque de los derechos de los niños. Esto implica una visión holística del entorno, teniendo en cuenta la familia, la comunidad, la sociedad civil y las autoridades locales y nacionales.  Elena pone el eje  en la escolaridad de los chicos, realiza un acompañamiento psicopedagógico para asegurar una buena reinserción. Los chicos asisten a contra turno de la escuela o del trabajo a distintos talleres artísticos diseñados especialmente para generar espacios donde puedan expresarse. Se apoya fuertemente en la generación de mecanismos de resiliencia individual y familiar.

Para el desarrollo de su propuesta creó PETISOS, una organización de la sociedad civil, cuyo principal objetivo es aportar al efectivo cumplimiento de los derechos de niños, niñas y adolescentes. Priorizan sus intervenciones con poblaciones en situación de vulnerabilidad social desde una mirada que reconoce a niños como personas plenas de derechos y no como objetos de protección.

This description of Elena Duron's work was prepared when Elena Duron was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2011.


Elena Durón is attacking the serious, yet hidden problem in Argentina of forced child labor. By engaging children, families, schools, and other local community partners, the poorest, most vulnerable families are finding ways to help their children escape their unsafe work conditions and successfully reintegrate into school with impressive and lasting success.

La idea nueva

Elena and her organization, Prevención y Erradicación del Trabajo Infantil SOS (PETISOS-Prevention and Eradication of Child Labor SOS), are addressing and resolving the entrenched problem of child labor through a comprehensive, three-pronged approach. Elena understands that to resolve this problem, she must collaborate with different stakeholders who have direct and indirect involvement in a culture that sanctions and enables forced child labor. First, PETISOS supports the families and children working in landfills or forced into sex trafficking. PETISOS provides programs with deep and enduring impact which gradually enables families and their children to adopt new methods to long-term income-generation that does not require child labor, while also successfully integrating the children back into school.

The second element incorporates other key institutions, such as schools, social services, government agencies, and the courts to support these families and their children to achieve the children’s successful reintegration. Elena has created a methodology which trains and sensitizes teachers to the children’s unique needs. Her curriculum also provides tutoring and mentoring to help them overcome the numerous obstacles they will face. Additional public agencies and even the courts further participate in these efforts. Elena gathers the key social actors together in biweekly meetings so that each participant can understand how his/her roles and responsibilities fit into the larger scenario; by working together, they have a better chance of successfully reintegrating children into society. The members are committed to a co-responsibility that holds them accountable to each other to carry out their respective responsibilities and obtain long-term success.

Inspired by Elena’s results of 95 percent toward lasting school reintegration and a 96 percent graduation rate, other regions and organizations have begun to replicate her program. Elena’s training and scale model is the third key element of her approach. For instance, Telefónica has adopted child labor and PETISOS as their major CSR program, has financed the organization’s expansion and has been the catalyst for training other organizations in the PETISOS model. Elena spearheaded the formation of the Forum for Children’s Rights (FODI), a local and regional network of organizations around the shared mission of reducing and then eradicating forced child labor in the Bariloche region. She also supports a public media and information campaign to raise greater awareness and interest in other regions. These networks support and monitor the responsible agencies and actors; helping them work together to meet their responsibilities to support families and their children to have a childhood, to return to school, and to live lives without forced labor.

El problema

Child labor has been a tragic aspect of Argentina’s culture for decades as impoverished families financially depended on their children working on farms or in cities to help make ends meet. As children, many parents worked themselves, so for many vulnerable communities the prospect of children working to earn income for the family was not considered a problem. However, in the last decade following Argentina’s most severe economic crisis in fifty years, children were forced into more dangerous and exploitative employment. According to Save the Children, in 1998 (before the 2001 peso crisis) 250,000 Argentine children were involved in labor-related activities, but by 2006, that number had exploded six-fold to 1.5 million children. As adults had to accept more menial jobs to earn income, more children were required to work in squalid conditions, from collecting and reselling trash in city dumps to engaging in prostitution.

The government did not view child labor as a serious problem, especially in the rural sector, so there are few, poorly enforced labor laws. When the crisis hit Argentina, draconian austerity measures in government services cut even more aid for the most vulnerable families. In addition, there are few government sponsored programs to successfully reintegrate working children into school. Although the laws have improved in the last decade, implementation is still a challenge. Meanwhile, various government agencies have tried to obscure the problem, encouraging the growth of new industries such as tourism, instead of addressing the tragic social issues faced by the local population.

Forced child labor has become a more invisible problem in large cities. 53 percent of people in urban areas live below the poverty line, and an astounding 73 percent of children live in poverty. Once these children begin to work, they are more likely to drop out of school as they lack the necessary time, and have trouble adapting to classroom rules and guidelines necessary to learn. Many suffer from behavioral problems that lead to rejection by their peers and teachers. Additionally, teachers fail to understand the specific needs of working children who are exploited or sexually abused, thus rendering their isolation even greater. These factors make reintegration a complicated prospect for working children, and they end up without the education they need to obtain more prosperous and formal employment.

La estrategia

Elena is trying to solve the challenges faced by child laborers and their families through PETISOS. Upon first moving to the major tourist city of Bariloche in Patagonia, Elena discovered an entirely hidden world of children and adults living and toiling in the local garbage dump. She moved to the garbage dump to live and work alongside them, coming to understand their daily challenges and the difficulty of escaping such work.

Elena began working with children and their families to develop a comprehensive program that would break the vicious cycle in which they found themselves. She developed children’s workshops that first offered them fun and games, and gradually designed community workshops for socialization and individual child mentoring. This empowered them to dream of a different reality in which they could regain their lost childhood, have fun and return to school. At the same time, Elena wanted to address the root causes behind child labor—the lack of family income. Therefore, she launched various programs to help improve family finances, from cooperative shopping to lower food prices to microcredit programs which help families generate income via pastry, sewing, and knitting businesses. Such programs enable parents to earn enough income without requiring that their children work, and this enables children to go back to school.

Once Elena convinced families that the children did not have to work, she began working with the school system to train and sensitize teachers to provide more positive learning experiences for former child laborers. Elena also set individualized tutoring with volunteers, to focus on facilitating children’s successful re-entry to school. Besides constructing a new curriculum, Elena knew other actors had to support the reintegration effort for it to be successful and sustainable over the longer term. Social services agencies, the municipality, the courts, and the private sector were encouraged to become involved. Elena trained municipal authorities and court staff in child labor laws, and demanded that the city-owned landfill recognize that many children were in fact working in their dump. When the city tried to ignore the issue, Elena sued the city and was successful in obtaining a cease and desist order from the courts. This accomplishment brought Elena wide acclaim and helped open the door for new phases in her work. Once the major actors had seen that Elena was a staunch advocate who would not yield to pressure, many agencies began to participate in her collaborative, mutually beneficial approach. Elena’s achievements allowed her to reach out to other groups of children forced into dangerous labor, and she began applying her methodology to maids and vulnerable groups whose children were working in prostitution and other criminal activities. Elena learned to tailor her approach to different groups of kids and their families and also achieved success in reintegrating them back into school.

This collaborative approach uniting many people and agencies toward a shared mission of eliminating forced child labor and successfully reintegrating children back into school transformed into the second pillar of Elena’s approach—co-responsibility. As Elena’s program grew and formalized into PETISOS, she began to coalesce a broader network of stakeholders. They met biweekly to discuss and resolve various issues related to child labor and its societal effects. This working group was supported by PETISOS staff to implement the needed training for various agencies. Staff and volunteers then continued to support and monitor the agencies to ensure that they remained accountable to their agreed responsibilities. In Bariloche, PETISOS now works with eight schools, trains one hundred teachers per year and has an incredible success rate; nearly 80 percent of the two hundred children with whom she works have returned to school. 95 percent of the working children who returned stayed in school, and in 2010, 96 percent of those students were promoted to the next grade. Some graduated from elementary school, being the first in their family to do so.

The final element of Elena’s strategy is to multiply these local networks more broadly in Argentina and Latin America and to influence public policy on forced child labor. Telefónica Argentina has become Elena’s main ally and sponsor in this effort. They had already adopted child labor as their major CSR program, and concluded that PETISOS offered the best strategy in Argentina. Telefónica has since financed PETISOS’ core program and has enabled PETISOS to replicate its programs with children, families, schools, and partnership coordination in other regions of Argentina, including Neuquén and Santa Cruz provinces. Elena and PETISOS will train organizations in other regions using the same basic approach of working with families and their children, develop a co-responsible network of people and agencies to end forced child labor in their region, and grow that into stronger local and regional networks. Elena has formalized one network into the FODI, which coalesces different organizations that seek to improve children’s conditions in the broader Patagonia region. Now armed with a successful program and with a profile as an unwavering advocate, Elena has begun to influence public policy on forced child labor in various provinces. She is encouraging implementation of legislation and is guiding public agencies in adopting better, more integrated approaches with more capable budgets that can impact the successful reintegration of child workers back into the school system.

International expansion of this early stage program began in 2010 when the International Labor Organization selected Elena, the only representative from Latin America, to present her work to its Child Labor Conference in The Hague. This in turn led to her going to Colombia twice to present her approach and begin work with possible partners. Just as Elena was able to dream of growing exponentially in Argentina with the partnership with Telefónica, she is also working with World Vision to develop strategies to execute the ILO commitments made in The Hague into successful programs around Latin America. PETISOS oversees an annual budget of US$400,000, a full-time staff of five, fifteen volunteers, and a comprehensive network of collaborating institutions all committed to the mission of ending forced child labor.

La persona

Elena was born and raised in Mexico under the inspiring tutelage of her mother and grandmother. Both were teachers who defied the conservative nature of Mexican society by devoting their lives to education. Elena accompanied her mother to teach youth and adults in night school and was deeply impacted by the importance of education. In school, Elena was part of the student movement fighting for universal access to education. After receiving her bachelors and master’s degrees in Mexico, she received a scholarship to study for a Ph.D. in psychology in Spain, a step that changed her life in unexpected ways. A professor took her to see some of the worst neighborhoods in the area, and she began visiting and then working with various marginalized groups. Elena soon realized that her academic studies had not prepared her to deal with the harsh reality she saw, even though her studies had given her many useful, conceptual tools. She began work with migrants and gypsies in Spain, Portugal, and Romania and devised programs to help integrate marginalized groups into society.

In 2002 Elena traveled to Argentina where she met the man who later became her husband, Ashoka Fellow Gustavo Gennuso. He took her to a place completely unknown—the ski resort city of Bariloche. While she started teaching at the university, she knew she was meant to help marginalized groups. Her participation in a city recycling program resulted in an invitation by a lawyer working in the field to conduct research with people working at the garbage dump. Elena discovered a small hidden town within the landfill, with children and adults living and working in the dump in unimaginable conditions. She knew she had to understand them in order to help them, so she virtually lived at the garbage dump nearly every day for two years. In her daily life, Elena began to develop approaches to rescue children from their plights in the dump. Yet ultimately, Elena determined that her mission was not to help just the children of the landfill but rather, to truly eradicate child labor in Argentina and Latin America with a comprehensive and long-lasting impact on their communities.