By Andreea Anca, IFRC
Since 48-year-old Helena Mateus was diagnosed with cancer 14 years ago, she has struggled to provide for herself and her teenage daughter. Over the years, she has undergone surgery and chemotherapy that forced her into early retirement.
Single mum Helena receives 296 Euros (315 Swiss francs) a month in pension and child benefit, leaving her with little to cover costs beyond housing.
¨“I pay 231 euro (246 Swiss francs) a month for rent,” she said. “It is difficult to make ends meet, having to pay for the rest of the bills and all the medication I need”
The Lisbon branch of the Portuguese Red Cross offered Helena legal support through the process to prove the paternity of her child. As a result, her 15-year-old-daughter established contact with her father and started receiving a monthly child allowance of 100 euro (106 Swiss francs). The Red Cross also provided Helena with toiletries, a fridge and a pair of prescription glasses she could not otherwise afford.
“If it wasn`t for the Portuguese Red Cross support our life would have been a lot worse,” she said.
Daniela Costa, Red Cross Programme Manager, says many people in similarly vulnerable situations are not aware of their rights.
“This additional money is one third of Helena`s income. It makes a big difference to their lives,” she said.
After 2008 economic crisis, countries like Portugal, Spain and Greece were gripped by spending cuts and higher taxes. Families like Helena’s were among the hardest hit. A 2012 European Union report found that in Portugal 500,000 families had lost their state child allowance while 120,000 people relied on food aid. Unemployment spiked to above 15 per cent.
In support of vulnerable families and households across the country, the Portuguese Red Cross set up the Portugal Mas Feliz/Happier Portugal programme in 2009. It runs a series of projects across the country mentoring, coaching and counselling people who are unemployed. The Red Cross also set up partnerships with companies that specialize in helping families to negotiate debt repayments with banks.
“This programme is much needed in Portugal and we have no time frame for it,” said Costa noting that Portugal is still struggling with the effects of the recession despite more recent economic growth.
Helena`s story and the story from Spain are part of a series highlighting innovative Red Cross and Red Crescent work from countries across Europe and Central Asia. It is linked to the Social Aspects topic of the Florence Call for Action – a set of commitments made by National Societies in the region at the 9th European Regional Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in 2014. For more information click here.