"Street Children" in Brazil

brazil - land of contrasts | home street home | aid is "no child's play"
Brazil - land of contrasts

* This article is taken form the Novartis Foundation web site at: http://www.foundation.novartis.com

In developmental terms, Brazil is defined as an emerging economy: it is at the upper end of the middle-income category. The scale of the Brazilian economy, the country's abundance of natural resources and land, its diversified manufacturing structure, and its high degree of industrialisation all point to successful development. Yet these factors also obscure the pronounced disparities that divide the country.

The contrasts between rich and poor - between modern industrialisation and colonial-feudal agricultural and ownership structures - are more extreme in Brazil than in almost any other country. It is as if the people of one and the same nation were living in two different worlds. According to the UN Development Program, nearly half of Brazil's population lives in absolute poverty. With a population of 168 million (mid-1999), Brazil is among countries that have the highest absolute number of people living in poverty. 43.5% of Brazil's population eke out a living on less than US$ 2 per day. The situation of these people is not much different from the circumstances in which the poorest of the poor live in other parts of the world. Thus, over one million children under five are undernourished. Health care, sanitary facilities and food resources are inadequate for most of the population, while education is the privilege of a select few. Although Brazil is the world's eighth largest industrial nation, it ranks 62nd on the UNDP's 1998 Human Development Index (HDI).

Great numbers of Brazil's most destitute people live in the slums of the big cities, the so-called favelas, where the infrastructure, especially the drinking water and drainage systems, is deficient. Slum dwellers squat on land to which they have no legal title. But since this is mostly unused and unusable public land - hillsides, swamps, lagoons, rubbish dumps, and so on - they are not likely to be evicted.

Where these impoverished people live within sight of the pleasant living conditions enjoyed by the privileged elite, social tensions and the potential for conflict grow. The streets of large cities such as Rio de Janeiro are increasingly the scene of confrontations between rich and poor. Those who are unable to make a living as vendors of newspapers or lottery tickets, shoeshine boys, guards for parked cars or the like, are often forced to earn a living illegally. Even within the slums there is virtually no place for solidarity: when someone else's existence is a threat to one's own, self-interest comes first.

Extreme population density and crowded living conditions in the slums, combined with the struggle to survive, generally lead not only to social disintegration but also to violence within the family and to broken families. This makes the situation even more difficult for children and young people, and at least partly accounts for their increasing presence on the streets. The growing number of children who work on the streets, or even live there permanently, is one of the most pressing development problems world-wide. But of Latin American countries known to have "street children", first and foremost is Brazil, where their numbers are estimated to have reached 10 million. Along with suffering hunger, being undernourished, and being exposed to disease, probably nothing contributes more to the loss of human development potential than a childhood and youth spent outside the institutional framework of family and school in the usually hostile environment of the street.

Home street home
Extensive literature exists on the phenomenon of "street children". This literature is full of contradictions, motivated by anything from starry-eyed social romanticism to ideological opportunism. Depending on the author, the street child is portrayed in every imaginable hue. One version glorifies this figure as personifying a counterculture opposing the prevailing social order, whose "victim" is the child. Life on the streets becomes "street culture", and its values are defined by a code of "street ethics". Another version indulges in presenting the street child as "charming" and "pitiable"- but only as long as he or she is still small and "cute". This viewpoint changes abruptly when the child reaches puberty: it is then described as a "delinquent, lazy, homosexual, aggressive nuisance addicted to drugs", and therefore one that "belongs in an institution". In further variations on the theme, the street child is described either as mentally ill, feeble-minded or suffering from dissociation, or else as a "perfectly normal" and particularly clever person, with an intelligence sometimes thought to be well above average. But of course, the street child does not exist. While dire need is indeed one of the critical factors, a childhood on the streets is a phenomenon the causes of which are as diverse as the individual characters of children and youths themselves.

Another stereotype arises from naming all children who are out on the streets "street children". Indeed, most of them only appear to be left to their own fate. The street is merely their workplace, or - for lack of well-run, affordable kindergartens and youth centres - their day-time abode, where they spend all their time while their parents (often just their single mother) are at work. For this reason they are called children on the streets (meniños na rua), as opposed to the relatively small number of "genuine" street children (meniños da rua or children of the street), who have tenuous family ties or none at all, and live on the streets day and night. Given all these differences, no single strategy exists for social reintegration or for preventing children from ending up on the streets.

But the distinction between "children on the streets" and "children of the streets" should not obscure the fact that the step towards becoming a "genuine" street child is very small:

The largest category consists of children living in absolute poverty. These children grow up in an extremely underprivileged social environment. They lack the most elemental means to meet basic needs and usually receive hardly any or no parental care, because their mothers (who are often the only parent) are forced to seek some means of subsistence. In the absence of day-care facilities, the children, even toddlers, are left on their own. This exposes them to a high risk of starting an early "career" on the street.

As a next step, these children are forced to fend for themselves at the earliest possible moment, and they may even have to contribute to the family income. They thus become "children on the street", working as shoeshine boys, vendors of sweets, lottery tickets, newspapers, etc. They clean the windshields of cars stalled in traffic, perform little stunts, and so on. To improve their meagre daily take, they may also beg - and if this is not enough, they steal. Tragically, child prostitution and drug-dealing are prevalent financial attractions as well. The children often cannot go home in the evening and frequently spend a few nights on the street, either because their working day is too long and home is too far away, or because they do not have enough money for the bus fare. They may also be unwelcome unless they bring home enough money. This is why it is not easy to differentiate between them and the "genuine" street children.

"Genuine" street children or "children of the street" are either orphans or children who have been turned out or abandoned by their parents. But most of them have run away from home. The street is not just their workplace, it is their home. In this final stage the rupture between the child and adult society is complete. Because they live in a complete legal vacuum, these children are acutely exposed to repression and exploitation - often by public police officers. They buy tolerance by prostituting themselves, stealing for the officers, or giving them part of their income or booty. At any time they can be reminded that they have acted illegally; they can also be expelled, abused, or even killed.

Whatever category one may be talking about, the phenomenon of childhood on the streets has to be seen in the broader context of the "street population" as a whole. The cities of Latin America teem with displaced and homeless people who had to escape from arid rural areas because it was no longer possible to survive there. But living space in the congested cities is scarce, and the notion that a dwelling place in the slums is free of rent is wrong. There, too, groups exist who "control" the space available and collect money for it. Many rural migrants cannot even afford a shack.

Aid is "no child's play"
Many street children are still being brought to overcrowded public institutions, although events such as murders and revolts within such institutions in the past have made them famous in a tragic sense. State institutions are still places that trigger negative associations in the minds of children and young people on the streets. Such scandalous cases as the "clean-up operation" in 1974, when approximately one hundred vagrant children on the streets of São Paulo were caught and murdered, and daily experiences with adults who want to "take care of" children and young people but have everything other than care in mind, have led to radical distrust among street children.

Since public attention has been drawn to the world-wide problem of street children, international organisations, government agencies, and private welfare organisations and associations have increasingly chosen them as a focus of their work. On the one hand this is positive; on the other hand, it sometimes leads to the "Calcutta Syndrome", where compassion is temporarily lavished mainly on smaller children. Street children are actually wooed by many projects. As a result, the streets become particularly attractive to children from the slums. They move rapidly from project to project, taking advantage of what is on offer, although this does nothing to get them off the streets.

For this and numerous other reasons, the "palliative" approach should increasingly be abandoned in favour of a preventive approach focusing mainly on organising the poor settlements and providing them with what is most necessary in terms of infrastructure. "Partial treatment" fails to deal with the heart of the matter - the family and its socio-economic plight - and only perpetuates the problem. That is why recent literature in the field insists more and more on "community development" and participatory strategies that foster active collaboration and initiative among families and communities. One priority for community initiatives is to create day-care centres for children that are affordable and within reach of everyone. Additional important goals in the overall effort to organise poor neighbourhoods include adequate water supply and sewage disposal, health care facilities, and community centres and associations that aim to encourage communal activities. This is the approach adopted in Petrópolis by the grass-roots organisation Serviço de Educação e Organização Popular (People's Education and Training Service - SEOP).