Nowhere are street children more organized than in Brazil.
Anthony Swift investigates.
The poor Santa Marta community that climbs a near-vertical flank of Rio’s Corcovado mountain is mirror-imaged in the windows of skyscrapers. Construction workers can look out from their precarious dwellings directly at the homes they helped build for the middle- and upper-income classes. And the latter can look back, wondering how to fortify those homes further against neighbours who might turn to self-help redistribution. All can look up to the beneficent Christ on the summit.
Step out of the dream world of consumers choosing new possessions in the latest shopping mall, pass the armed security guards at the entrance, and you take your chance in a world where unlicenced hawkers – parents of poor children – are driven from the streets by municipal police.
Then there is the killing of poor people with impunity, including children, by police and death squads. Death squads operate on the more ragged sections of the frontier between haves and have-nots, where the paid guardians of ‘public security’ officially leave off. It is said they kill a thousand or so youngsters a year.
‘The situation of children on our streets is terrible. But they can be very dangerous,’ said a woman in a restaurant, her real concern short-circuiting to fear. ‘They robbed my brother at gun-point. For their own good, we should put them in institutions as we used to.’
‘We are a population scared of its own children,’ says Padre Bruno Sechi, a pioneer of children’s participation in the struggle for their rights. ‘This is a terrible distortion of social relations. We are becoming an imprisoned society, locking up people who have nothing and then locking ourselves up in fortress homes. With this system we are making life impossible.’
Twenty years of capitalism conniving with dictatorship produced Brazil’s industrial ‘economic miracle’ and compounded its social nightmare. Many of the rural poor abandoned the land, or were expelled by ruthless landowners and grandiose development schemes. While a few Brazilians made fortunes, drifts of misery accumulated on ‘invasion’ land on city peripheries. Today among the top ten economic powers, Brazil has the world’s greatest disparity in distribution of income. Some 32 million people – roughly one in six – are consigned to abject poverty, which recent years of neo-liberalism have only deepened.
One product of the seismic shift in wealth and population was the lava flow of children to city streets. At first taken to be abandoned, most of them simply work to keep their families afloat, often with an almost sacred sense of mission.
Home for many is a box, some metres square, up a long muddy track of similar boxes, far from the city centre. Street children separated from home do not lament the loss of the ‘house’. Some celebrate the city, by contrast, as a mansion of many rooms in which they want for nothing, describing the restaurant district as their kitchen, the city park as their garden, its lakes or beachfront as their bathroom. And the adults whom they rob or serve in various ways they dignify as ‘clients’. What pains them sharply is the loss of the caring they once had, or know they should have had, from their families before the final blows of poverty put paid to that.
Children grow to reflect the world they live in. ‘I realized that to survive I had to become cold and hard and turned in on myself. I had to be tougher and meaner than anyone else, or befriend someone who was meaner,’ said a girl about her first days working on the streets. It’s those who learn the lessons of sociopathology too well whom society’s death squads, in a final twist of the knife, then earmark for disposal.
What is becoming clear is that marginalization is not only something that happens to the poor, it happens also inside them, individually and collectively, and it happens inside us whose choices marginalize them. What is marginalized is our humanity. It is this process and not just the symptoms – among them homelessness – we need to tackle.
If there is a miracle in Brazil it is that this definition is being honed to an ever-finer sharpness – not by the professionals, or the politicians, but by the people of the periphery themselves, not least street, working and poor-community children.
Almost a thousand children and adolescents aged between 7 and 17, and 200 educators of the National Movement of Street Boys and Girls, were bussed in from every state to the federal capital, Brasilia, last year to attend the Fourth National Meeting of Street Boys and Girls.
They met in circus tents in a city park and slept in an army barracks. Education, not housing, was their major theme. Not just any education. ‘We want to be educated to be citizens,’ was the cry.
On the second day – variously beating drums, on high stilts, astride a unicycle, dressed as clowns, or wearing fantastical masks or folklore outfits – they took their message to the Ministry of Education. They would make the education of their dreams a reality, they proclaimed before a grim line of security men.
Then to the National Congress. They funnelled into the basement parking area, between gleaming banks of cars and along a tunnel, their drum beats ricocheting off the walls, to emerge into the main building, claiming the space with a victory shout.
In the assembly hall they and their elected leaders – a teenage girl and boy – met with Ministers and other government and non-government representatives who compose the National Council for Children’s Rights. They criticized the slow implementation of children’s rights. ‘Our rights are not respected and we are here to demand quality education for all.’
They wanted schools that recognized the realities of their lives. Many children from the periphery don’t attend primary school or have to repeat years. Only 38 per cent of those who start complete. Many arrive at school tired and hungry after long hours of work. ‘Schools should be in the peripheral areas where the children live, not miles across town.’ ‘Children should not be working. They should be in school. And there should be school meals.’ Teachers, too, came to work tired. ‘They must be paid proper salaries, instead of wages that force them to take two and even three teaching posts.’
As in previous meetings, the children also demanded an end to the violence. They cited the castration and killing of seven young boys in Altamira. ‘There is a cover-up. The Government must track down the culprits and arrest them.’ A boy from São Paulo told the council: ‘We don’t know how many children are being killed. It happens faster than we can follow it up. They are left to die on the ground like dogs.’
The development of the citizenship of the poor Brazilian child goes back 25 years, to the founding, during the dictatorship, of the Republic of Small Vendors in Belem. But a new momentum was achieved with the National Movement of Street Boys and Girls, established in 1985, the year the dictatorship died. Started by ‘street educators’ – outreach workers employed in government and non-government organizations – the Movement has made Brazil a world leader in the participation and organization of children.
National meetings were proposed when children from different programmes met together in Belem. The first in 1986 – referred to as the ‘first cry’ – caused a sensation and helped make children’s rights a banner for the nation’s thrust for democracy. The children’s accounts of their lives helped inform a new children’s clause in the post-dictatorship constitution and prodded society to take a new look at the young lives it discards.
Each meeting has had an impact on the progress of children’s rights. The Second in 1989 exposed the killing of children, triggering publicity that forced the Government to recognize the problem. The children ‘invaded’ the congress and addressed the policy makers directly, stimulating support for the passage of the progressive Statute for Children’s Rights.
The Third meeting urged implementation of the Statute, particularly the setting up of policy-making rights councils at municipal, state and federal levels. The Fourth heralded the intention of poor children to present their ideas to the new councils, which are composed equally of government appointees and elected representatives of civil society.
A triumph of the National Movement is that the children’s concern about their rights is not theoretical but grounded in their experience with the movement’s educators.
One route of the educators’ work is liberation theology. Another is grassroots socialism, which proliferated during the dictatorship when other overt forms were crushed – the building of socialist relationships from the social base rather than the seizing of power by a revolutionary avant guarde.
Trained by the Movement, most educators are themselves from poor backgrounds and their work for the Movement is voluntary. At its heart is the playful, respectful and reliable companionship they offer the children. They attract them into small groups (nucleos de base) organized around any strong common problem or interest, wherever children are – in projects, streets, poor neighbourhoods or schools.
Through imaginative educational workshops and recreational activities, the children dialogue about their lives, their problems and those of their community. They decide on courses of action and then review the consequences. Decisions are taken and leaders elected democratically, with the participation of all actively encouraged. The educator facilitates. Wherever possible parents and communities are invited to support the process. Through their activities the children gain experience of inclusion, solidarity, co-operation, self-interest identified with that of the community – all the besieged cultural values of the black, indian and other groups who compose the majority of the poor. And they gain a critical consciousness of society and their ability to act in it.
It is in these small groups that the planning of the National Meetings begins, re-commendations being carried forward by elected delegates to municipal- and state-level meetings. Delegates from the latter compose a National Commission that plans and executes the next National Meeting. But there are other actions. Groups have challenged municipal authorities over the abuse of children by the police; exposed local community health hazards and made the information available to residents’ associations; challenged sloppy educational practice in schools. With the statute in place, their efforts will increasingly be directed at the new municipal children’s-rights councils.
The educators strive to reverse the process of marginalization, reinforcing both their and the children’s humanity and awakening the citizenship of both. Patricia Cordeiro, an educator with street children in Belem, describes the process: ‘In this work you come to realize that the abandonment of children takes place within the framework of the wider abandonment of many Brazilians. And you are from this layer too, though you did have some advantages and they enabled you to survive the hunger, which is not only for food, but also for compassion and justice. I had a very bad school. But I had a school. I have a very poor family. But I have a family. And this child on the street has lost, or risks losing, all the links that I by chance maintained. So today the idea that motivates me is of these children discovering themselves to be citizens and beginning to assert their right, and that of other dispossessed people, to a role in society.
‘Their families cannot do that for them alone. Some are even more abandoned than they. So it has to come from a group like ours that commits itself to this process of transformation. Once we know this, we become very political and see that what we are doing is right. Then Patricia, the educator, is no longer somebody who just plays with the child on the street but someone who intervenes directly and politically when someone beats up this child, or when that child rips someone off. Why do I do it? Because if people like me, who have had the luck to survive poverty and the opportunity to experience the problems of these children, fail to intervene, then, I wonder, how will this society ever change?’
Children come to love their groups. The younger ones say they value most the ‘warmth’, the ‘touch’, the concern of the educators; older ones the sense of solidarity, the discussion and the insight they gain.
An 11-year-old delegate to the Fourth Meeting batted my question back in disbelief: ‘What would I do if there was no nucleo de base? I would go right out and start one.’
But did she really believe the Government would act on their demands? ‘We shall see. This is very new,’ she said. ‘Of one thing you can be sure: we will keep on coming.’
Anthony Swift is writing a book, Children for Social Change, about the participation and organization of children.
All photos by Anthony Swift.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996
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