issue 194 - April 1989
Victims of rescue
Street children live violent and dangerous lives. But
rescuing them isnt the answer. Anthony Swift explains.
Ricardo is one of Brazils child gangsters, said to be dangerous. He crouches in the dust to tell me about his life. He works for a gang checking out possible scenes for planned assaults or robberies. When I ask why he steals, he says: There are some people who have everything. I have nothing. I steal because when I ask, they give me nothing. Twelve-year-old Ricardo once had a job but left because he was cheated by his employer: Childrens work is slavery, he says.
Ricardo is under no illusions about the risks that his lifestyle engenders: Once you get caught, you are marked. You are beaten and tortured. You can be killed. He touches a graze on his throat that he says was caused by a police truncheon; his body is a diary of punishing encounters. He has been arrested three times, twice shut up with adult prisoners and taken to State internment centres for children, from which he escaped: Last time I was tortured so badly the police just let me go. Like other countries Brazil is frightened of its abandoned children and reacts violently to their transgressions. I ask Ricardo what he will be doing in 10 years time. He shrugs and spits into the dust: In 10 years I think I will be dead.
Ricardo comes from one of the 200 slums in the north-eastern city of Recife. The shanty-town sprawls around us - testimony to a style of development which has seen wealth concentrate in the hands of a few as the nation has fallen heavily in debt to the West and millions of people have been displaced from rural areas to the cities. In just 20 years nearly 40 per cent of the population has moved from the country to the cities; and no provision has been made.
Hunger, unemployment, homelessness and lack of schooling characterize the lives of people who live here - symptoms of an economic violence which last year saw industrialized countries take 43 billion dollars in profit from poor nations. The health, welfare, education and incomes of the poorest are the first things to be cut. The weakest suffer first - and they are the children.
All over the Third World you see child victims of economic violence: the abandoned, the runaways, street children, child prostitutes, child labourers and criminalized children. In Brazil alone they are equivalent to half the population of the UK. And scattered around the world are many attempts to help. I visited one in India: a residential programme for street children in Bombay. Here I met 12 young men who had been given an education and taught occupational skills. But the approach had not been successful: only one youth had found employment. To find work in India one needs the patronage of influential people, which is not available to former street children.
One youth, Srinivas, complained: In the home we were safe. We learned skills. But we didnt learn how to survive in the world. I am exactly where I was on the day I left street life. He had lost the opportunistic sharpness of the street survivor whilst acquiring unrealizable aspirations and impractical skills.
Such rescue programmes are limited, often confused, acts of power by individuals who wish to exercise benevolence in a social structure that is not benevolent. Rescuing children involves removing them to a safer place, invariably higher up the ladder of economic domination. These programmes are the stuff of traditional charities. Not only do they fail to address the causes of deprivation but at some point - usually sooner than later - their power to intervene and their knowledge about how to do so effectively runs out. When their benefactors power reaches its limits, their proteges return to the mercies of the real world.
Worse still, rescue programmes appeal to the generosity of their donors - associating wealth with benevolence and hiding the real causes of deprivation. The poor are cast as dependent on the goodwill of the rich - who remain ignorant of the agonizing dilemmas engendered by poverty: decisions like which child an impoverished mother will send to work without an education, or perhaps let die, so that her other children can live. Near Bangalore - also in India - I talked to a mother who had sold two of her children into employment in a distant village: It is like taking the umbilical cords of my children and burning them slowly over a fire, she said.
The poor do not want charity from the rich. They want real power over their own lives. I asked the mother of three young children who labour as domestic workers how she would change her childrens lives if she could: Why ask me stupid questions? she replied, If I had power, none of my children would be working.
Back in Brazil I discovered a project that genuinely does help street children. And it was situated right where it was needed - in a desolate suburb of S o Paulo two hours from the city-centre.
This is a bleak place of plain concrete structures and dusty roads. Accommodation is rented not just by the week but for fractions of a day: I was told of one family who, in order to sleep, rented a room for just three hours a day.
Sometimes those lucky enough to have a permanent room tie young children to furniture while they are away to protect them from the dangers of the street. There are no facilities for children, and many have no access to schooling. Often they steal or prostitute themselves for money.
We would like to have space to play. Here we dont have any chance, either for working or for playing, one child told me. If we stay on the streets the neighbours complain. Here people complain about everything. Even our colour is criticized. If you are playing with a ball and it falls in their yard, they just destroy that ball.
They fear we are thieves, added his companion.
But now there is a new initiative to help such children - street education. It differs from rescue programmes in not seeing children as the problem. Nor does it regard the removal of children from their environment as necessary or desirable.
Inspired by the work of Brazilian educationalist Paulo Freire, street educators work in the most deprived city areas to empower children by helping them discover their own worth, and to value each other. The educators work particularly with children who are embarking on lives of crime, because not only are these children generally more adventurous and intelligent than those who accept slave-like labour - they are also in the greatest danger.
Crime plunges both children and communities into general degeneration and violence. It deprives children of community support. And it allows self-styled justice makers - vigilante death squads allegedly composed of off-duty police and local businessmen - to shoot children with impunity. No questions are asked.
The educators live in or near the slums where they work, establishing themselves as a reliable adult presence. They intervene directly in immediate danger, approaching feared local gangs and police stations, or ensuring that children get medical treatment. Their role is to help children understand the consequences of their actions and to take responsibility for themselves.
Street educators encourage the children to establish properly constituted Associations of Street Boys and Girls and hold regular meetings at which problems are identified and courses of action decided upon. Most of these children have no conventional education and so take their own history, their cultural roots and their slum environment as the subject of study. As they are encouraged to talk about and reflect on their lives, disdain for their area gives way to understanding and identification: Most of all I would like to be a doctor, said a seemingly tough 14 year-old. If anything happens round here Id like to help. I would be right on the spot.
One group I visited has started a vegetable-growing co-operative, cultivating empty lots of land on the fringes of S o Paulo and selling their produce in the local market to provide an income. Earnings are low. But this is not the isolated submission of individual children to exploitative employers. It is a group choice to buy time in which to find other ways forward. The same children have successfully raised small sums locally for their association: slowly they are winning community support instead of rejection. They have also demonstrated with placards in the city centre against police inertia over the killings of children by justice committees. As one street educator, Jo o de Deus, told me: We want to give these children back to society, but with a critical grasp of what has been imposed on them and a knowledge of how they can use their experience to bring about change.
What really convinced me was the mutual respect and trust between street children and educators. There were no keys or locked places, yet my cameras were never safer than in this company of thieves. I asked one group of children what it would be like if there was no Association of Street Girls and Boys: We would either be arrested, or stealing everywhere, said one. We would be in bad shape, said another, We would be ripping off everything we could.
This article is based on material from a book about children in dangerous circumstances called Broken Promise and written by Anthony Swift and Annie Allsebrook. It will be published in July by Headway - Hodder and Stoughton.
Victor Raul Quispe is 11 years old. He lives in a sprawling, dusty pueblo joven or shantytown on the south side of Lima, Peru. His mother has a potato stand on the market nearby and when Victor isnt helping her, he sells candy.
I started working when I was seven, he says. I work because Ive got to eat. When Im grown up, Im not going to be a bum, see? Ill know how to make a living and have my own money. I spend it on shoes, school supplies and uniforms. I give the rest to my mother.
Where I live, lots of kids work. For example, Paty, the little girl next door, spends all her time at the bus-stop washing car windshields. Others collect fares or sell candles. We help each other. For instance, when one kid doesnt have enough money to go to the movies, we all chip in. We play together. And we go to the school that MANTHOC has set up.
MANTHOC has groups all over Peru. It was started around ten years ago by unemployed workers from the Young Catholic Workers Movement. MANTHOC means Movement of Working Adolescents and Children who are Christian Workers Children" which is the name the Children chose when they first got together in 1979. MANTHOC gives us kids a chance to organise and express ourselves. We sing and play and discuss our experiences in school, at work, at home. We talk about our exploitation and how we can get our bosses to respect us. And we try to reach more kids because we believe that in unity there is strength.
I have belonged to MANTHOC since I was nine. Our group started six or seven years ago. Today it consists of 19 kids and we meet every Friday night at a members house. We study the problems faced by kids in the district especially their health problems. Theres not enough medicines for them.
Exploitation is our biggest problem. One 12 year-old boy I know has to work at the market packing and unpacking crates. He is there every day after school and all day in vacation. At MANHOC we discuss that we can do to change things like that.
Different MANTHOC groups do different things. Some have carried out clean-up campaigns in their shantytowns. One group got their parents to pressure the municipality for better garbage collection. Another bought a pair of shoes for a boy so he could work. And when a 10 year-old boy hurt his back carrying crates in the market, MANTHOC Kids went to the boys employer and pressured her to provide medical care for him. They also set up a special fund for the boy by selling extra candy and popcorn. Some groups have even conducted surveys to find out about the health and education of working children.
My group does lots of things. The parents of one of our friends is always away, so we set up a rota to help him take care of his little brothers and sisters. And right now were trying to organise a popsicle factory.
Maybe if things were different we wouldnt have to work. But families in Peru cant survive unless their children earn money. So we believe that children should work honestly, develop their characters and learn what it means to be both a child and a worker. MANTHOC gives us price in working.
My dream is that other kids will not experience hunger and misery. And adults wont just pity us but show us affection and support. With support we can do anything!
Mary Judith Ress is Managing Editor of Latin America Press.