Latin America and the Caribbean

New World Outlook
May-June 1997

Life Changes Slowly for Brazil's Street Children
by Paul Jeffrey

Three years ago, Paul Jeffrey reported on these pages the systematic violence perpetrated against street children in Brazil. (See "In the Killing Fields of Brazil," New World Outlook, March-April 1994.) His article explored the economic and social reasons why thousands of Brazilian children live on the streets, often facing death squads composed of off-duty police officers. Jeffrey related a shift in how the Methodist Church and society at large was approaching the problem, a development reflected in the landmark Statute on Children and Adolescents passed by Brazil's National Congress in 1990. Jeffrey recently returned to Brazil, and we asked him to provide an update on the law and the children it's designed to protect. - The Editors.

I followed Francisca de Asis Soares into the midnight darkness of the Praça da República, the main crack-dealing zone in downtown São Paulo. We had witnessed three police officers grab a young boy and drag him back into the shadows. "Let's go," Soares ordered, and we plunged down the murky path. The cops pushed the kid along the path until one of them spotted Soares and me. All of a sudden their attitude changed. One patted the boy on the back, and said something pleasant as the three let their prey escape. Soares stopped in the middle of the dark path. "They're afraid of me," said Soares, a short woman in her fifties. "They know I'm here to watch them. They know I can cause trouble for them."

An attorney with the Children's Ministry of the Catholic Archdiocese of São Paulo, Soares was taking her turn at nightly rounds in the urban canyons of São Paulo, Brazil's largest city. We had rendezvoused shortly after dark on the steps of the city's cathedral in the Praça de Sé, then set off at a lively pace through the underside of São Paulo's night life, checking out the alleys and plazas along the way. As we moved along, Soares talked with children, asking how they were and what was happening. After a while we arrived at the Praça da República.

A hundred years ago the plaza anchored a neighborhood of mansions built by agricultural barons who'd grown rich from the country's coffee boom. Today the neighborhood is full of stores and offices that bustle by day. When the sun goes down, the shoppers give way to junkies and the park is populated by crack dealers who linger in the shadows, their flashy clothes and leather waist packs signaling their vocation. Police also patrol the park. When I asked Soares why the police didn't bust the obvious drug dealers, she rubbed her thumb and fingers together: money.

What the police do is rough up street kids, as they have for years. That Soares dissuaded them by her mere presence is a sign that things have changed a little. "The police aren't treating kids better because they think the kids have human rights, but rather because they're afraid of getting caught doing something that violates the ECA [the 1990 Statute on Children and Adolescents]," observed Ron Ahnen, a doctoral student from the University of North Carolina studying implementation of the ECA. "They know they'll get the book thrown at them if they get caught beating up a child."

According to Rodrigo Gonzalez, a lawyer and children's activist in the southern city of Porto Alegre, police violence against children is down in several areas. "The soldiers in the military police now have to study the law," he told me. "Yet even though they know the law, they can choose to ignore it. Then they're going to take the kid away somewhere, beat them up, and then turn them lose because they know that if they turn a beaten child into the courts today that they're going to have problems."

Zeni de Lima Soares, coordinator of an innovative Methodist-sponsored ministry with street children São Bernardo do Campo, an industrial suburb of São Paulo, also reported that police violence is down. "When we began working with the kids, most of them were considered delinquents and were often exterminated," she recalled. "We lost more than 41 kids in São Bernardo alone. Today it's better, partly because there's more of a presence with the kids, more observation by educators who are out on the streets and stay on top of the situation."

While violence against the kids has diminished in some places, observers report that in others, such as Rio de Janeiro, it is the same or worse. Francisca Soares said the military police in São Paulo are sensitive to the bad publicity they've received in recent years, and thus are today more likely to assassinate kids in the poor neighborhoods than in the city center. "When they kill a child on the periphery of the city, it doesn't make news," she said.

Many observers believe the continuing violence reflects a larger social pathology. "There's still a mentality among the police that's left over from the days of the military dictatorship," said Gonzalez, "where they tend to see certain types of people--the poor, blacks, and street children--as dangerous in principal. This attitude has become rooted in the culture and is difficult to change."

As Soares continued her rounds, we passed by several police dragging a handcuffed boy along the sidewalk. I expected her to intervene, but she kept walking. "He's over 18. I can't do anything," she said. The ECA covers kids until they're 18. After that, they're on their own.

A block away from the Praça da República we ran into several colleagues from the archdiocese, likewise patrolling. It was an international team, including an Italian, a Norwegian, two Costa Ricans, and two Brazilians. They compared notes with Soares, all agreeing it was a slow night. They went their way while Soares and I headed for a homeless shelter.

Located under a freeway overpass, the Street People Methodist Community is a project of the Brazilian Methodist Church and the city government. It provides beds for more than 100 people a night, including men, women, and children. The church provides a pastor and project administrator, the city provides social workers and other costs. When Soares finds someone on the street who needs a safe place to sleep, she refers them there. The facility also offers food, showers, space for relaxing, and a room for storing personal belongings when the street people return to the city outside in the morning. Soares said it's the best shelter in the city.

Playing politics with children's rights

The passage of the 1990 statute provided a landmark for children's legislation around the world. Pushed by a national coalition of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and an association of street kids, the law transformed children from second-class citizens into real people with rights of their own. It also mandated the establishment of two related councils at municipal, state, and federal levels. A rights council, usually composed of government and NGO representatives, would set public policy for promoting and protecting children's rights. The other body, a tutelary council, would be made up of elected representatives charged with safeguarding the wellbeing and safety of kids on a day-to-day basis.

The law has made some difference. "The problems of children are now an important political issue," acknowledged Gonzalez. "Groups working with kids can today go to a government office and get an appointment. Eight years ago we would have waited all day and no one would have seen us."

Gonzalez said the tutelary councils have helped make children's rights a topic of discussion throughout the community. "People now talk about the problem and get involved when they see something wrong. If they know there's domestic violence going on next door, people are now more likely to report it. That's good, because violence in the home is more dangerous to the kids than violence in the streets. But once it's reported, then what? Although we know the problem exists, how do we treat it? The police offer no solution to domestic violence. This is the challenge now for the tutelary councils."

Although activists throughout the country reported different experiences with the ECA- mandated councils, most told me partisan politics get in the way of the councils functioning well. "Funding for the councils tends to be rather weak because they become a political power of their own, in competition with other political powers," said Ahnen. "No one wants to cede power to the councils."

With many public policy decisions based on what Ahnen termed "electoral logic," government officials aren't likely to worry about the welfare of street kids. The children don't vote. Yet Ahnen said it's hard to discount the impact of the statute, if only for the number of complaints in the media about how it's used by children to avoid everything from criminal responsibility to homework.

"The big challenge today is to put the law into practice," argued de Lima Soares. "To do that we've got to unmask the rhetoric of government programs that use the same terminology and language as the movement to defend children but which continue acting in the same institutional and official manner as they did before. Public policy really hasn't changed that much. They've just put makeup on the same situation without any real change underneath. The kids continue abandoned." De Lima Soares said children-oriented NGOs must spend an inordinate amount of their energy monitoring city governments to make sure they do what the law requires.

In the northwestern state of Rondonia, a priest in Porto Velho resigned from the local children's rights council last year. "The politicians wanted to block the law because NGOs on the council looked over their shoulder to see how they spent money," reported the Rev. Bento LeFevere, a Salesian priest from Belgium who has worked with children in Brazil for more than 25 years. "We spent a year trying to get funding to NGOs. We still didn't even know the council's bank account number. There was no political will to make the law work. This politicizing of children's work made me so frustrated that I quit."

Cities with progressive political leaders are often better, according to Ulisses Guirgel, a consultant on children's ministries for the São Paulo archdiocese. "The councils tend to work better in cities run by the PT [Workers Party]. That's not necessarily because the PT officials are more open, but more because civil society in these cities tends to be more mature, more strongly organized. Good municipal authorities help, but the key to the ECA's implementation lies in a conscientious and mobilized civil society," said Guirgel, who has trained ECA councils in the state of São Paulo and throughout the country. "The councils are based on the idea of society participating in the policy-making of the state. And not everyone in civil society was really ready for this kind of participatory democracy."

In the mostly Afrobrazilian city of Salvador, in the northeastern state of Bahia, the ECA councils have cultivated an environment in which the municipal government is learning from NGOs how to work with street kids and poor urban families. According to Zaliteia Gildson Carvalho of the Axé Project, city and state officials asked Axé to establish a training center for educators who would work with street kids. As a result, Carvalho said many of the two-person teams that work the streets today are composed of one Axé staffer and one city educator. It's part of a push by Axé and other NGOs, said Carvalho, to "get government to do the work it's supposed to do, rather than needing NGOs to work with street kids and children at risk."

Despite the organizational advances, Carvalho reported that more kids are showing up on the streets of the colonial slave port. And they're younger. She said whereas in 1990 most street kids were in their teens, today there are lots of kids as young as four and five years old, as well as entire families thrown onto the streets by the government's economic structural adjustment program.

The Axé Project, which got some of its start-up funding seven years ago from the Methodist-funded Ecumenical Service Coordinator, has several projects designed to keep children at risk off the streets. Its educators work with families in marginal neighborhoods that ring the city. One program trains kids from five to 18 years old in classical ballet, offering discipline and what Carvalho called "an opportunity to dream about doing something in life other than wash car windshields."

Working for cultural change

While Brazil's street children have had their fair share of international media attention in recent years, child workers in Brazil--many of them living and working as literal slaves--remain an untold story. According to a December report from the United Nations Children's Fund, Brazil is home to 53 percent of the 17.5 million children under 18 who work in Latin America. UNICEF complained that 4.3 million Brazilians under age 14--including half a million kids under 10--should be in school rather than cutting sugar cane, making shoes, working in construction, or hammering stones into gravel.

Their situation, and that of the kids surviving on the streets, can often appear unchangeable given the long history of social injustice in Brazil. "Those of us who are in the streets everyday often have the impression that nothing has changed in 10 years, maybe not in 50 years," Guirgel told me. "That's disheartening to people who have given their whole lives to changing this situation. Is it worth it to invest so much energy in something with so few results?"

Guirgel said the ECA has provided Brazil with a new doctrine, but not a new culture. Yet he admited there are signs of encouragement, seeds of hope. "You can hear kids on the street today say they're going to the council to complain. You can hear kids, when they're detained by the police, demand to know the charges against them. You can hear kids cite you chapter and verse about their right to live on the street if they have no other place to go. You never heard this ten years ago. So there is the beginning of a change in consciousness," he said. "Before there was hardly any discussion of the rights of children. Today, out of almost 7,000 municipalities in the country, more than 4,000 have a council on the rights of children. So we're on our way to building this new culture, even if we aren't seeing many results today. Kids are still abandoned, abused, considered delinquents, forced to grow up without schools, without health care or housing or recreation, but there's a new society being built where at least the denial of these rights is being discussed. Ten years ago we certainly weren't talking about this."


Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary in Central America. He lives near Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

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