THE STREET KIDS WHO TOOK ON A GOVERNMENT:
Monday Is the Anniversary of the UN Convention
on Children's Rights
Anthony Swift reports from Brazil
Marcos was told he would never live to be a teenager because he'd be murdered. He came from a slum near Recife, Brazil, also home to a death squad. "The police murdered six of my cousins and several of my friends. Once they pressed a gun muzzle to my head. I thought they were going to push it clean through my skull to save on the bullets."
That's what life is like on the periphery of the consumer culture. Among the world's top 10 economies, Brazil has the greatest disparity in distribution of wealth: 90 million live in abject poverty and only 38 percent of children complete even primary school.
Death squads--mostly off-duty police and local businessmen--take up "public security" where the on-duty police and security guards leave off. In Rio, three street children are shot dead every day; 1,000 have been killed in the last four years. Everybody knows about the squads but few know that Brazil also leads the world in organising children to stand up for their rights.
The struggle goes back 25 years but took off when the National Movement of Street Boys and Girls was founded by educators--outreach workers in voluntary and government organisations--in 1985, the year the dictatorship ended. In 1986, the children themselves suggested the idea of a national meeting.
The movement has just held its fourth national meeting in the federal capital, Brasília, and despite the death threats, Marcos got there. He's now 17 and he was one of the young committee elected to plan and manage the extraordinary event. He even spoke at the opening, attended by the Minister of Sports (the soccer star Pelé) and senators and congressmen. More than 1,000 children, aged 7-17 and 300 educators arrived from all 27 states. Many had traveled for days across the continent-size country, banners streaming from bus windows.
Education was the major theme. They demonstrated outside the Ministry of Education, then streamed over the grassy slope to the National Congress building, some dressed as clowns, some on high stilts or wearing fantastical masks or carnival outfits.
They filled the Congress's assembly hall where their teenage leaders met the government and non-government representatives of the National Council for Children's Rights. They criticised the slow progress of Brazil's children's rights legislation--which, were it implemented, would be the most progressive in the world. They wanted more schools out where they lived; they wanted schools to understand they were hungry and tired after long hours of work; they wanted an end to violence against street children. A boy from Sao Paolo said: "We don't know how many children are killed. It happens faster than we can follow it up. They are left to die on the ground like dogs."
Each of these meetings has improved rights. The first caused a sensation; It made the children's claims part of the nation's yearning for democracy and shaped the children's clause in the post-dictatorship constitution.
The then head of UNICEF, Antonio Gomes Da Costa, said people had thought of these children so negatively--as poor and ignorant and useless--that society had neglected them and did not care that they were disposable. But the movement began to change that attitude. The second meeting in 1989 publicised the killings, forcing the government to recognise and deal with the problem. The children invaded the Congress and spoke there, helping to push the statute for children's rights through Congress. The statute proposed new structures to secure rights. The third meeting tried to get that statute implemented and the councils it proposed set up, while the latest meeting tried to create channels which would let the children themselves shape future policy.
Most of the educators are from poor backgrounds and they work voluntarily in programmes with street and poor community children: they want profoundly to change society. The children have been brutalised spiritually as well as physically. "To survive I would have to become cold and hard and turned in on myself. I had to be tougher than anyone else or befriend someone who was tougher," says one girl.
Educators give them loving, reliable companionship and draw them into small groups, in which, through workshops and recreation, they get a new sense of themselves. Children from the groups have taken many local actions, challenging municipal authorities over police violence against them. The planning of the national meetings begins in these groups. And the children love them. The younger ones say they value the warmth and concern of the educators; older ones appreciate the discussion and the insight.
"If it wasn't for the movement I would be on the streets or dead," says Marcos.
"Today I feel very strong. I am no longer scared. I have learned so much through the other children I have met. The educators were there right with me in my darkest moments. They kept saying to me 'You have to learn to walk straight--don't get killed like your fellows.' They are not paid for this work they do. It is the most brilliant thing in Brazil."