Latin America and the Caribbean

NACLA Report on the Americas
May/June 1994

By Eugenia María Zamora Chavarría

The most visible tragedy in Latin American cities has been the appearance of millions of street children. Like the tip of an iceberg, the appearance of the street children represents a tragedy of much greater proportions. Beneath the street-children phenomenon lies a mass of less visible suffering, characterized by the stunted lives of child workers, the terror of child prostitution, and the poverty of indigenous children and children in peasant communities.

The street children remind us that while poverty remains most acute in rural areas, the rapid urbanization of Latin America has made poverty--most visibly--an urban phenomenon. Seventy percent of the Latin American population and 57 percent of the poor now live in urban areas. These figures sharply contrast with the world's other developing regions where the majority of children live in rural areas. In 1985, for example, 64 percent of Latin American children under the age of 15 lived in cities, as opposed to only 29 percent of the African population of the same age. It is in cities that the relative deprivation of living standards and social rights is most acute.

The difficult conditions borne by millions of Latin American children--and their families--were particularly sharpened during the "lost decade" of the 1980s. The precarious situation in which the majority of Latin American children are growing up has been further aggravated by the policies of economic adjustment adopted by most governments in response to the debt crisis, the major economic problem of the 1980s. Adjustment policies often produced a reduction of employment and wages, rising prices of basic goods (especially food), and reduction of public spending on public and social services. As a result of the economic crisis and the policies of adjustment, the percentage of families living in extreme poverty rose dramatically during the first half of the 1980s: from 12 percent to 16 percent in Santiago de Chile for example, and from 17.3 percent to 29.4 percent in San Jose, Costa Rica. Studies show that impoverishment has hit families with the most children the hardest.

Reduced spending on social services and falling family incomes have a negative impact on the quality of care that can be offered to children in extreme poverty. As a consequence, infant mortality continues to be a problem in the region. For every thousand live births, 50 children die before their fifth birthday. This rate is six times higher than in the United States and Canada. In Haiti and Bolivia, the under-five mortality rate has reached alarming levels, 133 and 118 respectively. Easily prevented diseases like diarrhea and respiratory infections, along with malnutrition, are the principal causes of these childhood deaths. It is estimated that four million children under five die each year from diarrhea. The sudden reappearance of cholera, an epidemic thought to be eradicated a century ago, constitutes dramatic evidence of the precarious conditions of health among a large part of the Latin American population.

The reduction of income reinforced the necessity of child labor, frequently in unhealthy conditions, in order to support family subsistence. It is an error to suppose, in this context, that the child of the street has been "spontaneously generated" and lacks any family. In the majority of cases, these children form a part of a "family of the street" providing mutual aid to one another.

Into this bleak landscape, some hope has been introduced in the form of the World Convention of Children's Rights The years leading up to the World Convention were characterized in Latin America by profound economic and political crises. Most of the countries in the region had deeply authoritarian governments, typically installed by military coups. In this sense, the arrival of the decade of the 1980s, while it sharpened the economic crisis, signalled at the same time a democratic political opening. This democratic opening represents a special condition for Latin America, and the great challenge of the 1990s is to maintain it. In this context, the living conditions of the great masses of the urban and rural poor, especially young people, will have a determinate influence on the consolidation of the democratic system. The problems of our children are important for their own sake, but in addition, their solution is imperative for the future of a democratic system which can't exclude them if it is to survive.


Eugenia María Samora Chavarría is the director of the Instituto Interamericano del Niño in Montevideo, Uruguay. Translated from the Spanish by NACLA.

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