Latin America and the Caribbean

NACLA Report on the Americas
May/June 1994

KIDS OUT OF PLACE (Part 2 of 2)
By Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Daniel Hoffman

In 1991 Veja reported that the public morgue in Recife received approximately 15 bodies of dead children and adolescents a month. Black and brown (mixed race) bodies outnumbered white bodies 12 to 1, and boys outnumbered girls at a ratio of 7 to l. In 80 percent of the cases, the bodies had been damaged or mutilated.14 The local human rights organization GAJOP characterizes the routine assassinations of poor adolescents as an unofficial death penalty which is carried out "with chilling cruelty and without any chance of defense whatsoever."(15)

Brazilian journalist Gilberto Dimenstein, in his forceful denunciation of violence against children, Brazil: War on Children, emphasized the complicity of off-duty policemen, hired killers, and store owners (lojistas) in the death squads.(16) Typically, it is store owners who pay to have "undesirable" adolescents and children eliminated. A similar conclusion was reached in a report by the São Paulo chapter of the Brazilian Bar Association, which indicated that "the military police and death squads paid by shantytown shopkeepers killed most of the nearly 1,000 street children slain here in 1990."(17)

Dimenstein writes that support of human rights for children in Brazil is confined to a relatively small minority, and that to make a case for the rights of children is perceived by many as "an attack on decent people's rights to walk down the street in safety."(18) Underlying this sentiment is a perception that street adolescents are dangerous criminals with little chance of reform. Discourses regarding human rights, including rights for children, easily come into conflict with popular concerns for public safety, leading some to claim that human rights are the "privileges of bandits."(19)

Support for death squads, "private justice," lynchings and lethal tactics by the police is related to widespread perceptions that the justice system does not work, and that police are inefficient, corrupt, and frequently themselves involved in crime.(20) Residents of poor neighborhoods are often the strongest supporters of violent, extrajudicial solutions to local crime, a phenomenon that has been, in part, attributed to the lack of security in these communities. As one observer writes, "people are usually asking the police, whom they fear and accuse of being violent, to be violent 'against the side that deserves it.'"(21) The poor, it appears, feel every bit as besieged by crime, if not more so, as the rich and middle class do. This is crucial to understanding their acceptance of extreme forms of private justice, even when they are most likely to become the targets of its abuses.

Thus, each time a troublesome young street child was swept up in a police raid or was physically attacked or "disappeared" in Bom Jesus, people said nothing. Some residents were even sympathetic to these violent attacks on other people's "bad" children," and would occasionally murmur under their breath, "Good job, nice work!"

The tolerance for violence is also a legacy of the dictatorship. Throughout Brazilian military rule (1964-1985), the civil and military police were heavily implicated in the disappearances, tortures and deaths of suspected "subversives." Although the process of democratization has been fairly rapid since 1982, it has yet to check the extraordinary power of the civil and military police over the poorer populations. Today, the police are called upon to enforce, often violently, the apartheid-like codes that seek to keep the poor and the black--young as well as old--"in their proper place." Indeed "race" and race hatred have emerged today as popular discourses that justify violent and illegal police actions in shantytown communities. Death squad persecution is directed at a specific class and shade of shantytown resident. Consequently, young black males in Brazil are increasingly a threatened population.

In all, the problem of "street children" is emblematic of a larger dilemma in Brazil: a failed economic development model that has relegated a vast proportion of the population to misery. Out of this configuration arises the specter of the homeless and abandoned street child, perceived by the more affluent classes as a blemish on the urban landscape and a reminder that all is not well in the country. Unwanted and considered human waste, these ubiquitous tattered, mainly black children and adolescents evoke strong and contradictory emotions of fear, aversion, pity and anger in those who view their neighborhood streets, boulevards and squares as "private places" under siege. But unlike other forms of debris, street kids refuse to stay in the dump (the favelas of Brazil). Instead, they often stake out the most public and most elegant spaces of the city to live, to love, and to work, thus betraying the illusion of Brazilian "modernity."

By invading the city centers, frequenting the public parks and upper-class beaches of Rio de Janeiro and Recife, and engaging in petty crimes against the middle class, street children defy the segregated order of the modern city. Street children are, in a sense, poor kids in revolt, violating social space, disrespecting property, publicly intoxicating themselves, and otherwise refusing to conform or to disappear. The risks and hazards of this inchoate domestic rebellion are great: illiteracy, toxicity from inhalant drugs such as glue, chronic hunger and under-nutrition, sexual exploitation and AIDS. It is this overall configuration of risks that leads child advocates in Brazil to defend the right of the child to be in the street, while recognizing that a life of the streets can only be self-destructive in the long term.

The new Brazilian Constitution and the subsequent Child and Adolescent Statute recognize the rights of children and the obligation of the state, civil society and parents to protect these rights and to provide for the needs of children as individuals in a special condition of dependency, and physical and social development [see "The Struggle for Citizenship and Human Rights," p. 19]. The National Movement of Street Children (MNMMR), an organization of street educators and children's advocates, is at the forefront of legislative reform and the movement to engage and empower street children in their own environment: in the parks and plazas of the city [see "The National Movement of Street Children," p. 21]. The MNMMR helps street children to form their own organizations, to develop their own leadership, and to articulate their own demands, so that individual acts of survival can be translated into collective acts of political resistance. The Street Children's Movement activists recognize the anger and indignation of street adolescents as appropriate to their marginalized and precarious existence.

The outcome of the struggle for childhood in Brazil will weigh heavily on the success of activists in the MNMMR and other organizations that share its vision of a new society in which all children are valued. For all its power, however, the Brazilian street children's movement has been unable to strike at the source of the problem. Until the chaotic economic and social conditions that cause desperately poor parents to "lose" their children to the streets are reversed, childhood for the vast majority in Brazil will continue to signify a period of adversity to be survived and gotten over as quickly as possible, rather than a time of nurturance to be extended and savored.


Nancy Scheper-Hughes is a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkely. She is currently visiting professor and chair in social anthropology at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. She is the author of Death Without Weeping; Everyday Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil (University of California Press, 1992).

Daniel Hoffman is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.

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