Latin America and the Caribbean

NACLA Report on the Americas
May/June 1994

By Daniel Hoffman

The Child and Adolescent Statute (Estatuto da Criança e do Adolescente), passed into law in 1990 by the Brazilian national Congress, was the result of intensive lobbying by a broad coalition of Brazilian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and activists on behalf of the rights of children. The Statute radically reformed the legal status of children, redefined the responsibilities of the State and civil society, and mandated the creation of participatory councils at the federal, state and local levels.

This landmark legislation followed the 1988 revision of the Brazilian Constitution, which in Article 227 states that:

It is the duty of the family, society and the state to assure with absolute priority the rights of children and adolescents to life, health, food, education, leisure, occupational training, culture, dignity, respect, freedom, and family and community life, and in addition to protect them from all forms of negligence, discrimination, exploitation, violence, cruelty and oppression.

The Child and Adolescent Statute (ECA) created a comprehensive set of laws which replaced earlier legislation, the Minors' Code (Código de Menores). The earlier code was widely recognized as repressive and as a vehicle for the wholesale internment of poor youth, often for nothing more than "vagrancy."

In an effort to decentralize and broaden participation in policy and budget decisions, the Statute mandates the creation of Children's Rights Councils (Conselhos de Direitos) and Guardianship Councils (Conselhos Tutelares) in all of the country's nearly 5,000 municipalities. The Children's Rights Councils are responsible for implementation of the Statute at the policymaking and juridical level. These 15-member councils are to be made up of an equal number of representatives from civil society (NGOs) and from relevant government institutions. Guardianship Councils, by contrast, function as on-the-ground advocates for children. Each municipality is supposed to create a five-member guardianship committee. These committees are responsible for monitoring compliance with the Statute, intervening on behalf of vulnerable children, and, in a sense, serving as social workers within the communities.

Moving from the traditional practices of exclusion and blaming of the street child to new practices of incorporation and acceptance of collective responsibility for the welfare of the child is a much greater challenge than writing the new laws. The actual experience of poor children has little resonance with the extensive rights now ascribed to them on paper.

The obstacles to implementation of the Child Statute are considerable, including lack of basic resources and infrastructure, resistance from local and state-level politicians, and non-compliance within the judiciary (which loses much of its power under the new laws). Application of the Statute is blocked, above all, by popular attitudes that continue to regard street children as present or future criminals that need to be repressed.

The creation of effective councils throughout Brazil has become a foremost priority for organizations concerned with the rights of children. Establishment of the municipal and state-level councils has, however, so far been slow and difficult. The implementation of the Child Statute is thus not only a reform of child-welfare laws, but also a significant test of--and precedent in--the democratization of Brazilian society.


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