World & I

Children Without Rights in Latin America
by Maria Cristina Salazar and Felicia Marie Knaul


Until the beginning of the eighteenth century, children were regarded as incomplete adults; they did not constitute a special class for whom the state or society needed to make special provisions. They were members of a family, and it was taken for granted that the family would represent and look after their interests. As to fights, any that they enjoyed were derived from the family.

Since children were not recognized as an independent social group and had no "status," their rights could not be acknowledged, nor could they be the beneficiaries of legislation. But, in 1989, the United Nations adopted a Convention on the Rights of the Child that set forth the need children have for special care and protection.

This Convention has been ratified or adopted by most Latin American countries, including Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Guyana,Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela. Although the United States was instrumental in the formulation and adoption of the Convention, it has not yet ratified it.

One Latin American country, Colombia, set up a National Committee on Science and Culture for the Future that included future citizens, its children, in its scope. In announcing its conclusions, the Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez stated bluntly that Colombians must increase their efforts to build a more just and equitable society in which children may participate more fully, a society that would guarantee children the fight to live under optimal conditions in which to grow and develop.


Historically, the social status ofhildrenis but one aspect of the overall underdevelopment of human rights in general.childrenare not the only group in need of protection; several other groups were officially unrecognized until quite recently. To take but one example, it was not until 1957 that Colombian women received the right to vote, and, even in the United States, the franchise for women was not achieved until 1920.

Although we do not know if the violation of children's rights has become more or less pronounced, we do know that some of the most important advances in our thinking about the protection of children's rights have come about under the conditions of the worst violations.

Perhaps one of the most striking examples is the writing of Janusz Korczak, especially The Right of the Child to Respect and How to Love a Child, in which he formulates the idea of a child's right to respect. Korczak died for his Jewish religion and for his dedication tochildrenin the Treblinka concentration camp. The director of an orphanage, he accompanied his children into the Warsaw ghetto, even though he could have escaped with the help of non-Jewish friends. This was but the last of many choices in a life devoted to the service of children. He reportedly offered the following explanation: "You do not leave a sick child in the night, and you do not leave children at a time like this."


The UN Convention defines the absolute character of children's rights, but clearly the meaning and the exercise of such rights are limited by external factors such as poverty and working conditions. The recognition and protection of rights must be seen as particular, concrete, and relative to the times, conditions, and places in which they develop. At the same time, this is only partially true because there are absolute rights that must be considered as such, regardless of the social conditions.

But the decision to formalize children's rights carries with it a number of ironies and dangers. To acknowledge thatchildrenhave rights does not excuse us from giving them complete protection; that is, our obligation is not limited by whatever is contained in a bill of rights. It may well be that protecting the idea of childhood begins with the recognition of children's vulnerability, of their inability to protect themselves. But this recognition may limit another fight, that ofchildrento define their own needs.

Conversely, ifchildrenhave the right to define their own needs and to participate fully in the decision-making process in society, they may lose some of the protection that they might need as children. It is a slippery slope. One must ask how the right to participation and the fight to " childhood" relate to each other.

Today, because we have established systematic ways of monitoring rights and the conditions of children, we are much more aware of the violations of children's rights than we have ever been in the past. Indeed, a whole technology is devoted to generating information on the condition of children, and it is justified by the desire to respond to needs more effectively. This industry is capable of transmitting a picture of a suffering child to every part of the world.

Of course, an image of suffering may violate the right of a child to privacy and respect, since it portrays him as lacking the capacity to act on his own behalf. At the same time, the reality of the violation must be reported. It may be argued that the presentation of suffering, including that of children, is most adequately justified on the grounds that increased awareness should bring about more prevention, yet the images are so overwhelming at times that we achieve only numbness or complacency.

It is in the face of this increased awareness that we have set up a system of rights that are clearly being violated on a daily basis. The reality of the lives of many of the world'schildrenis so far from embodying the fights established in the UN Convention that it is sometimes difficult to see clearly how the formal ratification of the rights will actually bring about a change in children's lives. At the same time, it is precisely these conditions that make the formality necessary, because it requires that where those normally charged with the protection of the fights of children are unable or unwilling to provide protection, others, be they in the same or another nation, are obligated to take action.

Both ratification and application of children' rights are, in fact, dependent upon economic, political, or social circumstances. For example, while child labor is unthinkable for most wealthy families, it is often an acceptable or necessary practice among poor families. While one would never pass by a child of seven alone on the streets Toronto and do nothing (in fact one would be hard pressed to find such a solitary child), this can be a daily event in Bogota.

In the context of Latin America, the violation of children's fights is both active and passive.

The passive violation is the result of poverty. While economic growth has improved to the extent that the region is clearly not the poorest in the world, rural and urban poverty is oppressive for the majority of the population. Under these conditions, it is a constant struggle for families to protect the rights of their children.

The active violation includes violence, although this may affect a small number of people. Violent offenses include the murder of street children by death squads (as well as by official forces), the buying and selling of children for various purposes, the sexual abuse of children, and the displacement ofchildren by violence, to name but a few.


Millions of poor childrenin the ever-growing cities and rural areas of Latin America lack the benefits of adequate family attention, nutrition, medical care, education, and play. Their childhood is characterized by the daily struggle for survival. Violence occurs regularly in their families and communities, even in the schools (which they are seldom able to attend).

Urbanization has resulted in the growth of urban poverty in the cities and it has had special effects on children. Sub-standard housing, inadequate and contaminated water, overcrowding, and unhealthy sanitation aggravate malnutrition and cause the spread of infection and water-related diseases in the sordid squatter settlements that surround the cities.

Poor families usually depend on income from the informal sector, such as street trading, petty retail trade, labor in backyard workshops, stealing, begging, or prostitution.

Children and youth take part in diverse street jobs, such as car washing, garbage collecting, and recycling. The low pay means that all members of the household, regardless of age and gender, must contribute to income generation. In addition,childrenmust often be left at home alone while the parents go to work; from an early age, they begin to take care of younger siblings. Home alone, they are exposed to dangers such as using unguarded stoves, which is one of the main causes of burns (often fatal) suffered by very small children.

The problem of large numbers of migrant and displaced families is very severe in countries where political violence has been ongoing, such as Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Guatemala, and others. Thousands of such families live under stress in the shantytowns of many cities. Displaced children include hundreds of orphans who have lost their parents to violence. Although some of them may be adopted de facto, many arrive in the cities as migrants, with family links that are weak or nonexistent. These children have severe psychological traumas caused by the violent acts that they have experienced. A boy in his early teens who recently lost his father in the Colombian countryside said: "For me, the most important need is to have my father alive with me again."childrenoften say that they dream about the bombings and assassinations that they have witnessed.

On top of the dire housing conditions, together with crowding and inadequate recreational facilities,childrenin shantytowns are also exposed to physical dangers. These include traffic accidents and terrorist acts, especially attacks by death squads and "militia" groups that undertake the responsibility of doing justice to those whom they consider to be criminals.

Very few migrant children, and even fewer displaced children, manage to further their education beyond the primary level of fourth or fifth grade. Often the cost of going to school is too high, which is one factor that determines their early work in the streets and elsewhere. The poor quality of the teachers and schools also buttresses the feeling that school is not worthwhile. Cultural and ethnic differences are neglected as far as curricula content is concerned. There are few flexible school programs that allow children to combine their labor and educational activities.

Due to the many limitations caused by being poor, relations between parents and children are severely affected. Unemployment, malnutrition, job insecurity, low incomes, and lack of education are all factors affecting the relations between children and their parents. Husbands frequently desert their wives and children, increasing the numbers of female-headed households under worsening conditions of poverty. When women become the main earners, they have very little time for their offspring. The girls, even the very young, have to become housekeepers and child-care givers.

A number of special issues face girls. From as early as five or six years of age, they are pressed to take up domestic responsibilities; this gives them lower value than boys, whatever activities outside the home the boys assume. Girls have unequal access to food, health care, and education; their work load in general is greater. Since from infancy they are treated differently from boys, they are taught submissiveness, obedience, and dependency, which mark also their future domestic role.

This implies that the socialization process of girls is restrictive. They are much more isolated than boys from peer groups, and they seldom are involved in work outside the home. In rural areas, adolescent girls sometimes work more hours per day than adults, both male and female, and they learn the same agricultural jobs that adults perform.

In spite of beliefs to the contrary, it is only rarely that boys leave their families completely. They may spend several nights and/or weeks in the street, joining gangs and carrying out different menial jobs, but it has been documented that only a few abandon their families totally.

The relations between street children and adults who work on the street, such as shopkeepers, may also be a source of conflict. Main socializers, in the case of street children, are the older children who have been on the street longer--they tend to care for each other, especially for the younger ones.

Girls are less likely to reach the streets than boys for a number of reasons. One reason is the especially dangerous conditions they would face on the street. Furthermore, due to their domestic duties, they do not have the same opportunities to explore the streets and therefore have less means to achieve independence. Boys, instead, are forced to learn how to cope with many kinds of difficulties, including violence (mainly on the part of the police, who often hurt them). In a study of street children in Bogota, the majority admitted they suffered aggression on the street, and the most commonly cited aggressor was the police, although "unidentified" people, friends, and family members were also mentioned quite frequently.

When boys reach a situation of economic self-reliance and have contact with their peer groups, they are able to decide to leave their homes for longer durations or for definite periods. It is then that they may decide to live more permanently in the streets. This decision is usually the result of difficult relations with their parents, especially where there are stepfathers, who often maltreat their stepchildren severely.

Numerous studies indicate the severity of child abuse by family members and cite this as an important causal factor in pushing children onto the street. Nevertheless, it is unclear why more gifts do not choose to run away, as they are also victims of domestic violence. What is clear is that gifts who suffer from poverty and family violence but remain at home are not necessarily better off than their peers who turn to the children. Both groups should be considered aschildrenwho require and deserve special attention on the part of policymakers.


Most Latin American governments still fend to view child welfare as primarily the responsibility of the family and see their own function as providing services-housing, water and sanitation, health care, and schools--to support the family. But the principal determinant of children's well-being is family income, which has been of little concern to most governments. Levels of poverty continue to grow at high rates in most of Latin America, despite new economic policies that have improved growth and inflation while neglecting adequate social investments. The problem of the unequal distribution of resources contributes to social malaise.

The provision of services has not been sufficiently geared to the needs of poor children. Government policies regarding the needs of shantytowns are scarce, often nonexistent. Investments in health care go to curative measures, when preventive ones are needed more urgently. Even educational investment, which in most countries has grown substantially, tends to discriminate in favor of the more educated population, with universities getting a larger share than primary schools.

When families fail to take care of their own children, the state may provide institutional care, but the care of orphans and abandoned children tends to be seen as the job of private charities. State institutions then concentrate on punitive measures, which are mainly directed to children who are "difficult to handle."

The absence of clear state commitments to child welfare is reflected in the lack of relevant legislation, although some governments have recently emphasized the UN Convention in legislative reforms. Brazil, for example, has one of the most advanced set of children's statutes in the world, although the distance between theory and practice is unfortunately made evident by assassinations of street children there.

Cuts and readjustments in public spending have affected children's welfare programs in most countries. Parents have been requested to pay higher fees for health and schooling services. The community is also given the responsibility of responding to declining living conditions, but their resources are always insufficient.

It is clear that the traditional system Of caring for orphans and abandoned children is inadequate to cope with the problems involved. Institutions may be emerging in response to new types of community commitments such as the approach of nongovernment organizations (NGOs), whose aim is to combine the provision of material support with means to achieve a sustainable improvement in child welfare.


A number of policy concerns are emerging from the accumulated body of knowledge about the situation of Latin America's children. First, it is an increasing challenge to empower children to participate in the protection of their own rights while still being children. More emphasis should be placed on forums and media that give children the chance to communicate with each other. These might include children's conferences, newspapers, popular television programs, and other ways in which groups of young people are able to share their ideas with each other and present them to adults.

Second, the responses to the needs of children, which have typically been directed toward resolving problems as they arise, should go toward preventing problems from arising. One result of the current outlook has been that few policies and little money have been directed to the family as a whole. For example, despite the known level of violence toward women and children, there are almost no projects that provide women with safe places to go to with their children. Instead, children are forced to flee their homes alone and enter programs and facilities designed to help them exclusively, while the rest of the family, including their younger siblings, continue to "manage" the violence.

Third, children's rights have to be implemented through adequate government policies and community programs. Strategies should begin with situational analyses of problems in order to determine the risks and areas that deserve priority. Also important are the establishment of both short- and long-term objectives, programs of action, and systems to monitor and evaluate program effectiveness.

The picture we give of the situation of Latin America's children is still laden with suffering. It is difficult to accept that, despite the progress that has been made, the region continues to be known for its street children, child workers, and violence.

Perhaps we ask too much of society, as even at the level of the individual, there are few who are able to put into practice what they propose as justice for children or for others. Yet, we are guided by a precious few such as Janusz Korczak, thanks to whose work our society has now taken on the responsibility of protecting the rights of children and has developed the means to recognize that responsibility. What lies ahead is the great task of putting our proposals into action.

( For a more in-depth discussion of these issues, see Arthur and Joan Klienman's discussion document for the Conference on Social Suffering, Bellagin Conference Center, July 4-8, 1994.)

Maria Cristina Salazar is an associate professor at the National University of Colombia's Department of Social Science and Felicia Marie Knaul is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Economics at Harvard University.

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