The Murder of Rio's Street Children

JONATHAN POWER

July 30, 1993|By JONATHAN POWER

Stockholm, Sweden. -- Brazilian politicians have united like never before in condemning the murder of eight street children, indiscriminately shot by an ''extermination squad'' in central Rio de Janeiro. More than 4,600 children have been killed throughout Brazil in the past three years, mostly in Rio, where 3,000 or more children sleep on the streets and at least 50,000 beg or run errands around the city. According to Brazilian congressman Paulo Mello, ''It's a lucrative business, this killing. Low-paid police officers get money for their after-hours work to clean the streets . . . in the name of ridding Rio of its dire street-crime problem.''

UNICEF believes there are more than 100 million children who live abandoned by their families in the streets of the world's cities. Forty million of these are in Latin America, where the machismo culture of male dominance combined with unremitting poverty and loose marital bonds pushes men toward cruelty in the home and infidelity away from it.

In ''Street Children,'' a report by the Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues, the sociologist Paulo Freire tells of how he tried to persuade a man, living in a one-room hut in Recife, Brazil, not to beat his children. ''There are nine of us in the family,'' came the answer. ''When I get home from work, all of them are crying from hunger, cold or sickness. If I have to get up the next day at 4 o'clock in the morning, I simply must get some sleep, and there is no other way.''

For this, blame the dislocation brought on by the world's most rapid rate of urbanization, riding on a feudal maldistribution of land that offers the peasant poor less and less security on the family plot.

Not all street children, however, are orphaned or deserted. Often a child has chosen to run away from home. As Father Savier de Nichole, who has long worked with street children in Colombia, once told me, ''This is a child whose response to a life of poverty and despair is to save him or herself. This, in essence, is an act of survival. Forced to choose between the misery without freedom of the child's supposed home and the misery with freedom of the street, the child has opted for the latter.''

In rural areas, extended families usually take in abandoned or orphaned children. In the cities, the extended family not only rarely exists, the number of orphanages, children's homes or would-be foster families are few and far between. Once introduced into street life, it becomes difficult to rescue such a child. Few couples are prepared to take back or to adopt a physically stunted and emotionally scarred street-wise child of 12, who might be sniffing glue or gasoline and earning a living as a pick-pocket.

We tend to see street children mainly as a Third World problem. In the industrialized world, it is supposed to have died out around the time of Charles Dickens, who wrote of London's streets as ''a little world in which children have their existence, where there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt as injustice.'' But if it ever did totally disappear, which is doubtful, certainly over the last decade the growth of broken families together with the pressures of economic recession have brought it back to life.

In the U.S., it has been estimated that there are between 750,000 and 1 million young runaways. Estimates based on returns from local authorities and local organizations suggest a minimum of 1 million homeless children in the member states of the Council of Europe. A detailed investigation by the Anti-Slavery Society reveals that child labor is widespread in one European Community country, Portugal, with 200,000 children working illegally.

But Third World or industrialized world, the personal stories are common to both. While street children, especially in the early months or years, revel in their new-found freedom and the escape from tyranny at home, after a period of time many begin to feel both alienated and vulnerable.

Two studies, one made in Brazil, the other in Bolivia, show they need friendship and emotional support at least as much as other types of assistance. The Brazilian children confess to an abhorrence and fear of violence, in particular robbery, either by adults or by other children. They also hate the fighting with other children that often characterizes street life. In Bolivia, the children put the need for affection and understanding far above the need for food, habitation or jobs.

The world over, the scale of the problem of the homeless child and the working child is worsening. Do we have a hand to help these children with? It is both a personal and political question. On the private level, everyone has a duty to look and see how they might find a way to give support. And governments the world over need to concentrate more resources on poverty-alleviating development rather than a simplistic, all-consuming pursuit of untrammeled economic growth.

Particularly in a time of economic readjustment, policies are needed to protect the poor, who often suffer quite disproportionately from the retrenchment imposed by their country's finance ministry and the International Monetary Fund.

Do we want to inhabit a world where so many children are growing up alienated from its basic norms and values, becoming young adults who could be easily recruited into the most nihilistic of political and religious causes for the very understandable reason no one gave them love and opportunity when they needed it most?

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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