Disposable Children

Like the tip of an iceberg, the appearance of millions of street children in Latin American cities represents a tragedy of great proportions.
September 25, 2014


Ed: Digging into the NACLA archive, we present three sidebars from our May/June 1994 issue “Disposable Children: The Hazards of Growing Up Poor in Latin America.” They reveal the structural factors that endanger the lives of children in poverty, in spite of attempts to institute formal legal protections for them. In light of today’s child migration upswing, with over 60 thousand children from Latin America crossing the border this year alone, we see how U.S. policy undermines these fundamental rights so widely accepted, although not fully implemented, 30 years ago. At the time of the first publication of these essays in 1994, Eugenia María Zamora Chavarría was the director of the Instituto Interamericano del Niño in Montevideo, Uruguay, and Daniel Hoffman was a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.

The Precarious Situation of Latin America’s Children
Eugenia Maria Zamora Chavarria

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% 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% of Latin American children under the age of 15 lived in cities, as opposed to only 29% 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% to 16% in Santiago de Chile for example, and from 17.3% to 29.4% 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, signaled 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.

The Rights of Children
Daniel Hoffman

The Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on November 20, 1989. It has now been ratified by 159 countries, including every country in the Americas except for the United States. It establishes for the first time in an international convention that children are citizens with certain definable rights, and that those rights, in the main part, consist of particular protections from their respective governments. That many of the rights listed below had to be specified is an indication not only of the powerlessness of childhood, but of the daily horrors that many of the world’s children find themselves subjected to. Among the rights agreed to by the parties to the Convention are the following:

The inherent right to life.
The right to a name at birth.
The right to express his or her opinion freely, and have that opinion taken into account in any matter affecting the child.
The right to meet with others and to join or form associations.
The right to the highest standard of health and medical care attainable.
The right to enter or leave any country for purposes of maintaining the parent-child relationship.
The right to primary and secondary education.
The right to be protected from work that threatens his or her health, education or development.
The right to be protected from sexual exploitation and abuse, including prostitution and involvement in pornography.
The right to be protected from torture, cruel treatment or punishment, unlawful arrest or deprivation of liberty. (Capital punishment and imprisonment without possibility of release are prohibited for children under the age of 18.)
The right to be protected from recruitment into the armed forces below the age of 15.

In addition to respecting these rights, governments which are party to the Convention agree to certain responsibilities, among them: the provision of appropriate assistance to parents in child raising; the protection of children from maltreatment by parents or other caretakers; and the provision of alternative family care or institutional placement for children deprived of a family environment.

The Struggle for Citizenship and Human Rights
Eugenia Maria Zamora Chavarria

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 who 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.

Read the rest of NACLA's 2014 Fall Issue: Horizontalism & Autonomy



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