From ........ National Catholic Reporter

September 9, 1994

page 9


Latin America's kids often provide needed income for families

By LUCIEN CHAUVIN Special to the National Catholic Reporter

LIMA, Peru— More than 20 million children in Latin America spend their days away from grade school lessons recess games and after-school sports. Instead, they take to the city streets storefronts and parks, singing love ballads on buses, washing car windows at stoplights, peddling gum and cigarettes and even begging. All for a few coins. All in the name of survival.

Society in many parts of the region considers them a threat, giving them titles like los desechables — throwaway human beings.

Although neoliberal economic policies have helped tame hyperinflation throughout the region, prolonged recession and poverty continue to send millions of children out of their homes and into the informal work force.

Poor families have come to depend substantially on income generated by these children. 'Poverty is forcing more and more families to turn to their children as a means of income,' said Isabel Alvarez, executive secretary of the Peruvian Catholic church's annual solidarity campaign, Compatir. 'These children are at risk and are very vulnerable. They grow up feeling as if they are not part of our society.'

Ironically, the majority of Latin America's street children are not homeless. They do, however, spend the better part of their days as pint-size hustlers doing whatever is required to get food on their family's table.

An example is 14-year-old Miguel. He washes cars in front of a supermarket in a middle-class neighborhood of Lima. Miguel's salary, 35 cents a wash, goes to his single mother, who raises him and his brothers and sisters in a shantytown .

Miguel is not alone More than 700,000 children between the ages of 6 and 17 work on the streets of Peru. In the poorest regions of the country, 25 out of every 1,000 children between the ages of 6 and 9 are part of the work force, according to a UNICEF survey.

Already severe urban squalor has been exacerbated in many Latin American countries by forced migration from rural areas. Scores of peasants have been forced to flee their homes because of civil wars and drug trafficking in places like Colombia, Guatemala and Peru. The majority of these internal refugees are children and women, according to the U.S. Committee for Refugees. In Colombia and Peru alone, there are an estimated 1 million internally displaced people.

In Brazil, the estimated 7 million to 10 million children who work and live on the streets face a different kind of war, one conducted by death squads. Between 1988 and 1991, more than 5,600 children between the ages of 5 and 17 were murdered, according to a Human Rights Watch-Americas report.

'Behind the phenomenon of violence against street children lay the extreme poverty of the majority of Brazil's population, domestic violence and substance abuse. Because [the children] were some times involved in crime, shopkeepers, the police and, at times, the general public viewed these children as a threat to public safety,' the report said.

The rising number of working children and increasing violence against them has spurred the development of various programs designed to help them.

The Catholic church in Peru, as in other Latin American countries, has supported initiatives aimed at cultivating their self-respect.

'When we work with the street children, one of the principal areas for us is building self esteem,' Alvarez said. 'When children have to work at a young age, they lose their perspective of self. They are looked down upon by our society, and they internalize this contempt. They learn how to survive, not how to live.'

In Brazil, the Flor do Amanha Center offers educational services to more than 21,000 young people living on the streets of Rio de Janeiro. The center provides technical training in metalwork, carpentry and car repair.

In Peru, CEDRO, the Center for Information and Education to Prevent Drug Abuse, operates a similar program. The center recently started to work with local city councils on a plan that would restrict where and how long each child can work and require school attendance. Each child would be given an identification card, which can also be used for access to health and educational services.

'The one thing we can be sure of is that child labor causes poverty,' said Dwight Ordonez, CEDRO coordinator. 'If these children drop out of school only to earn money, they will never develop any skills. The children who are washing cars today will be washing cars in 10 years if nothing is done.'