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Street children in Brazil. Daily struggles in a complex social setting

Essay 2013 22 Seiten


Table of content

1 Introduction

2 Street children in Brazil
2.1 Differing definitions of street children
2.2 Statistical data on the situation of street children in Brazil
2.3 Underlying causes
2.3.1. Micro level
2.3.2. Macro level
2.4 Problems faced by street children

3 Responses to the situation of street children
3.1 Societal solution approaches: The death squads
3.2 Development of the legal situation in Brazil
3.3. Solution approaches



1 Introduction

“ln a worlb of increasing ineqrality, the legitimacy of institrtions that give precebence to the property rights of "the Haves" over the h r man rights of "the Have Nots" is inevitably calleb into seriors qrestion.”

David Korten

The situation illustrated by this quote of a renowned globalization critic could be seen as a description of today's Brazilian society. Social inequality has been one of the main problems faced by the world's fifth largest country1 for a long time. The gap between the rich and the poor is of sheer enormity and leads to extreme poverty in a more or less wealthy state. As there is no territorial separation between income groups, people with different economic backgrounds share the scarce space in overcrowded Brazilian cities. Favelas2 are next to rich residential areas in Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo, often on steep hillsides and only accessible by foot. A shopping mall, breakfast cafe or the beach can become a space for social encounter between “the Haves” and “the Have Nots”, as those spots are attracting people from all over the cities.

Tourists and locals on the streets of any of Brazil's cities will immediately notice children following them. Either they want to sell goods, beg for money or try to sneak something out of the rich looking (wo)men's pockets. But most of the time people do not look behind the immediate appearance of those children. In Brazilian society they are often seen as a social evil, annoying and something to get rid of. If necessary, also by using violent means. A closer look at the living and working conditions of street children reveals the harsh reality most of them are facing in their daily lives. In theory, Brazilian legislature grants several rights to those children as vulnerable and minor persons, but in fact their problems are not addressed properly and stay largely unnoticed by the public.

Starting with the connection between the topic of street children and the concept of social inequality, the following question arises: What is it that makes a society unequal and out of balance? Several factors add to this situation. There is a hierarchy of citizens within a specific group of human beings living together, mostly in nation states but also in regional contexts. This hierarchy is often related to money and/or power issues, consequently there is an unequal distribution of goods (quality of shelter, food, clothes), limited access to services (education, health system, job opportunities) and a restriction of basic human rights (voting, freedom of speech, freedom of movement).

According to a specific social status people might experience relative or absolute poverty. Especially the rights of those belonging to an assumed low social class are often not considered as important. Decisions have always been made by powerful elites in favor of specific groups and are therefore (re)producing social inequality. Many of the above mentioned issues are relevant for street children in Brazil. Their social status is one of the worst possible within the whole country. They might have low quality of shelter, food and clothes and limited access to social services. Their rights are formally acknowledged by the state, but in reality, only few programs effectively address the needs of street children by favoring a holistic approach. Satisfying basic needs will not break the vicious circle of structural poverty.

The task of addressing the root causes of the phenomenon more efficiently is a difficult one. Consequently, there is a serious need for analyzing what can be done about the situation of street children. This essay starts with a short overview of the situation street children are facing in Brazil now as then. The terminology of who belongs to the group of “street children” is discussed as well as facts and statistics collected by several researchers. Underlying causes which force them to leave home are analyzed on the macro and micro level. In addition, problems faced by street children in their daily lives are discussed. The second part of this essay is focused on the societal and governmental responses to the situation street children experience. The conclusion aims to answer the question how the gap between legislation and reality can be closed at the best and gives a short outlook to further research options.

2 Street children in Brazil

To facilitate a common understanding of a non-static and complex group, differing definitions of the term “street children” are discussed in the following chapter. Furthermore, the shifting notions of the term during the last 30 years of research are presented to make the progress in research activities visible and understandable.

2.1 Differing definitions of street children

During the 1980s, there was a superficial categorization of all children seen on urban streets as “street children” (cf. Rizzini et al. 1992: 1). They were treated as a uniform category without differentiating between children who live on the streets or just work there and return home at night. Some of those important aspects were not analyzed and the research tended to see street children in a vacuum instead of relating their current status to socio-economic factors or to their families (cf. ibid.: 8). By late 1980s and beginning of 1990s, a shift in the research focus took place. Different categories of street children were distinguished. It was important if children see the street as their home or still maintain family ties (cf. ibid.: 8). A fuller understanding of the phenomenon took place.

After 2000, it was commonly accepted that those children never uniformly fit into static groups and the label “street children” was seen as a socially constructed category which in reality does not form a clearly defined, homogenous population (Consortium for Street Children 2012: 1). There were enormous variations in children's experiences and overlaps between groups: some children live on the street all the time, some occasionally or seasonally, others move between home, street and welfare-shelters (ibid.). The complexity of establishing a consistent definition was acknowledged and it was difficult to obtain precise data or exact numbers (cf. Ferguson 2002: 25). As many children spend all day on the street without parental or guardian supervision but return home at night (cf. de Moura et al. 2012: 1371), it was impossible to categorize and count them properly. A recent definition focuses on the connections children make to the street and relationships formed there: a street-connected child is a child for whom the street is a central reference point and play a significant role in his/her everyday life and identity (Consortium for Street Children 2012: 1).

UNICEF developed a classification of street children into three groups ( cf. Jubilee Action: 3). The so called “Children On the Street” form the largest group and consist of children working on the street in informal jobs, but return home at night. The second group is called “Children Of the Street” and includes runaways, abused, alienated children from deprived and poverty stricken families who are unable to maintain normal family units. Those children are often associated with theft, drug sales, prostitution and gang activities. The last group is “Children In the Street” and is the smallest group. It consists of orphans and abandoned children, which means there are no family ties at all.

In the course of time there was a new understanding of the phenomenon. Researchers understood that social policies were at the root of some of the problems that the nation's poorest children face and this new public awareness created a favorable climate for social change (Rizzini et al. 1992: 8). To present a broader overview on the factual situation, the next chapter will offer some statistics about the situation of street children in Brazil.

2.2 Statistical data on the situation of street children in Brazil

The presence of street children in Brazil is noticed since the 1970s. Because of the above mentioned difficulties in collecting data about them, numbers of sources may differ. The most recent study available is of the National Department for Human Rights (Secretaria Nacional de Direitos Humanos): 23.973 children were counted on the streets of 75 Brazilian cities, 23,3% of those children sleep on the street, 45,1% of them are between 12-15 years of age and 71,8% are male (cf. Consortium for Street Children 2012: 2).

The study also shows that “amongst the children between six to eleven years of age, 38,9% do not attend school, which rises to 59,4% for the group of 12-17 years old” (ibid.). The estimated number of street children in Brazil is 12-17 million (Schmitt 2007: 189).


1 Brazil is the fifth largest nation in terms of territory as well as population

2 Portuguese word for shanty towns on squatted land


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
500 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Alice-Salomon Hochschule Berlin – Intercultural Conflict Management
2013 (Juni)
Street children Brazil Social Inequality



Titel: Street children in Brazil. Daily struggles in a complex social setting