Among those who attended a crowded meeting in Parliament’s Jubilee Room to launch a new web site highlighting the killing of Brazilian street children were Baroness (Shirley) Williams, Lord Hannay – former British Ambassador to the United Nations – MPs Alistair Burt, Sir Nicholas Winterton and the Reverend Martyn Smyth. The all-party alliance of left right and centre, Lords and Commons, was rare and all the more welcome for that.
Many echoed calls of a former Government Minister, Baroness (Gloria) Hooper – an international lawyer with great experience in South America – who urged Latin American governments to give greater priority to the protection of children.
Before the meeting began we were joined by Olivia Harrison – Beatle George Harrison’s widow – who has given £50,000 to support street children projects and by Manchester businessman, John Kennedy CBE, who came with me to Brazil. John has generously donated over £40,000 to educational and social projects that we visited. This kind of big hearted altruism makes real difference on the ground.
During the meeting there was a telephone link up with the US Congress as Congressmen Trent Franks and Joe Pitts simultaneously launched the web site on Capitol Hill. Congressman Franks movingly said that “every life is precious and needs to be recorded.” Congressman Pitts called for renewed efforts by government officials and non-governmental organisations to work together to help street children.”
The Jubilee Room was dominated by two photographs – one of a cardboard box on a Rio beach, in which could be seen the small feet of a murdered street child – discarded like flotsam and jetsam. Another photograph showed the simple cross outside the church of Our Lady of Cadelaria where 8 street children were brutally mowed down by Brazilian police.
British and American parliamentarians decided to join forces to highlight the killing of an average of 4 – 5 children in Brazil’s favelas every day. Jubilee Campaign, who issued my report on the plight of street children in February (www.jubileecampaign.co.uk) organised both the gathering of information and the launch of this new web site. Their formidable efforts and the work of the parliamentary street children committee has been driving on awareness and action.
Two of the most moving contributions came from Luke Dowdney who, earlier in the day had received an MBE from the Queen in recognition of the work he has done in Brazil with Viva Rio. Author of one of the most important books highlighting the scale of the violence and deaths, Luke has also established sports projects for street children. He was joined by Daniel Saunders, who was born in Sao Paulo and abandoned at birth. Adopted by a British family, he has lived on the streets and talked with first hand knowledge of the dangers facing street children.
The meeting learnt that the police no longer shoot children in public –they have learnt that bad publicity is not good for tourism. But, hidden away in the sprawling favelas of Brazil’s major cities, children are on the front-line of an urban war between rival drug gangs.
An expert from Brazil’s National Movement of Street Children says that between 4 and 5 adolescents are murdered daily; that every 12 minutes a child is beaten; that 4.5 million children under 12 are working; and that 500,000 children are engaged in domestic labour. In 40% of crimes children are the victims.
The massive proliferation of small arms is a central cause. One of the movement’s activists told me, ‘It is easier for a child to get a gun than to get a bus-pass.’ In Brazil, these are the weapons of mass destruction and you don’t need inspectors to find them – they are everywhere.
Alongside the greater accessibility to guns, what has changed since the 1990’s and deepened the crisis, is the emergence of a ruinous drugs culture. Formerly, Brazil was simply a transit country for the notorious producers of Columbia, Bolivia and Peru.
Today, Brazil ranks only after the USA as the second biggest consumer of cocaine. In Rio’s 680 favelas – where about 25% of the city’s 12 million people live – this has led to the emergence of no-go areas controlled by rival gangs such as Red Command and Third Command, who organize and arm the children.
It is unacceptable for any country to allow the routine killing of children without redress.
When children like Danielle Becham in are killed in the UK, this tradegy is rightly front page news. In places like Brazil where violence against children is common place, the lives of children who are killed are easily forgotten.
The new website intends to rectify this. www.stopkillingchildren.com has two aims;
1. In the absence of a grave stone for many of these children, this site will document the deaths of children killed through armed violence. This site will be a memorial and a reminder that their lives are not forgotten.
2. It will also be a tool to leverage political pressure demanding effective action to stop the killing of children. The website has letters to be downloaded to the Brazilian President and a petition to sign.
That this initiative is needed is illustrated by some of the 160 cases that are already on the site. They document the lives and deaths of children and young people whose lives have been needlessly cut short.
Samanta Isidoro Gonçalves, aged just 8, was killed on Sep 24, 2004 by a stray bullet in Rio de Janeiro’s Bonsucesso neighbourhood. Reportedly, she was going home from church and was shot in the head when crossing the street. According to relatives and witnesses, at least ten shots were fired at the moment she was killed. No-one has been brought to justice.
On November 2nd a17-year-old boy was killed by two shots to the chest and two to the head around 10 pm in the neighbourhood of Prazeres, in the municipality of Jaboatão dos Guararapes (Pernambuco). He was murdered on the street where he lived with his family. No-one has been brought to justice.
According to victim’s aunt, the teenager did not use drugs and had no prior criminal record. However, police soldier Eliezer Júnior believes that he was killed out of revenge as police received information that he was involved with youth gangs.
Wallace Soares Dias, 13, was executed with five gunshots to the chest just the day before our meeting took place at Westminster. He was killed in front of a municipal school in Rio de Janeiro’s Vila Isabel neighbourhood. The killer is a not yet identified boy of approximately 15 years of age who escaped riding a bicycle. According to the victim’s father, a friend with whom Wallace had fought recently ordered the killing. According to police from the Sixth Battalion of the Rio Military Police (Tijuca), Wallace was murdered by drug traffickers from the Morro dos Macacos complex of favelas, who belong to a rival faction from that of the Morro da Mangueira, where Wallace lived.
As people left the meeting they took with them small stones etched with the names of a dead child. Many committed themselves to visit the site and to draw it to the attention of at least ten people – and to ask them to do the same. This campaign deserves wide spread support and if enough people respond it will make a real difference. Brazil is a beautiful country and it has many good leaders. But they need a wake up call. These children are the future of Brazil – and if they don’t act to stop their killing Brazil will have no future.