Universe Column for October 9th 2005
by David Alton
Along with my fellow Universe columnist, Fr. Shay Cullen, who has done such celebrated work on behalf of street children in the Philippines, I recently gave evidence to an American Select Committee. The Committee was chaired by New Jersey’s Congressman, Chris Smith. The Committee particularly wanted to hear about Brazil and the Philippines – and Chris Smith tells me that they were so shocked by the evidence that they have now decided to have a follow-on hearing.
I described my visit to Brazil, in February 2004, on behalf of Jubilee Action – a visit which began at the church of Our Lady of Candelaria, in Rio.
It was here, in July 1993 that six police officers opened fire on a group of eight street children who were sleeping in some doorways opposite the church.
That was 12 years ago but our investigation found that the killing of street children in Brazil continues – at an alarming rate. The police no longer shoot children in public –they have learnt that bad publicity is not good for tourism.
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.’
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.
This situation, however, is not restricted to Brazil.
Street Children across the world may be homeless, work on the streets, have no contact with their families, live on the streets with their families, live in day or night shelters or end up in places like prison.
There are no confirmed figures of Street Children. They are not easy to count due to migration, exclusion from infrastructures such as schools and colleges and due to differing definitions of the term Street Children. But the numbers run into millions worldwide.
And the situation is getting worse – fuelled by conflict and violence, uncontrollable urbanisation – directly linked to poverty – conflict within families, conflict with the law – and children being orphaned due to AIDS/HIV .
Vagrancy is in some countries an offence, and the police round these children up from the streets and throw them into prison. Other children are accused of petty crimes and imprisoned, often without having a first hearing, in overcrowded adult jails where they are at the mercy of the prison guards and fellow prisoners.
UNICEF estimated in 2001 that there were 1 million children illegally imprisoned in jails across the world.
In the Philippines there are estimated to be 20,000 children imprisoned in conditions that amount to torture. Children as young as 9 can be tried in courts and sent to jails, some children as young as 6 have been found in jail
Children imprisoned with adults are:
5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted
Twice as likely to be beaten
And 50% more likely to be attacked with a weapon, than children housed in juvenile detention centres.
In September 2004 Jubilee Campaign launched the Stop Killing Children website – www.stopkillingchildren.com – to challenge Brazil for allowing the routine killing of children with impunity and without redress.
When children like Danielle Becham in are killed in the UK, this tragedy 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 web site documents the deaths of children killed through armed violence. And it is a tool for the leverage of political pressure.
The website has letters to be downloaded to the Brazilian President and a petition to sign.
The number of reported cases on this website has now exceeded 750 this year alone.
The decision of the American Congress to put this issue right up the agenda is welcome news. We should encourage our own legislators to do likewise. Perhaps we also need more web sites to shine a light on the lives and deaths of children who very existence would otherwise remain totally unrecorded.