Giving Street Children a Voice

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To mark the April 12th observance of International Street Children Day, we spoke with Fetzer advisor Irene Rizzini, founder of Brazil’s International Center for Research and Policy on Childhood (CIESPI), about her work with this vulnerable population in Rio de Janeiro. This is one excerpt of two from our conversation.

CIESPI started in the early ‘80’s, when more and more children were coming to the streets, yet the term “street children” didn’t exist in Brazil or elsewhere. We wanted to call attention to the problem, but also give these children a voice so they could tell us why they were there. There is a lot of fear of street children, especially older kids. People started associating increasing violence in Rio de Janeiro and other states in Brazil with the presence of these kids on the street. Our goal in the first years was to change this idea, to change that image of them as a threat to society, and to have them tell us their stories. We were very successful increasing attention on this issue and helping initiate new policies for these children.

Reaching vulnerable children, families
In the past six years, CIESPI has concentrated on constructing new priorities, new policies and programs for addressing not only children already on the streets, but also children at risk of leaving their homes, their families, and communities. Based on research, the children's testimonies, and indicators about vulnerable children in Brazil, we’ve developed ways to inform the public about what needs to be done, and how to respond more adequately to the problems that children on the streets face.

We were very successful in passing two new policies: one specifically for street children in 2009 and another outlining priorities for children in the first six years of life, which passed in 2013. One of the most important lessons we learned with our research is that problems start when children are very young. We regularly link kids who are extremely vulnerable, who have their rights violated, and who are on the streets, with the painful experiences these children had in the early years of their lives.

Addressing negative image, stigma
In the past two years we have been focusing strongly on two issues—how to implement Rio de Janeiro’s policy for street children so their needs are met and how to address the negative image and stigma associated with street children. We have a culture of non-implementation—of signing up for international conventions and laws, but not following through. The CIESPI staff has been trying to better understand how to overcome the obstacles to implementation.

Another important issue is how to convince the general public that street children deserve and are capable of a decent future because they are part of our human family. With the film When Home is the Street, funded by the Fetzer Institute, we sought to address that challenge. When I was invited to work with Fetzer, and challenged to identify a project that would be important for us in Brazil, we developed this idea to show who these children really are in contrast to the negative portrayal of street children in much of the media, which is often that of being the perpetrators of violence. We wanted to start changing that image of threat and fear, and the lack of humanity associated to these children.

Children share their stories
The film has been amazing. For us, we thought that a video or documentary featuring young people telling their life stories in Brazil and in Mexico would be helpful, but it exceeded our expectations. We have been using the film in all kinds of places and with all kinds of audiences, including street children themselves. The debates that take place around the film are usually extremely rich. Our goal now has been how to disseminate it, especially in circles where people do not really agree with us.

We want to reach those who are, for example, in the media, who say it’s our right to be safe on the street, and these children don’t allow that because they will rob us and attack us. We want to confront those who believe that they should be put in prison when they are younger. In Brazil they can only be put in prison after eighteen, but people want harsher laws. They want them locked up or even dead. In fact, the institutions they are taken to from 12 to 18, when they commit an offense, are like prison and totally inadequate. We hear people saying things like, “we don’t care where you take them, just take them out of our way.”

We want to be seen as normal people
When we talk to children living in the streets, they tell us, “Sometimes it’s almost like we’re not human beings like others. We just want to be seen as normal people. As a person like any other person. As a person who has feelings and a person who didn’t have opportunities. And that never happens.” The whole idea was to humanize the debate, have the children in the documentary talk about what they went through and how they overcame the suffering, and what kind of support in terms of laws and affection and real care that they got that helped them overcome life on the streets and find a new, better life than in their childhood.

Irene Rizzini is founder of Brazil's International Center for Research and Policy on Childhood (CIESPI: Centro Internacional de Estudos e Pesquisas Sobre a Infancia) and a professor and researcher at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro.