It Is Possible to Change

Homeless youth in Rio de Janeiro

To mark the April 12 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 the second and final excerpt of our conversation.

The main lesson that we learned in our years working with street children is expressed in the voice of Javier from Mexico City in When Home is the Street. He gives us details about how he had to survive in the streets, doing all kinds of awful things and taking drugs so he could forget his life and himself. When he found people who were loving and supportive, he decided that he couldn’t go on living that kind of life because he would die. He felt he was already dead in his soul. With that support, he left the streets and started working with other kids. He says, “Yes, yes, it is possible to change.” Even for a kid with such a terrible story, it is possible to change. That is the most important lesson for us.

Overcoming obstacles
In a country like Brazil with a history of 500 years of inequality—a rich but incredibly unequal country—we are sometimes overwhelmed by the obstacles to change. At CIESPI, we have been reaching many with the message that it’s possible to change. We have been able to bring our experience and our research to other countries facing similar problems. Specifically, I have been working with the Ministry of Social Development in Brazil with the participation of the Ministries of Uruguay and Paraguay, to help them rethink, improve, and expand the services they offer.

Education and support services for the most vulnerable
Street children are out of the imagination of the public sector, including public education. We have enormous challenges in our public education system. After the dictatorship ended in the 80’s in Brazil, we have not recovered. We have progressed in terms of enrollment— approximately 98% of the kids get enrolled in primary education—but after three or four years, approximately 40% of them drop out or fall behind.

Reaching the most vulnerable children and those already in the streets remains a challenge. We have been addressing the issue from a variety of angles and now we have expanded our work to include a number of key actors, including those in the political sphere, to increase the possibility of implementing new policies. Our work looks at very vulnerable children on the streets, combined with support services in the first years of life. We are hopeful that as we strengthen services to very young children and families, the number of children living in the streets will decrease. If the government uses our taxes to invest in better schools, better daycare centers, better support for the families, it is likely future generations of children will be better off.

We still have very little knowledge about what really works in terms of supporting extremely vulnerable families, but we have started doing research on that issue. We are listening to parents, especially the most vulnerable single mothers with young children, to find out what kind of support they need as well as better opportunities for jobs.

Research points to most effective strategies
We have to be able to extend our capacity to raise the issue in a very efficient way using research-based evidence. For example, we can show that building more prisons to house street children is not effective or humane. Our effort in dealing with very young children helps a lot, because babies and small children are not seen as a threat or dangerous, providing an opening for empathy.

At CIESPI, we try to understand why people develop this anger and distorted image of children being less than human and not deserving of better opportunities. This has to do in part because of a lack of contact. The only thing they experience and they see through the media are some of these children doing something awful. There is also the stigma of being poor, or very often black, and in some ways less important, which is not a new thing. To change that you have to be persistent with coherent messages that help people change their perspective. We cannot do that without touching their hearts.

In fact, our work and research is tied to the concepts of love, forgiveness, and compassion, which we try to bring forward as it points to an important ethical position: we as human beings are called to be responsible for contributing so that the current and future generations have better opportunities to fully develop their potential. That’s what we have been learning and trying to do over the years.

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.