Mexico considers 'ban' on street children
New law would require officials to move street kids into schools or other programs – or face a $420-per-child fine.
Children selling gum or washing windshields in the streets of Mexico are as ubiquitous as traffic lights.Skip to next paragraph
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But a new proposal here would forbid the presence of street children in cities and towns across the country.
Under a proposed modification of a federal child protection law, state and municipal authorities would be required to round up kids living or working on the streets and place them in the care of social service agencies. Authorities who fail to do so would face fines.
The proposal, now being studied in congressional commissions, could be modified, and a final vote is months away. But it is already garnering a strong reaction among children's rights advocates.
Supporters of the change say it finally turns attention to society's most vulnerable, attempting to provide children a dignified life of classrooms, after-school activities, and ample playtime.
But for critics, this move to round up street children is too simplistic. It fails to address the complex roots of the problem and, at worst, is an effort to simply sweep the presence of poverty under the rug, they say.
"It's another attempt to lock children up and clean the city of a social problem, as has been tried here and in the rest of Latin America over the decades," says Dolores Munozcano Skidmore, a sociologist who studies street children at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
How big is the problem?
The term street children includes those who are homeless, as well as those who live with their families but work to supplement family incomes. Their presence in Mexico has grown with the decades, in tandem with migration from the countryside to the cities.
According to Mexico's National Agency for Family Development, in a 2004 study carried out with UNICEF, some 108,917 children are at risk, living on the streets in Mexico. Mexico's national statistics office estimates that 3.6 million children (under the age of 18) work, and of those, 41.5 percent do not attend school.
Since 1992, children are required by law to attend school through ninth grade. But many still drop out before the age of 15.
"In both rural and urban areas," according to the sponsors of the proposal – Sen. Mario López Valdez and Sen. Adolfo Toledo Infanzón – "child exploitation has fully become the norm. Thousands of children have been obligated to abandon school to work."
The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) senators say that the economic crisis – Mexico's economy is predicted to contract by 5.5 percent this year – will make the situation even more dire. In the state of Guerrero, for example, they cite national statistics showing that 202,000 children work to provide income to their families, and of those, over a quarter have dropped out of school.
A $421 fine per street kid?
The modified article would obligate authorities to send children under age 14 that they encounter on the streets to government social service agencies. The fine for not doing so is up to 100 days of minimum wage (5,500 pesos or $421).
It has drawn fierce criticism in Mexico. A group of 60 children's rights organizations sent a letter to the senators saying that their proposal "criminalizes poverty."
But Reynaldo Vieyra Marquez, director of the National Parents Union in Mexico, disagrees. "No one is blaming the kids," Mr. Vieyra Marquez says. "They are the victims; it is commendable that someone is starting to put the focus on them."