IN Guatemala, as in every developing country, child labor is a fact of life -- a seemingly essential component of most families' daily struggle for survival. The average woman in Guatemala gives birth to at least six children, which is more than in any other Central American country except Honduras. However, as the infant mortality rate of 62.4 deaths per 1,000 births shows, the chances for these children's survival are quite low. The average life expectancy of Guatemalans is 59 years, less than only Bolivia and Haiti in all of Latin America.
Throughout the developing world, children are looked upon as extra workers in the home or the fields, as additional providers of income for family survival, more than as financial liabilities. And since children are expected to work from the time they are very small, their prospects of receiving an education are not very good.
Only 54 percent of Guatemalan males are literate, while the figure for females is 41 percent. In Central America and the Caribbean, only Haiti has lower literacy rates.
``I saw a little boy blowing bubbles all day,'' says photographer Melanie Stetson. ``He must have been about 11. He stood on the street in Guatemala City from morning until evening blowing bubbles, selling the little bottles of soap and the plastic rings. He didn't talk to other children, he never got distracted from his work. He didn't look particularly sad or even bored. He just looked like a person doing his job.''
``The shoeshine boys were everywhere. They would congregate near the presidential palace and follow after the tourists with their boxes of shoe polish. There were so many of them, you wondered how they ever got enough customers to make it worth while.''
All these children, and very likely their parents too, are part of the vast informal sector that constitutes the bulk of the work force in every developing country.
The majority of Guatemalans who live in the city survive hand-to-mouth.
They have no regular employer, no fixed salary, no benefits, no protection from exploitation or lack of opportunities.
Children and adults sell produce they often have to procure before dawn every day, often with money borrowed at exhorbitant interest rates.
They perform services as porters, sweepers, or construction workers on a daily, catch-as-catch-can basis.
When family survival depends to some degree on every family member, small children soon learn a sense of responsibility for those who are even smaller than they.
What they usually do not learn -- if they spend their childhood working on the streets -- is how to escape from the cycle of poverty into which they have been born.