Street children: What will become of the world's `nonpeople?'

IT is cold at night in the ancient city of Cuzco, high on the spine of the Andes in central Peru. On a dark, cobbled street, a group of children presses against the glass door of the Caf'e Extra, staring at the flickering television inside. They range in age from about six to 12 years old. Most are barefoot. All wear thin, ragged, dirty clothes. Some carry improvised trays of cigarettes to sell. Several are shivering from the cold. A customer leaves the caf'e, and two children squeeze inside. Before long, all have made their way noiselessly into the warm, brightly lit room. The proprietor will tolerate their presence for a while, but eventually he will send them out again into the night.

These children are accustomed to sleeping in the dark corners of the city. They will curl up in the doorway of Cuzco's great cathedral, or under a table in a deserted market square. A few may sleep on a restaurant floor, after sweeping it for the owner. Some, with the resilience of childhood, will look forward to the morning. Others will feel afraid and very much alone. Before they fall asleep, many will be groggy from sniffing paint thinner or gasoline, trying to forget that they have been hungry all day.

They are street children. In cities all over the world, they are growing up on the margins of society, often without education and without the affection or guidance of adults. Some of them face the very real threat that their lives will end violently, a fate many say they fear. Others face the prospect of ending up in jail.

There are an estimated 100 million such children, mostly in the developing world. But accurate figures are hard to come by. As one advocate for street children puts it, ``How do you count nonpeople?''

Latin America has the greatest number. Brazil alone estimated it had 32 million in 1984. The cities of Asia follow. All developing nations are expected to see greater and greater numbers of street children. But experts say Africa - with the world's fastest population growth and severest poverty - is likely to face the largest numbers.

Serapio, one of the children at the Caf'e Extra, is 9. He is small for his age, with a timid, gentle smile. His mother is dead, and his father left with his two brothers three years ago, because, according to Serapio, ``He didn't want me.''

The child has a grandmother who, he says, is very old and poor and depends on him for food. He lives by begging. On a good day, he may make the equivalent of $2.50. But his mother died in the grandmother's house, so he is afraid to sleep there. Since his shoes and sweater were stolen by other children, he prefers to sleep alone on the street. Recently his good friend, an 11-year-old boy, died of exposure during the night. ``He didn't have anybody,'' Serapio says simply.

Does he think people care about children?

He answers softly, ``No.''

Since the 1970s, the third world has been experiencing an economic crisis brought on by a host of factors, including the unequal balance of trade with industrialized nations. One of the bitterest fruits of this crisis has been a virtual stampede from the depressed rural areas to the - usually mythical - ``opportunities'' of the city. This migration has undermined family cohesion and support networks that sustained village life.

When parents fail to find work in a city's overcrowded slums, children are often expected to fend for themselves. School may be too expensive, even in countries where education is technically free and the only costs are shoes, uniforms, books, and other fees.

Living aimlessly in a world of unrelieved poverty, with adult models of chronic inactivity and frustration all around, children can be attracted by the excitement and independence of the streets. Often, they leave home to escape the abuse of frustrated parents or stepparents. Sometimes, as in Serapio's case, they are simply abandoned.

Yet Serapio is fortunate. At least for now, he can keep the small amount he makes from begging for himself and his grandmother.

``A lot of street children are organized by Mafia-type gangs for begging,'' says Peter Davies of the Anti-Slavery Society in London. ``Some are maimed - deliberately - to make them more pathetic. Some get involved in prostitution, pornography, drug pushing. Now they don't do this willingly - they are forced into it by poverty.''

Because many street children get involved in crime, society's attitude toward them is much more punitive than protective.

``These children often get sucked into petty crimes which in fact enable them to survive,'' says Aura Mar'ina Marcucci Roca, head magistrate of the Juvenile Court in Guatemala City. ``They live on life's margins and are rejected by society. They are stigmatized - treated as delinquents.'' Serapio has already had run-ins with the police. He has been beaten, picked up for ``vagrancy,'' and held in a detention center.

``The lady at the center treats us badly,'' he says. ``She put the electric current on me to make me tell where another boy was.''

What will become of Serapio, and the millions of children like him - children with no place in society, no adult support, and a sense of alienation and inferiority? For now, most residents of the world's cities simply avoid the children and the problem, roll up their car windows, and look the other way.

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