Collor Urges Protection Of Brazil's Street Children

But activists say new racial attitudes, not just money, are needed

RESPONDING to criticism that not enough is being done to curb violence against children, the Brazilian government is trying to implement procedures to enforce a national child protection law passed by Congress a year ago.Earlier this month, on Oct.12, Brazil celebrated Children's Day and President Fernando Collor de Mello planted a tree in memory of "victims of violence," at the presidential palace. Together with 1,000 children, Mr. Collor announced several initiatives. The measures include creation of the National Fund and Council for the Child and Adolescent, an organization funded by an optional income tax checkoff, and a job internship and literacy program for 5,000 teenagers. Collor also called on state and city governments to help implement the law with "S.O.S. Child" hotline programs to serve children at risk, offering federal funding for these. The president also asked the attorney general to help "undo the climate of impunity in relation to the violence that vi ctimizes Brazilian children." Meanwhile, a congressional investigatory committee last week wound up three months of depositions on the problem, taken from citizens in six different states. The commission plans to finish a report and action proposal by early December, and hopes to set up a permanent watchdog committee. So far, the committee's representatives say they have collected a list of names and addresses of people known to have killed youngsters living on the street, a list largely provided by children whose lives have been threatened.

New child laws Passed last year by Congress, the child protection law provides a new legal framework for meeting young people's needs, including clearly establishing their constitutional rights, and society's duty toward them. The statute ended years of alternating between official charity or official repression, replacing this dual approach with a philosophy of community participation. The president's measures, however, attracted little attention among most Brazilians. Beset by inflation, crime, and unemployment, most citizens are increasingly cynical about government's ability to solve problems. Still, some activists gave the recent initiatives a cautious welcome. "Any real, implemented measure for children and adolescents, undertaken by people with the skills to take things forward, I think is valid," says Myriam Mequita Pugliese de Castro, a researcher at the University of Sao Paulo's Violence Studies Nucleus. "The president has shown he is interested." Until last year, the Brazilian government had shown little concern for the nation's street children, estimated at 8 million youngsters by the National Movement for Street Boys and Girls, a nonprofit group. On Brazilian streets, youthful peddlers and beggars have long been common. For more than a decade, activist organizations have denounced violence against these youngsters by police and vigilante groups. Between 4,000 and 5,000 children are killed annually in Brazil, the government says. Those figures i nclude both rural and urban death tolls, and show that most victims are black teenage boys. Collor had previously set up several new institutions to oversee implementation of the legislation. But, as he himself said in a recent nationally broadcast speech, much remains to be done. Last month, the president fired the executive director of the Brazilian Foundation Center for Infancy and Adolescence for her reported links to one of a series of corruption scandals involving the president's home state of Alagoas. Contributing to the difficulty are prevailing attitudes that support the violence. These are widespread, and especially prevalent among blue-collar workers, says Marilena Chaui, Sao Paulo's secretary for municipal culture and sports. "Our work is to take apart the idealogy justifying the violence and extermination," she says. Others, however, say the flurry of new measures demonstrate how big and knotty the challenge is. "Five thousand jobs can never be seen as a solution to the problem of street children," says Joao de Deus do Nascimento, Sao Paulo regional coordinator for the National Movement for Street Boys and Girls. He criticizes Collor for "throwing money down from above," instead of working with local groups.

Funding levels Funding should also be increased, says Federal Deputy Celio de Castro, of the Brazilian Socialist Party and a member of the investigative committee. Mr. De Castro says next year's federal spending for children will be cut by about a third from 1990 levels, to about $80 million. Still, he applauds Collor's announcement. "It shows he has given total and full support to the Statute.... From now on we can make him keep his promises." Last month, Sao Paulo activists met with the congressional committee to question official statistics, noting that their group's research has found an unexpected number of youngsters meet with violence at or near home. One child is killed in Sao Paulo every other day, they said. "There is an epidemic of deaths by violence among children in Sao Paulo," said Jose Gregori, president of the Teotonio Vilela Commission, a local human rights group. "There should be a more severe penal code for crimes against children."

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