Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

CHILDREN-BRAZIL: Hunger, Poverty Create Breeding-Ground for Social Ills

Ricardo Soca

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jun 15 2004 (IPS) - Every time Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva speaks at an international forum, he underlines that his main objective is to fight hunger and poverty.

In Brazil, Latin America’s giant, 32 million children and adolescents live in families with incomes of less than 40 dollars a month.

Lula brought up the issue once again Monday, at the opening of UNCTAD XI (the 11th United Nations Conference on Trade and Development), which ends Friday in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city.

”I have undertaken a vital commitment to fighting hunger, and that objective is the top priority of my government…In the various international meetings in which I have participated, I have defended the central importance of this issue, and the need for a new world order, capable of producing prosperity with social justice,” said Lula, a former trade unionist.

In this country of 178 million, poverty pushes school-age children into the world of work and creates a breeding-ground for social ills like malnutrition, sexual exploitation, and violence against children.

Although there are no reliable statistics on child labour in Brazil, an estimated three million children under 14 work, 40 percent of them in agriculture, where the worst conditions are found and where work is generally incompatible with school attendance.

According to statistics from the National Confederation of Agricultural Workers, minors working on plantations cut an average of 2.3 tons of sugar cane a day, doing arduous work at an age at which their bone and muscle systems are not yet fully developed.

As adults they often suffer irreversible limb and joint problems and are at risk of cardiac and respiratory ailments.

An International Labour Organisation (ILO) report released last week found that Brazil has the third largest number of minors working in domestic service – a total of 559,000 – surpassed only by South Africa and Indonesia.

Most of them are girls who are kept by their employers as signs of social status. Very few of the domestics are able to attend school, and they frequently receive no remuneration, but merely room and board and minimal clothing, which relieves the pressure on their impoverished families by reducing the number of mouths to feed.

Sexual exploitation is another problem to which poor children in Brazil are vulnerable. But legislation promoted by various administrations and the work of the Catholic Church organisation Pastoral for Children have considerably reduced the magnitude of the problem, which in the 1990s affected half a million girls and adolescents.

There have been other advances as well. The under-five child mortality rate has been cut from 60 per 1,000 live births 15 years ago to 28 per 1,000 today, the coordinator of the Pastoral for Children, Clovis Boufleur, told IPS.

However, that is still high, he added, pointing out that among the 1.8 million children assisted by the Pastoral, under-five mortality has been reduced to 15 per 1,000 live births.

But ”Our work is aimed at contributing not only to reducing child mortality, but at creating opportunities for the integral development of the child,” said Boufleur. ”We don’t simply want to increase the number of children who survive, but are working for them to have all of the opportunities for integral development to which they have a right.”

In addition, the most highly developed parts of the country have made progress in fighting child malnutrition, and the national average has been reduced to five percent. But in the impoverished northeastern state of Alagoas, for example, 17 percent of children are still undernourished, according to the Health Ministry.

Violence is another serious problem facing minors in certain sectors of society. Every day, an average of four children and adolescents in Brazil are killed by the police, other minors, or common criminals.

In addition, juvenile delinquents are subjected to harsh punishment when they are captured. Government reform schools inspire such fear that adolescents frequently try to pass themselves off as old enough to be sent to prison instead.

A report presented by non-governmental organisations in Brazil to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child on Jun. 11 cites the progress made in the fight against malnutrition and in expanding primary school coverage in Brazil, but states that the country still has a long way to go towards ensuring respect for the rights of children who run into problems with the law.

The groups reported that 71 percent of the 190 institutions for juvenile delinquents in Brazil fall short of U.N. requirements regarding respect for the dignity of minors.

Mistreatment and torture, a deficit in human resources, and prison-like architecture are problems found in these institutions, according to the civil society report presented to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, which is meeting in Geneva.

A government report states that between September and November 2002 a total of 9,555 adolescents were deprived of liberty in Brazil. Of that total, 90 percent were males, 60 percent were black, 51 percent did not attend school, and 49 percent did not work.

The official report also states that between 1988 and 1990, 4,661 children under 17 were murdered – an average of four a day. Of the victims, 52 percent were killed by the police or private security guards; 82 percent were black; and 67 percent were males between the ages of 15 and 17.

Combating violence against minors is one of the commitments assumed by the leftist Lula when he took power in January 2003.

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