Director-General of UNESCO Ms Irina Bokova said education was the key to a better future for excluded children.She spoke during a day of events at UNESCO headquarters on November 26 devoted to street children and held to mark the 20th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Ms Bokova said education was not only a universal right but a weapon in the fight against poverty. ‘What can the future offer street children if they are excluded from education. It is by learning reading, writing and mathematics that they can break the vicious circle of misery and take their destiny into their own hands.’
The day, organized by UNESCO and the Fondation Air France, started with a debate moderated by French journalist and writer Florence Schaal, which pieced together a global view of street children and also touched on the right to education, legal implications and partnerships for action.
Principal speaker Ms. Rizzini, President of the International Childwatch network which works with 40 countries said: ‘We have been talking about street children for 30 years and their numbers are increasing. Enough rhetoric. We know what the problem is. Now we must put pressure on countries to do something about it.’
‘In Brazil we don’t even talk any more about the right to education for street kids. They are bounced between institutes and centres and the street where they find their own dangerous strategies for survival and engage with dangerous adults,’
Street children were feared and resented by society because of their involvement in crime but the real problem lay not with the children themselves but with social inequality and lack of priority on political agendas.
‘Brazil is one of the ten strongest economies in the world but also one of the five most inequal. We have 6 to 8 year olds on crack. Children are beaten and used sexually. We have forgotten that children are young citizens who should be respected,’said Ms Rizzini.
‘Yet we still apply 19th century solutions; collecting street children like garbage, putting them in trucks and taking them to shelters where they won’t stay. I spoke to a girl once who said she felt safer sleeping under a bridge than in a shelter. Children tell me most of all they would just like to be regarded as human beings,’ she added.
Dr Najat M’Jid, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography said: ‘There is no task more difficult than protecting children because not only are there many actors but many different approaches. Children are considered victims by some organisations and actors by others. The challenge is for all those working with children to come together and find a sole objective. Not only must NGOs working for children be strengthened to push politicians to change but children must be consulted and informed.’
Isabelle de Guillebon, Director of Samusocial Senegal, an organisation that provides urgent medical aid to street children, said: ‘In Dakar street children live with daily violence. When they are sick they don’t go to hospital because they won’t be taken in. In some cases they may be picked up by the fire brigade and dumped in front of the hospital but if they can’t pay they won’t be treated.’
Claudia Cabral, Director of the association Terra Dos Homens which works with street children in Rio de Janeiro said: ‘In Rio children whether they live or work on the street are highly vulnerable. Violence is rife in families as is drug use with crack use the most devastating. The children have the added problem of corrupt police.
‘These children aspire to normal life but many of them have mothers and grandmothers who were also born on the street and that becomes the norm.’
Franco Aloisio, President of the Parada Foundation created in the mid 90s to help children living in the sewers in Bucharest, said the problem still existed in the city particularly in winter when temperatures drop to minus 15C but there had been an improvement. There were around 1000 -1,300 street children now compared to 4-5,000 at the height of the problem.
In Guatemala many young abandoned girls ended up working as prostitutes. Anne Pascal, President of les Trois Quarts du Monde, said her association went into bar brothels to distribute condoms, nappies and baby milk to young girls. Her association offered material and psychological support but needed consistent funding to be effective.
‘If we look after a girl it will often be a commitment of ten years or more but funding may last a year. How can we tell the girl we can’t continue to help her?’ she asked.
Concerning legal aspects the seminar heard that laws and statutes existed in most countries to protect street children but were not always enforced.
Daniel Condaminas, President of the International Commission of Exterior Relations for the International Police Association which works in 61 countries and 5 continents said police forces had their part to play.
‘Police have to be trained to see street children not just as criminals but as victims. We are only one link in the chain and we are not social workers but observers,’ he said.
The evening after the debate was given over to the screening of a documentary, Street Children, by Michel Bulté and the presentation of a new prize established by Fondation Air France for associations working with children and awarded to Dr Xavier Emanuelli, Founding President of Samusocial International. An exhibition of photos, Just Kids, by François Perri can be seen at UNESCO HQ until December 12.
Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.