The plight of young people who work, and sometimes even live, in the streets of Brazil’s urban centers has been well documented and widely diffused by national and international media. Their situation is part of a much larger and complex problem in which vastly greater numbers of children in Brazil, and around the world, also suffer deprivation, exclusion from opportunities, and a very limited realization of their human rights. Most of these children must work to survive, some on the streets of cities, others in factories, on farms, in small and large businesses, and at home. Often the conditions of work are horrendous. Even when they are not, a changing global context has made this situation harmful to the well-being of these children. In an era of globalization, where schooling is the primary avenue to the skills and credentials necessary for better jobs and higher income, any activity that adversely affects school attendance and intellectual development is a threat to a child’s future. All of these children who are growing up in circumstances that are severely detrimental to their human development and well-being are referred to here as street and working children.1
The dynamic driving these conditions extends worldwide. After decades of prolonged global economic crisis, the fundamental problem underlying the situation of so many children—poverty—grows worse. From 1970 to 1990 the number of chronically hungry people grew 20 percent, from 460 million to 500 million. 2 Currently, there are somewhere between 1 billion and 1.5 billion people living on the planet in a state of extreme poverty—20 percent to 25 percent of the world’s population (UNDP 1998; Institute for Food and Development Policy 1992). This dire situation is embedded in one of extreme global inequality: the richest 20 percent of the world’s people consume 86 percent of what is produced while the poorest 20 percent consume a minuscule 1.3 percent (UNDP 1998). 3 Any solution to the difficult array of problems facing street and working children must confront this context squarely.
While the problems facing street and working children are visible around the globe, Brazil is of special interest. In the 1980s, after almost 20 years of a dictatorial military regime, Brazil experienced a far-reaching social movement that mobilized the population in the defense of the rights of children. This movement led to one of the most progressive transformations of laws protecting children and youth seen anywhere in the world.