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Stanford Report, May 17, 2000

Scholars research street kids' lives


Officially, the civil war in El Salvador ended eight years ago, but Jocelyn Weiner, Stanford Class of 1999, routinely converses with children and young adults in that country who have newly missing arms or bandaged legs and heads, the signs of violence wreaked with hand grenades, machetes, policeman's batons and guns. Her acquaintances are some of Latin America's so-called "street children," young people who mostly live and work on the streets or, in this particular case, in and around a bus terminal, marketplace and abandoned warehouse in Quezaltepeque, a small city outside San Salvador.

Eduardo, one of her acquaintances who is now 28 and a stepfather, told Weiner his family fled to Montreal during the war in 1987. At 15, he become involved in drug trafficking after school and wound up transporting drugs for a Los Angeles street gang. Eduardo eventually got caught and was sent to jail for two years, then deported. "The difference between [gang life] in Los Angeles and El Salvador," he told Weiner, "is that in Los Angeles, they won't throw a grenade at you."

Weiner related many similar stories during an April 18 symposium on "The Ecology of Poverty: Street and Working Children in Latin America," sponsored by the Center for Latin American Studies and organized by associate director Kathleen Morrison, who has supervised Stanford students doing research on the subject. From researchers and social workers "on the ground" to academics and bureaucrats studying statistics and public policies, nearly everyone who spoke at the symposium seemed to be rethinking the plight of the poorest of the world's poor children.

Some questioned the appropriateness of the term "street children." Others challenged the conventional wisdom that child labor is a bad thing.

Maria Gregori, a professor of anthropology at Universidade Estadual de Campinas in Brazil, for example, pointed out that institutions created to help street children in her country "nominate" individuals to fit their definitions. Young people adopt an on-the-move lifestyle in order to get the assistance, she said.

The term "street children" came into vogue in the 1980s as a conscious attempt by Brazilian officials to develop a more sympathetic image of the country's young, unemployed population, said William Myers, a visiting scholar at the University of California-Davis and a former official of both UNICEF and the International Labor Organization. "All of a sudden, the name became a phenomenon and people set up programs for street children all over the world. . . . Now it's come full circle in that street children don't want to be called that because it stigmatizes them."

Myers says he finds the term problematic, even though he helped popularize it. "The situation of children changes dramatically from place to place. All the term tells you is that kids are in a public street, and some are supposed to be there."

When aid agencies focus their attention on "street children," they miss the desperate plight of many girls, said Nisha Varia, a 1997 Stanford graduate who studied working girls in Guadalajara, Mexico. While girls do work on the streets selling items or themselves as prostitutes, she said, "I discovered that if you are going to study the work of girls, you really have to include the many who do uncompensated domestic work."

Most girls begin even before they are of school age by helping their mothers clean homes, she said. These girls are isolated from their peers, schools and services, and many blame themselves for the sexual or other physical abuse they have suffered. Mexico's poorest girls, Varia said, "do not even have safe spaces within themselves."

Stanford senior Antonia Welch spent two months as a street educator in Ecuador teaching anatomy and reproductive health to girls under 16, who have a high rate of sexually transmitted diseases. She estimated that one-third to one-half of those she met had been sexually abused by family members or others they knew. She praised a local girls' center for offering not an academic curriculum but training in work skills such as cutting hair, making chocolates or bread, and carpentry. The girls' parents, she said, are required to attend a "socialization" class that focuses on stress, abuse and basic economics.

Varied views on child labor

David Post, a visiting scholar at Stanford and a Penn State professor of education, questioned whether eliminating most paid work by children ­ the goal of the International Labor Organization ­ has become counterproductive. It presupposes that European and American-style childhoods of compulsory schooling and no labor market participation are ideal for all children, he said.

When Post looked at the education and work statistics for three Latin American countries since 1984, he found that "even while more kids are going to school, it is not the case that a corresponding number of kids are leaving the workplace. In a variety of settings, the reverse has been found to occur."

Situations vary dramatically within Latin America, Post said. In Mexico, working children often feel unwelcome in schools, and the number of girls attending school has not increased since 1984. In Peru, on the other hand, kids who work are guaranteed schooling and attend in increasing numbers. Chile has made great strides, he added, in bringing more educational support to rural areas, but governments in many countries, including Mexico, are pushing educational and social service responsibility down to the local level, where gaps between rich and poor areas are growing.

In a recent book Myers co-authored, What Works for Working Children, he outlined four "competing discourses" about how to treat these children. The longstanding labor market perspective emphasizes eliminating exploitation of children and preserving adult jobs. "The coalition that supported this is falling apart," Myers told the Stanford audience, "because more research and people are saying it serves organized labor and big corporations, not children." Child labor in some countries, such as Bangladesh, he said, is the best alternative available to children.

A second perspective, promoted by economists, sees children as actual or potential human capital. The World Bank stresses the importance of primary education over work for children, Myers said, because primary education has helped increase the total economic production of many poor countries.

A third "social reform" perspective is promoted by churches and welfare agencies that are more concerned with the cohesion of families and societies than with national economies. "They want grassroots programs to reinforce the family and to watchdog authorities and give special services to children," Myers said.

A fourth perspective, promoted by experts in child development, treats children as decision-makers. "Children are seen as protagonists, affecting their own fate individually and collectively," Myers said, and children's organizations that adopt this perspective have begun to involve children in designing services to meet their needs. SR