An immense problem, with dramatic and unpredictable consequences, is emerging around the world:
Millions of ‘street children’ who live alone, undernourished since birth; who are denied affection, education and help; who live without love.
Children who survive by expedients, by theft and by violence.
Children who coalesce into gangs and re-invent a family; a structure they have never known; a security that always eluded them.
Children who are used unscrupulously by others; mistreated, imprisoned, even eliminated.
Children whom the world tries to forget or ignore. Children who see grown-ups as their enemies.
Children nobody smiles to, nobody cuddles, nobody protects, nobody comforts.
Tomorrow they will be men and women.
As the big cities grow, so will the number of street children. So will deprivation which begets frustration which begets violence.
Both developed and developing countries face the problem without adequately addressing it.
The street is the common heritage of millions even before they are tainted by drugs, prostitution and crime.
We seek for these children the right to live a life worth living.
This book is dedicated to these citizens of tomorrow. Let their plight be known to all; let the conscience of humanity revolt.
Eight o’clock in the morning. I am leaving for the airport. I say goodbye to my grandchildren sitting around the breakfast table, adding: ‘I hope to come back in three weeks’ time.‘
‘Granny’, my grandson shouts, ‘you’ll be here for my birthday?’ ‘And if I am back in time, what do you want as a present?‘ He leaves the breakfast table, runs to me, puts his arms around my neck and whispers into my ear ‘una bici’.
‘So, you will get a bicycle for your birthday,’ I assure him before I leave.
In Sao Paulo, we go to the cathedral, almost straight from the airport. It is a big, dark cathedral, built in burgundy-coloured stone. On the steps, a man lies asleep. They take us to the sacristy where young boys and girls are sitting around a table preparing for Sunday Mass. In time Father Batista arrives; his dark face wearing a grin above his cinnamon and cream shirt, his eyes smiling as he talks. Sunday Mass in the evening is for the young; they sing and play and join the ceremony with gusto. Today, the Cardinal is not in town, so Father Batista will take his place. The Church is open to all who want to come and rest; or sleep on the benches if they are too tired.
‘Once,’ Father Batista laughs, ‘ I was saying Mass and in the middle of my sermon a group of little boys came running up to the altar and started making signs as though they needed me at once. I tried to explain with my hands that they would have to wait until the end of the sermon but they got more and more excited, jumping up and down and running to and fro.
Finally, I rushed through the sermon and at the end of the Mass asked “What is it?”
“The police,” they screamed, “the police, they’ve taken away our shoeshine boxes.” So I ran out and made the police give back the wooden boxes the boys carry on their shoulders, so that they could go on with their work and earn the little money they live on. Come,‘ says Father Batista, ‘I’ll take you to the little house where the children go every day and keep the tools and polish they need for their trade. We sell it to them at the wholesale price, on a cooperative basis.’
The plaza is very dangerous. You can be robbed, even attacked with knives. The prostitutes and jugglers and witches and politicians and religionists are all out there on a Sunday afternoon with flocks of spectators. We walk out. ‘I’ll show you something, come this way,’ he says, and leads us across a dirty park with broken benches to where the underground railway lets out its murky heat through metal grilles. I suppose the grille is not more than three feet long and two feet wide. A few children are asleep, their mouths open, cuddled up, dirty, miserable. ‘At night there are twenty, thirty children asleep on each of these windows.’
We cross the square: a woman is screaming, a circle of people around her. ‘She is demented,’ Father Batista says, ‘they are trying to cast out the devil in her.’ We stop where two small children kneel in front of their wooden boxes on which customers are sitting getting their shoes polished. They turn to the priest; they are identical, pale, worn, beautiful mestizos. ‘Come and talk to me at the house when you have finished.’ They nod, and we continue among the sweet vendors, the chanting evangelists and the young prostitutes.
Father Batista shows us his house which he rents for an enormous price, his kitchen, the room where he keeps the gifts of flowers and biscuits, the showers. Then, the two little boys arrive; their boxes are hung around their shoulders by a wooden hook. They are slightly bent over to one side; they look about eight years old. They sit with a piece of cake that one of the volunteer workers has pressed into their dirty hands, and wait.
‘So, what’s your name?’ ‘Iva.’
‘How old are you?’
‘Twelve. We are twins.’
Sometimes they go to school in the morning; then, after lunch at Father Batista’s, they work all afternoon until eight or later. There is no rebellion in them; a submissive quiet. Father Batista explains that I am very important; that I sit in this Commission with very prominent people. What would they like these people to know? They shrug their shoulders, then Ivo murmurs: ‘That I work too much, that I have to work too hard.’
‘What would you like as a present?’ I ask, to lift the atmosphere. The little old faces have a glimpse of a smile.
‘Una bici,’ says Ivo. ‘Una bici,’ says lvair.
It is eight o’clock in the evening of the same day.
ICIHI Working Group on Children
The following members of the Independent Commission helped in the preparation of this report in their individual capacities:
Susanna Agnelli (Convenor, Italy)
Sadruddin Aga Khan (Iran)
Paulo Evaristo Arns (Brazil)
Henrik Beer (Sweden)
Manfred Lachs (Poland)
Lazar Mojsov (Yugoslavia)
Zia Rizvi (Co-ordinator)
Charles Egger (Consultant)
Merrick Fall (Editor)
Joseph Moerman (Adviser)