Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 202 | Mayo 1998


Latin America

When Children Organize And Want to Work

On April 19th the Global March against Labor Exploitation of Children and Adolescents reached Nicaragua. Since February it has been traveling around the world, representing social organizations of 90 countries and denouncing the working conditions that 250 million children worldwide are forced to suffer because of their extreme poverty. It is time to reflect on children’s organizations and the rights that working children justly claim in Latin America.

Manfred Liebel

When the child and adolescent workers of the Christian Workers' Movement (MANTHOC) was born in Peru in 1976, it was the first such movement in Latin America, and children's rights were not yet being discussed with as much emphasis as they would be just a few years later. In Latin American countries living under military dictatorships, vehement demands were being made to respect human rights, but the rights of children—so painfully affected by those governments' repressive methods—were not specifically considered. This reality would begin to change in the mid 1980s, as the issue became known in many areas of the world.

The second Latin American children's organization was born in Brazil; the Movimento Nacional de Meninos e Meninas de Rua appeared on the scene in 1985 with the priority of denouncing all types of abuse—including murder—that street children were suffering in Brazil. From the beginning that movement insisted on the rights of children to live and be respected as citizens.

Other groups emerged in the following years in the Andean countries and in Central America. These national movements have been internationally coordinated since 1988 and since approval of the International Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989, all the groups have taken on the rights established in that text as their banner. But they have done more than that; they demand many other rights that the Convention forgot and are questioning the way that governments, international institutions like UNICEF and some NGOs interpret and put into practice what the Convention puts forward.

Adults' Role

Children's movements are social movements where boys and girls have the first and last word; where they articulate their own objectives and create norms and structures determined responsibly by them in a shared effort. Other groups and initiatives pledged to promote and defend the rights of children are not exactly children's movements, but movements promoting children's rights. One also cannot speak of a children's movement when children are only given the opportunity to be present in certain public spaces with an exclusively pedagogical objective. For example, student councils organized at schools.

In Latin America, the girls and boys who have organized groups based on their life and work experience are different from many other organizations structured around children's rights. In the first case, the children develop their group through their own initiative, sometimes in confrontation with skeptical or hostile adult groups. In the second case, the initiatives are "on behalf" of children, developed by adults or youths who promote children's rights and represent their demands. Sometimes there is symbiosis between the two forms of organization. In Nicaragua, for example, the Movement of Child and Adolescent Workers (NATRAS) grew out of the Movement in Solidarity with the Rights of Street Children, founded by educators.

Adult influence in children's organizations and the vocation of autonomy of those movements are not necessarily contradictory. Children's marginal status in society and the rare social recognition they receive as subjects capable of organizing and negotiating make the support of adults and youths inevitable. On many occasions it is the children themselves who request reinforcement from older people. In this case, the adult's role would never be to direct but to advise, supporting and respecting the children's independence and the organization they adopt for their rights and interests. Adults are spoken of as facilitators or collaborators in Latin American children's movements.

They Can and Should Be Protagonists

The children in Latin America who are protagonists in the various children's movements throughout the continent are between 10 and 16 and share common profiles. Massively, these are the children that UNICEF characterizes as living "in especially difficult circumstances." A large number of them deal with extreme poverty and fight for survival daily, which means that they take on adult tasks and responsibilities from a very young age. Many times they are forced to work in inhuman conditions. The majority of them work in the informal economy: in the streets, markets and other public spaces of the great cities, which has earned them the title street children. The majority don't enjoy any of the rights that international legislation has established to benefit them.

Because of their circumstances and experiences, these children have been forming themselves into authentic social actors. Given this new reality, there are two lines of thinking in Latin America today. One of these is more centered in the reality of street children and their negative experiences, and claims that it is precisely the unjust situation in which they live that has motivated them to act and organize to defend their rights and interests. This is the thinking that dominates in Brazil's Movimento de Meninos e Meninas de Rua.

The other line of thinking identifies the girls and boys as authentic workers and, despite the negative conditions of their work, sees the work experience as a positive base from which to build a social identity. From this perspective, it is considered that the children develop their awareness, identity and rights in society by assuming social and economic responsibilities. This is the position that predominates in Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Mexico, Argentina, Paraguay and the Central American countries.

The two positions coincide in that the children have not only the right but also the ability to act as social subjects and to assume a protagonist role in society. And they propose that, because of this, it is critical for children to take the defense of their interests into their own hands and organize themselves autonomously in institutions and with ideologies independent from adults.

The Movements Are Their Social Space

Appealing to and demanding fulfillment of the Rights of the Child plays an important role in the praxis of all movements of child and adolescent workers in Latin America. But this demand is, for them, just one among many. The children do not understand their movements just as instruments to oppose institutions dominated by adults or to gain more influence. The movements are even more important to them as social spaces in which they live new experiences and can help each other, where they learn to value their rights and can develop experiences that help them fully enjoy those rights.

Retreats have great significance in the children's movements, as special occasions where they can get to know each other better, speak openly, share experiences with other colleagues, have fun and make friends. The children determine the rules at the retreats, camp-outs and workshops. In these spaces they learn to relate to each other respectfully, and have the liberating experiences of respecting themselves. They are moments when they can put down their obligations that daily tire them out, and can pull out energy to develop new ideas and attitudes.

Respect is the cement of the children's movements. Children demand respect and know they must respect their companions. Behind this respect is awareness of the important economic role that they play in society, maintaining themselves and their families, even though they are so young and small.

The children's movements can also be understood as communities of life, where children analyze reality and light the spark for creative expression. In some movements a special form of testimonial work has developed, where children share their life experiences, their concerns and their dreams with each other. The social atmosphere and forms of communication that emerge in the children's movements generate ideas, dreams and demands. They represent an oasis amid the arid conditions in which the children normally live. The fact that their self-awareness and ability to formulate their own interests are reinforced in these spaces also has cultural significance.

The cultural expression of children's movements varies more and multiplies with each year of existence and each generation that a movement has formed. Each movement creates its own dynamics, combining play and work, parties and meditation, motivating and stressing the qualities and abilities of each child. They write songs and theater pieces that express and unify them. Sometimes they also produce mass communication products—magazines, radio programs, videos—in which they determine the content and the form. One example is the magazine of the Movement of Child Workers of Nicaragua, called “Hechos Reales y Fantasías" (Real Facts and Fantasies), a name that could apply to any other medium of any other children's movement.

The Legal Part: Adult Terrain

Since the International Convention of the Rights of the Child was approved and distributed through human rights groups, children's movements and NGOs, it has become common for child and adolescent workers' movements to feel they are a social group claiming certain rights. The children's movements naturally tend to focus on those rights that apply most directly to the reality of their members. What they analyze the most is which rights are most useful and what can be done to put them in practice. And they do this analysis with a fine critical sensibility given the abundant and beautiful rhetorical discourses in which children are permanently and habitually spoken of as "the future of tomorrow" or "the promissory hope of the nation."
At first, organized children are skeptical or not very interested in anything having to do with laws. They feel that the legal sphere is adult terrain. On the other side of the contradiction, adults think that children can't think about or draft laws, much less exercise jurisprudence.

It must be remembered that the International Convention of the Rights of the Child was drafted with no significant participation by children, which makes it a document for children by adults; and so it will remain, despite some attempts that have been made to translate its dense legal vocabulary into a language more accessible to children.

Adults who reflect on children's situations have come to the conclusion that children have their own rights, are subjects of law, and that their situation can improve through legal means. These are adult educators, close to children's movements and aware of the children's situations, who have been introducing the habit of thinking and speaking in legal terms into the children's movements. These adults have convinced the children of the utility for their organization of knowing their rights.

Brazil: A Legal Victory

Children's movements interpret and practice the Rights of the Child, accenting and questioning everything they don't agree with from those who present themselves as "official interpreters of the rights of the child." And they demand rights that no one has thought of or perhaps wanted to think of up to now.

The legal framework of the Rights of the Child has had so much weight in some children's movements that children begin to insist on participating in the drafting of laws that come out of the Rights and that affect them. It is likely that the creation of the Statutes of Children and Adolescents, approved in Brazil in 1990, would not have been possible without the mobilization of the Movimento de los Meninos y Meninas de Rua. Unlike previous legislation, which considered children and adolescents to be simple objects of state measures, Brazil's statute recognizes a series of social and civil rights and establishes that "no child or adolescent will be subjected to any form of negligence, discrimination, exploitation, violence, cruelty or oppression, to any violation of their fundamental rights, and whether [such subjection] be through omission or commission, it will be punishable by law." It also establishes that "it is the duty of the family, the community, society in general and public authorities to guarantee fulfillment of the law as an absolute priority in terms of health, food, education, sports, free time, professional training, culture, dignity, respect and liberty, as well as aspects concerning family and community life."

Peru: Children's Right to Work

In Peru, the MANTHOC Movement directs its efforts toward recognition of the economic rights of child and adolescent workers in order to give them a new legal situation and increase their influence in the improvement of their working conditions. A Peruvian decree issued in 1992 broke with the traditional doctrine that has tried to protect children by prohibiting child labor. This decree recognizes the right of children and adolescents to work, but establishes that this right begins at 12 years of age and only when the work activity "does not endanger their development of their physical, mental, or emotional health and does not interfere with regular school attendance."
The decree does not refer only to salaried children. It includes all forms of child labor and establishes the right of children to sign work contracts and to organize in associations to improve their working conditions. Employers must guarantee working conditions that do not harm their dignity or their developmental process.

Children's movements have tried to influence national legislation in many other Latin American countries, but with sporadic and not well-accepted initiatives. This contrasts with the notable success of children's movements in influencing the discourse and projects of many NGOs, which over the past five years have given children a voice in every political decision that affects them.

In Guatemala in 1993, NGOs from Central America, Mexico and Panama pledged to take advantage of "the spaces for work with families, schools, organized community groups and the media to motivate and promote children's participation," recognizing that "NGOs will have to surmount obstacles to advance in children's real participation in everything that affects them." They proposed to work with children's organizations "so that [their members] will be autonomous, free, creative and critical and can develop their full potential to grow up and become adults able to run their own lives and contribute to improving society."

Children's Campaigns On Behalf of Children

One of the most common actions among children's movements is mutual support in cases of emergency. The objective is to help the child whose shoe-shine box gets stolen get another one, or the girl who works as a maid and gets sick to have her employer pay her medical costs. Some children's groups have formed a solidarity fund to help their companions who have problems. Children solicit money for this fund from businesses, doctors or other people with resources, and add to it from what they earn.

One form of collective self-help has been practiced for years at Christmas among the child workers of Nicaragua and El Salvador. During the "13th Month Campaign," children and adolescents who sell newspapers or chewing gum in the streets, who shine shoes or clean car windshields, raise their prices a little or ask for extra payment. They encourage sellers to sponsor their campaign in the markets and hold parties and raffles in neighborhoods. The 13th month thus ceases to be begging and becomes recognition of children's work. They divvy up the extra money they get by criteria they themselves define. Some give it to their mothers, others buy toys or notebooks for school, others invest in a shoe-shine box, a new windshield cleaner or some sandals so that their feet will not burn on the asphalt of the streets.

Another campaign focuses on the right to education. With the increasing privatization of the public education system—one manifestation of which is charging for school registration as well as a monthly fee in state schools that were previously totally free—the doors of learning are closed to many children. There are campaigns in which organized children demand that school directors quash these quotas and other fees that their parents can't pay or demand that teachers not discriminate against those who come to school out of uniform because they can't afford to buy one, or come with patched pants or skirts or without shoes. In other cases they collect money so that their needier companions can buy pens and notebooks.

There are also initiatives to encourage children to reflect on their own experiences as child workers and study them in the classroom. There are even initiatives to form schools adapted to their needs and rhythm of life, where their reality will be taken into account in pedagogical methods and content.

When children organize, they sooner or later begin to question the widespread attitude of adults of taking over for children. Being organized leads the children to openly discuss with their parents or bosses the unjust orders they receive or the exploitative conditions of their work. For example, when adults prohibit girls from participating in children's groups' meetings or activities with the excuse that "it's dangerous" for them, other organized children visit their homes to remind the parents that their daughters and sons also "have rights." Parents are often perplexed by these visits, but they have no choice but to give in or at least to reflect.

Protection, Prevention, Participation

Without the valuable practice and multiple accumulated experiences of the children's movements, the Rights of the Child would be reduced to abstract written norms, and the children, although internationally declared formal subjects of law, would continue to depend on the good will of adults and their institutions. Only insofar as children truly act as social subjects and take an active role in demanding the rights they consider to be correct will the Rights of the Child jump off the paper and come to life.

The debate about children's rights currently centers around what has already been expressed in the International Convention of the Rights of the Child. After ten years of work by a great number of governments—which many NGOs joined at the end—the Convention was finally unanimously accepted in the United Nations General Assembly as an international law on September 2, 1990. It took effect having been ratified by 178 states, which, once having signed the Convention, had to incorporate its contents into their national laws.

The Convention formulates three areas of rights, known as the three Ps: protection, prevention, participation. The first area guarantees children and adolescents—according to the Convention people between 0 and 18 years old—protection against mistreatment, economic or sexual exploitation and discrimination because of race, sex or minority status. In the second area, the Convention recognizes children's right to integral development in childhood, to basic school training, to health and to dignified and humane living conditions. The third area recognizes children's right to free information and freedom of expression, to participation in decisions having to do with their wellbeing, to meeting peacefully and forming their own associations.

Not only Protected, but Respected

With the establishment of rights unique to children, the Convention overrode a theory and practice that for centuries considered that human beings do not initiate "their true life" until they are adults. Having their own rights means that children must have a dignified life from birth and all of society has the responsibility to provide it for them. Children's position in society is reinforced by recognizing their rights.

With the Convention drawn up and approved, the question is now what role this gives to children to realize their rights and to develop a worthwhile life. Children's movements demand that children not be seen as usufructuaries of some special rights that adults defined and conceded to them, but as active beings with their own viewpoints, abilities and opinions. They want not only to be protected, but to be respected as people capable of developing social tasks and freely taking on their lives.

The way in which the Convention recognizes children as unique individuals is insufficient. According to the Convention, children's identity unfolds only in spaces established by adults as protected capsules, without considering that other spaces can exist as a result of the active and responsible confrontation of children with their social reality and their active participation in social tasks.

The rights of participation contained in the Convention are very general and appear to depend on certain conditions that give adults the final word "for the sake of children's interests." For example, children's right to free expression depends on their ability to "make their own judgment," and states will only consider children's opinions insofar as they are "appropriate" and "in accord with age and maturity." This suggests that the dominating entities can arbitrarily and at their discretion interpret a right that only in this way is formally recognized.

Within the determinist logic of the Convention of the Rights of the Child, children appear as beings needing support and protection, with rights that should be protected by adults. The way some rights of participation are subject to conditions reflects a "protectionist bent," as the Peruvian Cussianovich termed it. Another critic of the Convention, Baudrillard, accuses the "benefactors" or "protectors of children" who are behind the Convention of making children "objects of ridicule, turning them into a sort of erudite monkey equipped with all the legal affectations of adults," paraphernalia that doesn't help them at all.

As long as children are understood only as objects of laws, their aspirations for a dignified life will be an abstract goal. According to the Convention, all children have the same rights, but the way they can have them and the difficulties they must overcome to win respect for those rights can only be clarified when we conceive of children in concrete space and time, as people who possess determined qualities, concerns, opinions, dreams, needs and experiences, and who are involved in determined social relations that facilitate or make more difficult the use of those rights and their ability to become subjects of those rights.

Yes to Work, No to Exploitation

The way Latin American children confront adults, administrators and interpreters of the International Convention of the Rights of the Child can be illustrated with some examples. These cases occurred in Nicaragua, but there are similar situations in other Latin American countries.

In preparation for its Third National Conference, held in Managua in September 1995, NATRAS organized more than 1,000 children in groups to reflect on this question: "Do you think work is a right or exploitation?" The results of the massive reflection were summarized on the invitation to the conference: "Yes to work, no to exploitation." They said they want to work in adequate conditions, with no one exploiting them.

The UNICEF office in Managua, which until that moment had been satisfied with its support for the children who cared about their rights, reacted with perplexity and withdrew their support of the Movement with this argument: the children had abused UNICEF's confidence by adopting a position that contradicted the Convention and UNICEF philosophy, which has as one of its objectives the total abolition of child labor worldwide.

There had evidently been a clash of two different interpretations of what the Convention establishes as "the right of the child to be protected from exploitation." UNICEF, together with many governments and NGOs, sees the best path to achieve this objective in the total abolition of child labor. But, to protect themselves from exploitation in their work—without which neither they nor their families could survive—child workers see the best path as being socially recognized and enjoying the same labor rights as working adults. Children who work think that "prohibiting children from working means not thinking about children."
This contradiction intensified when those who opposed UNICEF's viewpoint were precisely the children, who have the right to freedom of expression through the Convention. As a result of the confrontation, the children concluded that the rights they have been given are just empty words in adults' hands. In their view, UNICEF implicitly demonstrated that it doesn't believe children to be capable of thinking on their own because they lack maturity and knowledge.

One Among Many Contradictions

The second Nicaraguan case is also related to UNICEF. Before the conflict about the work slogan, UNICEF had guaranteed sustained support to the movement on the condition that an accord be signed. When the contract was drawn up, it established that the Movement could only be a UNICEF counterpart if it had "legal status." The children, who accepted this condition, stated later, quite upset, that the Nicaraguan Constitution doesn't grant legal status to people under 18 years of age, precisely those who are children from the Convention's point of view.

UNICEF seemed to be aware of this legal limitation already, because its representatives proposed before the signing that "to shorten the procedure" and "make things easier" the process should be turned over to an NGO that would represent the children's movement. In the end, the children refused to sign the accord because they didn't want to risk the autonomy they had won through so much effort in exchange for a little money.

The incident caused the children to ask themselves what the right to free association in the Convention's article 15.1 means, if the legal situation does not guarantee their ability to exercise that right at the same time. The little importance given to this right to participation was demonstrated when, after everything that happened, neither UNICEF nor Nicaraguan government authorities paid any attention to this contradiction between the Convention and the Constitution, much less pledge to take steps to resolve it.

Taboos of a Paternalistic Society

A final example. Children's right to participation is included in Nicaragua's Code for Children and Adolescents, which was presented to the National Assembly in 1995, as a bill written up by numerous NGOs with the goal of adapting national legislation to the Convention and finally approved at the beginning of 1998. The Code establishes the condition of reaching 16 years of age for anything having to do with civic rights—the right to vote, to present legislation and other proposals and to obtain a response from authorities in a determined time period; in other words, everything except the right to co-administer educational institutions.

After having been invited expressly to participate in the drafting of the Code, children active in the Movement were quite surprised at this condition, since the maximum age for members of their organization is precisely 16 years, but all others, those who are younger, also see themselves as competent and active citizens. What value does the right to nationality and participation granted us by the Convention have, when we are excluded from the political process and the democratic community because of our age? they asked. How can it be stated that everything is done "for the sake of the interests of children" when the children themselves cannot participate in what is done?
Reality demonstrates that, with these protests, born from experience and practice in work and participation, children are touching taboos of paternalistic society until now untouchable in the debate about children's rights.

They Want to be Taken Seriously

The movement of children and adolescent workers is not willing only to demand their rights as children. They also speak critically of the society they live in and evaluate its positive or hostile characteristics, offering alternatives. They demand not to be systematically excluded from their social responsibilities and that their actions in society not be under-appreciated with the argument of supposed "immaturity."
Child workers question society's paternalism. They are unwilling to be objects of adults' orders and they demand different social roles in accord with their ages. They do not accept that fantasy is an exclusive characteristic of small ones while responsibility is a monopoly of older people; they demand responsible participation in society without renouncing their right to play or dream and fantasize. By thinking and acting this way, what they are reclaiming is a new children's culture and a new adult culture, where both children and adults participate more and are happier.

The International Convention of the Rights of the Child guarantees children the right to a dignified and human present and a self-determined social identity, but this has no consequences as long as children continue to be considered victims or disabled or protected beings. From this paternalistic perspective, children are denied the ability to represent and recognize their interests, and children's wellbeing is linked to actions that adults—who are fathers, mothers, teachers, social workers, judges, experts—decide will favor them
Children undoubtedly need adult support and a social environment that facilitates the formation of their abilities and exercise of their interests. This includes their protection from risks and dangers at certain moments of their lives. But it is essential to consider that adults should protect not children, but rather their rights, facilitating, among other things, their increased possibilities of social participation.

Movements of child workers recognize that children's social participation possesses both economic and political components. All of these movements explicitly demand both children's right to work and recognition of children's economic role in society to deduce from there the demands for greater political participation for them.

From their own experience, children know they will be taken seriously and can take full advantage of their rights only when their social position has useful economic activity as its base and when the children are capable of guaranteeing their own income. They intuitively know that sooner or later the political component of their social participation will appear on the horizon.

The Latin American reality demonstrates that children and adolescent workers' movements have become a vital parcel of participation by civil society. The small great protagonists of this parcel hope that governments, NGOs and international organizations like UNICEF won't limit themselves to producing beautiful pamphlets or offering favorable allusions to children in their speeches to Congress. They are hoping for realities. They will not settle for adult compassion or protection, but are willing to fight for their rights. They think it is their duty to propose equity of rights. This is a sign of the times, a new hope in the history of a continent that has a majority population of children.

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