RIGHTS: For Some, Childhood Is Rubbish

RIGHTS: For Some, Childhood Is Rubbish
By Sabina Zaccaro

GUATEMALA CITY, Dec 10 (IPS) – "When I thought of my future, I saw my whole life picking through this rubbish dump," says 20-year-old Julia Castillo. "I never thought I’d get away."

Like thousands of other children, Julia grew up picking garbage for sale on the rubbish dump in Guatemala City. In 2005 the dump, the biggest in Latin America, was officially, though not always effectively, closed to minors.

Keeping children out was part of an agreement between the development cooperation office of the Italian foreign affairs ministry and the city municipality. About a third of 3,600 garbage pickers at the time, the ‘guajeros’, were children. Picking nylon, plastic, glass and other saleable rubbish, they could earn up to 20 dollars a day.

"I started working in the ‘relleno’ (the dump area) when I was five," Julia told IPS. "I came with my mother and seven sisters and brothers. Mum couldn’t leave us around alone, and we needed money to survive. She had no choice."

It turned out to be a dangerous place to work, or to just be. "I have seen many children run over by trucks that carry rubbish in the dump," Julia said. Many were "infants left in cartons amidst the rubbish while their mothers worked."

The dump is now officially accessible only to adults with written authorisation from the municipality. That means the thousand and more children who worked freely there earlier needed an alternative.

"It could sound like a paradox, but this rubbish dump is really an economic driving force," Emanuela Benini, director of the regional office of the official aid body Italian Development Cooperation told IPS. "This work, though dreadful from a human and sanitation point of view, assures children and their families a regular and certain income."

Under the Italian project, a school has been built nearby with scholarship for children’s families to match past income from garbage picking. "Of course, this is not the best option, but it is the only one possible now, considering the total absence of social rules," Stefania Di Campli, who has been working in Guatemala City many years as project coordinator for the Madrid-based non-governmental organisation Mediterranean Association of International Schools (Mais), told IPS.

Now, mothers can leave their children at the school when they go to work in the dump. Children learn to read and write in the morning, and work in the municipality garden centre in the afternoon. This helps many recover finger mobility they had lost working in the dump.

But most of all "here they discover self-confidence, something the rubbish had completely wiped away," Di Campli said. And this definitely motivates many parents to send their children to school.

"When I found this project, I left the rubbish dump and started to go to the school," Julia Castillo said. "Otherwise, I would still be living here now."

The campaigners out to protect children from life on the dump warned her the work was damaging for her health, she said. "They made me think that, yes, I could wish for something different. After leaving the dump, I really became more aware of my capabilities, and more self-confident."

The best students are trained as ‘promoters’. They go door to door to inform families in the slum about the project – and save them from the dump.

Julia has made it a mission now to keep children away from the dump "since I know that they still enter the dump illegally." The police guard the entrance, but children are known to jump on to trucks carrying rubbish into the dump.

But still, many children seek out the school, sometimes on their own. "Many of the children who arrive here come by themselves, in search of some warmth that could relieve them not only from poverty, but from loneliness and despair," says Doña Rosario, who has dedicated her life to care of street orphans (niños de la calle).

The high rate of violence and drug consumption among the youth in the area arises from lack of hope, she says. "What we try to do here is to look after their existential melancholia caused by the total absence of a belief in a future."


Toybox: Saving Street Children in Latin America


Toybox: Saving Street Children in Latin America

The Christian charity Toybox is working hard in Latin America to bring hope to street children in Bolivia and Guatemala.

Posted: Wednesday, July 18, 2007, 14:22 (BST)

Toybox has launched a new project called Guardian Angels to bring hope to street children in Oruro, Bolivia, where there is currently no one working to help these children.

The Christian charity is committed to bringing hope to some of the world’s most disadvantaged children and building a world where there are no more street children. It works principally in Latin America where the needs are great and the challenge is huge.

"There is no protection or help for children on the streets in Oruro," says Claudia from Toy Box’s partner Red Viva team in Cochabamba. Red Viva is the Latin American branch of the Oxford-based Viva Network, a Christian charity committed to providing care for vulnerable and neglected children.

It’s a hard life for street children in Bolivia. They lack adequate shelter, are exposed to drugs, and face hunger and ill-health daily. Most have been abused, physically, sexually or both.

"The local government and people have asked Toybox and Red Viva to be part of a new city wide work with street children,” says Claudia.

“This is a great plan and there is an opportunity to make a difference immediately. The people there are praying and waiting to see if Toybox will help."

Silvia, leader of El Castillo, Toybox’s partner in Guatemala, says, "We are more shocked and afraid for the children than ever. There is an urgent need to protect them as the level of danger they face is increasing every day."

Toybox estimates that it will cost around £116 towards each child saved from the streets through Guardian Angels projects in Oruro and Guatemala this year.

Andy Stockbridge, Toybox Chief Executive, has just returned from visiting the team in Oruro. He comments, "Oruro is a poor city with significant need. But the local people together, church, projects, local authorities have a real heart and a genuine plan to work with children who find themselves on the street or working on the street."


A Lamp That Sheds No Light

A Lamp That Sheds No Light

Commentary by Willy E. Gutman

Friday June 1, 2007

Fourth in a series.

"O, time, suspend your flight, reality be gone; step right up to the dreamscape, the magic lamp is on…"

It’s an ancient incantation, but the spell works like a charm. Take the animated movie, "Aladdin," which I watched recently on DVD. Based loosely on "The Arabian Nights," a collection of tales, love stories, tragedies, comedies, poems and Muslim religious legends, the film traces the rags-to-riches antics of an impoverished young ne’er-do-well in a mythical, exotic realm.

Aided by hindsight and sensitized by experience, I had quickly realized on my first screening in 1992 that no sooner out of the ink bottle than into the bank, with millions of dollars yet to be conjured from video rights, T-shirts and toys, mugs, coloring books and cereals, and who knows what else that will make people part with their money. In an age of impoverished imagination and waning originality, there is nothing like a great old story warmed-over to conceal a dearth of ideas.

Such artifice would be easily shrugged off, were it not for the fact that in reinventing Aladdin, the street child, Hollywood missed the golden opportunity to speak out on life in the street, to explore with realism and empathy the consequences of an unenviable destiny shared today by more than 100 million children around the globe. It settled instead on a cartoon version of a fairy tale, complete with heroes who invariably triumph over mean but strangely lovable villains.

When fact clashes with set perceptions or deep-rooted sensibilities, Hollywood will not hesitate to bury the truth. The celluloid Aladdin is the street child we can all safely love. Half-imp, half-angel, resourceful, generous, articulate, spirited and awfully cute, he is the freshly scrubbed, born-again, two-dimensional idealization of childhood denied and innocence undone, the colorized, glamorized, sanitized alter-ego of real boys and girls who live in fear and often die a brutal death, every one of them an unknown soldier in an army of young castaways.

If Aladdin’s re-creators cannot be accused of deliberate deception, they are guilty of inspiring sham sympathy and coy apathy, and of granting private hypocrisy a public forum. Offered an escape from reality, the child in us all easily surrenders to fantasy. Willing participants, we are lulled back to that wondrous, carefree time when the world was new and safe, when life was forever.

Myth obviates memory. It anesthetizes reason. Mercifully, it silences the truth.

Fiction also trivializes fact. There is no romance in the life of street children, only pain and hopelessness, hunger and fear, disease and death. Real street children do not sport beguiling smiles. They are prone to misbehave. They often stink. All could use a bath.

But under the grime, the air of defiance or the crushing indifference their feverish eyes convey, there is a child, scared, vulnerable, far too young to taste life’s bitter medicine, yet incurably old before his time.

In the ghostly twilight world of street children, there are no magic lamps to rub, no benevolent, turbaned genies, no flying carpets, no protective amulets, no healing philters; only evil spirits lurking, stalking easy prey. Unlike Aladdin, street children do not amass fame and fortune, and no fairy prince or princess will marry them in the end. Most never leave the streets. Many don’t reach adulthood. Disease, hunger, drugs and bullets often cut their lives short.

As I watched the cartoon, I remembered a particularly bloody year in Guatemala when at least 50 homeless children were "eliminated" in an unrelenting government-inspired, police-led campaign of extermination. A year later, uniformed men in a Jeep with tinted windows kidnapped eight street children from a downtown neighborhood.

The bodies of three of the boys were soon found. All bore the messages carved in the unmistakable idiom of vigilante justice. Their ears had been sliced off; their eyes burned out. And in a traditional warning against "snitching," their tongues had been carved out. The other five boys were never found. Their tormentors are still at large.

Hopefully, they died quickly. But that’s not always the way things happen in Central America – not for street kids, the vulnerable, the voiceless, the pariahs, the nonconformists, the meddlesome journalists or the dissidents. For them is reserved a special kind of inhumanity that draws its power – and immunity – from the top echelons of government and from widespread popular unconcern.

Aladdin is a charming cartoon, a real cinematographic tour de force. Its fundamental weakness is that it teaches no real lesson. Worse, it allows a compliant public easily charmed by the antics of a two-dimensional character to turn a blind eye to the flesh-and-blood orphans of a human family in disarray. In so doing, Aladdin fails his own kind and, ultimately, himself. Where important values are at stake, entertainment is simply not enough.

A lamp must focus on the truth, or it sheds no light at all.

Willy E. Gutman of Tehachapi is a veteran journalist on assignment in Central America since 1991. His column reflects his own views, and not necessarily those of The Signal.

Angela champions the street children

Angela champions the street children

Hope: Angela Murray with one youngster she has helped while working for Christian charity Toybox and, right, Guatamalan street children
Hope: Angela Murray with one youngster she has helped while working for Christian charity Toybox and, right, Guatamalan street children
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By Pamela McGowan

FORMER Carlisle woman Angela Murray has been to the House of Commons to highlight the plight of street children in Guatemala.

The 30-year-old, who works for international charity Toybox, has just returned from the Central American country where she has been working with homeless children.

She talked to youngsters she has helped get off the streets about their needs for the future in a bid to influence the Guatemalan government.

On Wednesday, the former Trinity School pupil took her findings to London.

There she met MPs and presented her findings to the Guatemalan ambassador, Edmundo Garcia.

Angela, who is now based in Buckinghamshire, studied psychology at Sheffield University, intending to work with children in schools.

After completing her degree in 1999 she went to Latin America during her gap year.

But, after meeting children living in a rubbish dump in Guatemala City while helping Toybox, she has worked for the charity ever since.

Angela, whose family still live in the Carlisle area, returned last Friday from her ninth visit to Guatemala.

One of the highlights for her was seeing how some of the former street kids have turned their lives around.

“It was great to see some of the children who I worked with at the rubbish dump. Some are living in our homes and going to school,” said Angela.

“One has got married and she now has a baby. While I was there, I went to her sister’s wedding. It was wonderful.”

But the main reason for her latest visit was research – asking the children whom Toybox has helped what they want from their government.

“I spent a lot of time with the kids and asked them to write their wishes on cardboard stars, which I took to London with me,” she explained.

“I just think it’s great that these kids are now getting a chance to say what they want for their friends who are still stuck on the streets.”

Angela, along with the Guatemalan ambassador, was invited to the House of Commons to talk to members of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Street Children.

She said it was a very positive meeting and hopes it will further help improve the lives of youngsters in the country.

She said she was encouraged to find that the Guatemalan government now has a plan in place to address some of these problems and is also willing to work alongside charities like Toybox.

Angela has also written a book about her experiences in Guatemala, entitled Through the Eyes of a Street Child: Amazing Stories of Hope.

For more information about the Christian charity visit http://www.toybox.org.

Death Squads

 Death Squads (blog entry)

In a society where the poorest have little or no chance of escaping the chains of poverty, Guatemalan street kids face even greater hardships than most and as if that isn’t enough they even have to dodge Death Squads just for being homeless. Merely trying to survive, the Street Kids of Guatemala sell bananas, Scavenge through garbage dumps, sleep in doorways or beside an abandoned railway station and very often turn to sniffing industrial solvents to alleviate the pangs of hunger. Bad enough you may think, but as I mentioned these kids also have to contend with Death Squads. The organisers and sponsors of the Death Squads call it "Social Cleansing" to justify the kidnapping, torture and murder of these helpless children that they call vermin, Didn’t Hitler use similar terminology to justify his actions? In one case I heard about, a young boy of eleven was found in a sack, ……… he had been severely beaten then shot through the head before being dumped. These death squads are made up of privately funded Security forces who believe that their actions will send a message to other children to get off the streets; but where can they go? The Guatemalan government do not supply one single hostel for homeless children and openly concede that prosecutions against Police officers and Private Security guards for crimes against children, are extremely rare. Trying to get information about Guatemalan street kids resulted in me being asked to leave Libraries, being totally ignored and even being pointed at on the streets. Even when I tried to talk to the Charity whose phone number Nancy had emailed me, I was met with suspicion making it abundantly clear that they were uncomfortable about talking to me. Maybe I was getting a bit paranoid, but on one day, everywhere I went and every time I turned around or saw a reflection in a shop window, the same two armed security guards were there, looking in my direction. I knew that I couldn’t stay forever so I took this as an indication that my welcome had expired and it was time to leave Antigua City and head off in search Mayan ruins and some jungle adventures – it’s a lot safer.

Rescuing Second-Generation Street Children in Guatemala

Rescuing Second-Generation Street Children in Guatemala

Reaching Out, Vol. 24, No. Spring 2004 (Published: 2004.04), p. 4.

Summary: IPPF/WHR’s member association in Guatemala is working to provide access to health services for youth in the streets of Guatemala City, including services for their young children.

In its first year offering services to Guatemala City’s street youth, IPPF/WHR’s association in Guatemala discovered a population living in even more alarming conditions than this group in which 99% use drugs and 100% have health problems: the children of street youth. There are more than 5,000 youth between the ages of 10 and 23 living in the streets of Guatemala City; two-thirds of the girls report having been pregnant at one time, and one-third have small children with them on the streets. A second generation of street children is growing up in the center of the city’s drug and sex trafficking, homelessness, and police brutality.

When first undertaking the challenge of working with street kids, APROFAM (IPPF/WHR’s member association) and its partners, including Doctors Without Borders, had to determine the particular health needs of this population. While counseling and treatment of sexually transmitted infections represent the primary services currently offered to street youth, obstetric services, prenatal care and family planning workshops are also significant components of the program. The children of these youth also receive medical services—often for respiratory and gastrointestinal problems related to maternal drug use.

Casa Alianza, another IPPF/WHR partner in the street youth initiative, has been working for over 20 years to habilitate youth and “reinsert” them into society. Former street youth volunteering with Casa Alianza bring kids living on the streets directly to the clinics for sexual and reproductive health. These youth leaders are often the most effective means of reaching vulnerable youth with information.

The collaborative project represents the first efforts to provide Guatemala City’s street children with sexual and reproductive health services, an often overwhelming challenge with a population that normalizes health risks and problems. However, even the simple documentations of special needs and best practices in working with street children represents a significant contribution in the field of human rights for street populations in the region. Results and lessons learned from the project could also lead to the implementation of a model at the governmental level, providing more infrastructure and funds to improve the health and lives of the most vulnerable youth.

Street children surprisingly healthy

Guatemala children

Guatemala children adapt to survive

Homeless urban children in developing countries are healthier than was originally thought.

The rapid increase in the number of homeless children in cities in the developing world is a matter of grave concern.

But researchers have found that although the lives of these children can be fraught with danger, they adapt physically to survive.

These kids are resilient and self-reliant and adapt physically to the difficult conditions of homelessness

Professor AG Steegman

A team from the University at Buffalo examined the health of urban Guatemalan street children.

They found that homeless children who lived in urban were in better health, and had a better chance of survival than children from stable homes in agricultural villages.

Researcher Timothy Sullivan found that the average body mass index (BMI) of the urban homeless children was similar to that of US children.

BMI is a measure of a person’s weight relative to their height. A score of 20-25 is deemed to be healthy.

It has been shown to be a very effective method of predicting which people are likely to fall ill, or to suffer from a lack of energy.

Street school

The researchers examined 51 street children aged from 5 to15 who were associated with a street school in a highland city in Guatemala.

The children were found to be shorter and weigh less than American children. However, their BMI was found to be similar.

The research echoes previous findings of a study of street children of Kathmandu.

Professor AG Steegman, an expert in anthropology at the University at Buffalo, said: "The business of being a street urchin, of making a living on the street, seems to work better for these children than we might anticipate.


"Their health as measured by their BMIs doesn’t prove that they live a fine life – it is fraught with great danger, including murder and sexual exploitation, especially for the girls – but it does confound our expectations.

"These kids are resilient and self-reliant and adapt physically to the difficult conditions of homelessness.

"Although middle-class urban kids certainly fare better, homeless urban children seem to be doing better health-wise than they would if they lived in intact families in poor agricultural communities."

The research was presented at a meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

Awards to Families of Murdered Guatemalan Street Children

Awards to Families of Murdered Guatemalan Street Children

June 13th, 2001
Inter American Court of Human Rights Makes Historic Awards to Families of Murdered Guatemalan Street Children

Casa Alianza

The Inter American Court on Human Rights (“the Court”) today ordered the State of Guatemala to pay a total of more than half a million dollars to the families of five street children who were brutally tortured and murdered by two National Policemen in June 1990. This is the first ever case in the 20 year history of the Court where the victims of a resolved case were children.

On an overcast June 16th, 1990, street children Julio Roberto Caal Sandoval (15); Jovito Josue Juarez Cifuentes (17) and their street youth friends Henry Giovani Contreras (18) and Federico Clemente Figueroa Tunchez (20), were sitting in an empty parking lot at the corner of 18th street and 6th Avenue in downtown Guatemala City. Suddenly a pickup with two armed men pulled up beside them. With guns drawn, the two men shouted, “You guys are pending” and started beating the youth. They literally threw them into the back of the pick up and drove away. The kidnappers were later found out to be two National Policemen: Samuel Rocael Valdes and Nestor Fonseca.

Several days later, the mutilated bodies of the homeless kids were found in a residential area called “Bosques de San Nicolas”, with their eyes gouged out and bullets through the back of their heads. Nine days after the initial murders, yet another friend of the four victims, Anstraum Villagran, was shot dead in the same parking lot by the same two policemen.

Casa Alianza’s Legal Aid Office immediately presented a formal accusation against the murders which, after four years of impunity in the Guatemalan judicial system, ruled that the policemen were innocent as charged. In 1994, Casa Alianza – a Catholic agency that provides residential and legal defense services for street children in Mexico and Central America – and the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) – took the case to the Inter American Commission on Human Rights (“the Commission”) in Washington, looking for justice.

The State of Guatemala refused to consider a friendly settlement in the case proposed by Casa Alianza and CEJIL. As a result, the Commission sent case number 11,383 to the San Jose based Court. Guatemala accepted the jurisdiction of the Court in 1990 which, in December 1999, ruled that the State of Guatemala had violated numerous Articles of the American Convention of Human Rights in this kidnapping and murder. The Court held hearings on reparations in April of this year.

“This ruling is clearly historical in both our having finally been able to condemn the State of Guatemala for these horrendous crimes against street children and also for the amount of damages awarded”, explained Bruce Harris, Casa Alianza’s Regional Director for Latin American Programs and the original accuser of the two Guatemalan policemen in 1990. “Let this be a lesson to any State that mistreats it’s most important asset – the children”.

The decision of the Court was unanimous and the State has been given six months to comply with today’s ruling. Apart from the monetary awards to the family members (please see the detailed breakdown below), the Court also ordered Guatemala to name a school after the five victims and to allow the exhumation of the mortal remains of Henry Contreras who was buried as “XX” in a public cemetery, allowing them to be transferred to Casa Alianza’s cemetery in Cd. Vieja, Sacatapequez.

The Court also ordered the State of Guatemala “to adopt the legislative, administrative and any other measure necessary” to make sure Guatemalan law reflects Article 19 (Rights of the Child) of the American Convention on Human Rights. Casa Alianza, together with Guatemala’s social sector, has voiced outrage at the fact that the Guatemalan Congress suspended indefinitely the “Children and Adolescents Code” which brought Guatemalan law in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

“The Court’s ruling that orders Guatemala to change it’s laws that defend children is a clear signal that Guatemala must let the Children and Adolescent’s Code come into effect”, demanded Harris. “Guatemala has been signaled for it’s illegal adoptions; for the violence against street children and for it’s lack of an adequate juvenile justice system. All this needs to change and children need to be given their place of importance on the national and international agenda”.

The Court also ordered the State of Guatemala to pay the legal expenses of both Casa Alianza and CEJIL who brought the case against the State of Guatemala.

“I pray to God that these five children and young people may now finally rest in peace”, finalized Harris.

Guatemalan street kids face hardships, death squads

Guatemalan street kids face hardships, death squads

Guatemalan street kids struggle to survive….

selling bananas
…by selling bananas…  

garbage dump
…scavaging through garbage…  

… sleeping in doorways…  

…and abusing inhalants  

February 14, 1998
Web posted at: 8:32 p.m. EST (0132 GMT)

From Correspondent Chris Kline

GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala (CNN) — The thousands of street urchins who inhabit Guatemala City do what they can to scrape by — begging, selling bananas for a few pennies, salvaging what they can from the garbage dump. Some join gangs and turn to crime.

CNN’s Chris Kline examines the plight of children living on the streets of Guatemala City.

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Most of them are homeless, sleeping on sidewalks or by an abandoned train station. To curb their desperation and hunger, many have become inhalant addicts, sniffing industrial solvents that almost certainly cause brain damage.

They call it ‘social cleansing’

But these street kids also face another menace — death squads practicing what is referred to in Guatemala as "social cleansing."

"There are certain groups in society, including security forces, who feel that by torturing, kidnapping and murdering them, they’ll teach the others a lesson to leave the street," says Hector Godinez, who heads the legal office at Casa Alianza, one of a handful of children’s shelters in the city.

As proof, Godinez keeps a gruesome photo archive, to illustrate the children’s often shocking injuries — and to remember the dead.

Few prosecutions for crimes against children

Although the police still figure in many of the atrocities, Godinez attributes a new wave of violence against street children to private security guards, hired by business owners who see the kids as a menace.

Even the Guatemalan government concedes that police officers and private guards are seldom prosecuted for crimes against children.

"Perhaps the justice system lacks the resources or the investigative capabilities to identify those responsible, find the proof and sentence them," says Carmela Curup of the Guatemalan Office for Juvenile Affairs.

Trying to provide a better future

photos of injuries
Police and private security guards have been known to beat up and even kill street children  

The government does not run a single youth shelter in Guatemala. Only Casa Alianza and the small number of other private shelters try to provide a better future for the small number of children they can rescue.

Children arrive at Casa Alianza filthy and suffering from disease. They are cured of infections, and their wounds are tended. Often malnourished, they are fed back to health.

In a society where many poor people never break the bonds of poverty, the street children of Guatemala City are perhaps the most forgotten of all.