In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Street Children And Brazil

  • Introduction
  • Historical Dimensions
  • Discourses on Street Children
  • Early Writings
  • Profile and Background of Street Children
  • Everyday Life
  • Earning a Living on the Street
  • Health and Well-being
  • Schooling and Institutionalization
  • Police Violence and Extrajudicial Killings of Street Children

Childhood Studies Street Children And Brazil
Marit Ursin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0210


Children and adolescents living on the streets of the city centers in Brazil have periodically been in the purview of journalists, policymakers, activists, and lawmakers throughout the last century. The changing typologies that label young street dwellers reflect wider sociopolitical discourses: including moleques (street urchins) in early 1900s, menores (minors) in the 1960s and 1970s, and meninos de rua (street children) in the 1980s onward, to mention but a few. In the 1980s and 1990s, they became the center of attention, especially with the Candelária massacre in 1993. Their violent lives and deaths came to be depicted in novels and movies, newspapers, documentary films, and human rights reports alike, and the structural discrimination of young people on the street was recognized and condemned, nationally and internationally. This last wave of international attention sparked the interest of national and international researchers who started to study the lives of children working, roaming, playing, and sleeping on the street. Researchers have covered and uncovered different dimensions of street life. Academic debates have shifted between a focus on structural conditions and individual agency. While much of the early literature portrayed the children as victims in disempowering and deterministic ways, research conducted within childhood studies in the 1990s onward documented their resilience and ability to survive on the street. Street children in Brazil have been prime targets of a wide range of policies, movements, and legislations for over a century, including correctional, oppressive, philanthropy, and rights-based approaches. Yet, the combination of documented knowledge, the interest fanned by the press, and reformed polices and laws on the national and international level have not been sufficient to save the lives of many children and improve the conditions pushing them onto the streets in the first place. The vast body of literature on street children and Brazil available embraces early efforts of classifying, counting, and profiling children encountered in city centers; later endeavors to describe and understand their street lives, relationships, activities and attitudes; and psychological and medical studies on health issues and engagement in high-risk activities. The research has unearthed the many discourses in which the children, their families, and their lives are described and embedded and has reinforced some of these and created others.

Historical Dimensions

Historical sources that describe the everyday lives of young people on the street are scarce according to Fraga Filho 1996, leaving today’s generation in a historical vacuum. The small body of literature that explores street children’s lives in Brazil through a historical lens primarily focuses on changes in laws, policies, and discourses rather than on the experiences and everyday lives of the children themselves. This may be the result of the kind of historical sources available. How the surrounding society historically has portrayed, debated, and met children living on the street needs to be situated in a wider context. Highly influential are both discourses on children from lower socioeconomic classes as well as political and socioeconomic changes, nationally and internationally. Despite being presented as a novel phenomenon and “discovered” by journalists, social workers, and policymakers in the 1980s (see Hecht 1998 under Everyday Life), Costa Leite 2001 shows how young people have occupied the streets of urban centers as far back as the 17th century. Rosemberg and Andrade 1999 analyzes the various ways in which children roaming the streets were depicted throughout history. Costa Leite 2001 and Cerqueira Filho and Neder 2001 provide examples of the European roots of child abandonment: for instance, the establishment of the foundling wheel as a response to the Catholic Church’s exclusive emphasis on formal marriage as a necessity for having children. Fraga Filho 1996 documents how a vast number of young vagrants were escapees of servitude and slavery in the 19th century. Ursin 2017 argues that vagrancy was synonymous with freedom and social mobility among young street dwellers. According to Rizzini 2002, street children were perceived as both endangered and potentially dangerous by philanthropist movements among the upper class in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Fraga Filho 1996 shows how institutionalization was used to control the poor and ensure the formation of future laborers. Klees, et al. 2000 and Drybread 2009 offer examples on changes in laws and policy from the military dictatorship until democratization. Whereas a correctional approach saturated policy and practice until the 1960s, the rhetoric gradually changed toward providing “assistance,” “guidance,” and “protection” for young people in “irregular circumstances.” Democratization led to an increasing number of nongovernmental organizations interested in alternative means to meet the needs of street children: the most influential being the National Movement of Street Boys and Street Girls (see also Movimento Nacional de Meninos e Meninas de Rua 1991 under Police Violence and Extrajudicial Killings of Street Children).

  • Cerqueira Filho, Gisáio, and Gizlene Neder. “Social and Historical Approaches Regarding Street Children in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) in the Context of the Transition to Democracy.” Childhood 8.1 (2001): 11–29.

    DOI: 10.1177/0907568201008001002

    Links the presence of street children and current failures in education and social policy to historical-cultural factors, including remnants of racist-slavocratic traditionalism and clerical conservatism.

  • Costa Leite, Ligia. Meninos de rua – A infância excluída no Brasil. São Paulo: Atual Editora, 2001.

    This short book (in Portuguese) traces the roots of the so-called street children phenomenon back to the colonial era and explores changes in policy until current time. It is easy to read, includes illustrations, and offers suggested topics for discussion.

  • Drybread, Kristen. “Rights‐Bearing Street Kids: Icons of Hope and Despair in Brazil’s Burgeoning Neoliberal State.” Law & Policy 31.3 (2009): 330–350.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9930.2009.00304.x

    Provides a historical overview of the changes in legislation concerning street children from the military regime to the 21st century. Drybread argues that current neoliberal ideologies and institutions once again result in social exclusion and abandonment.

  • Fraga Filho, Walter. Mendigos, Moleques e Vadios na Bahia do Século XIX. São Paulo: HUCITEC/EDUFBa, 1996.

    This book (in Portuguese) provides a historical analysis based on a wide range of official records. It is exceptional in that it explores the everyday lives of people involved in informal work, begging, and crime in the 19th century, including younger generations of homeless people.

  • Klees, Steven, Irene Rizzini, and Anthony Dewees. “A New Paradigm for Social Change: Social Movements and the Transformation of Policy for Street and Working Children in Brazil.” In Children of the Streets of the Americas: Globalization, Homelessness and Education in the United States, Brazil and Cuba. Edited by Rosalyn Arlin Mickelson, 79–98. New York: Routledge, 2000.

    Examines the history of national policy concerning children from lower socioeconomic classes from the correctional approach in the 1960s to the child rights approach in the 1980s, as well as the Child and Adolescent Statute, which was signed into law in 1990.

  • Rizzini, Irene. “The child saving movement in Brazil. Ideology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.” In Minor Omissions: Children in Latin American History and Society. Edited by Tobias Hecht, 165–180. Madison: University of Wisconsin, 2002.

    Shows how the philanthropist discourse that emerged among the Brazilian upper class in the late 19th century was part of a nation-building project and bore similarities with movements in North America and Europe.

  • Rosemberg, Fúlvia, and Leandro Feitosa Andrade. “Ruthless Rhetoric: Child and Youth Prostitution in Brazil.” Childhood 6.1 (1999): 113–131.

    DOI: 10.1177/0907568299006001009

    Contains a brief yet informative summary of the historical changes in labeling of street children.

  • Ursin, Marit. “Freedom, Mobility and Marginality–An Interdisciplinary Study of The Historical Roots of Contemporary Street Youth in Urban Brazil.” Journal of Youth Studies 21.1 (2017): 72–89.

    DOI: 10.1080/13676261.2017.1343938

    Explores marginality and mobility among street youth through a cross-historical approach, analyzing three sources of knowledge: a historical study of vagrants in Fraga Filho 1996, a novel by Jorge Amado, and empirical material from an ethnography on street youth in Brazil.

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