José Clodoveu de Arruda Coelho Neto

Building children's lives to build a city

Urban growth adds to the challenges of ensuring that people can enjoy an adequate standard of living.

In Sobral, a municipality in the northwest of the state of Ceara and home to more than 188,000 people, serious efforts have been made to include an expanding population in the labour market, schools, housing and all the social and economic aspects of daily life. Almost 70,000 people – just over a third of Sobral’s population – are not yet 19. With the right policies and services, we can play a part in creating an environment in which they can thrive and build healthy, fulfilling lives.

Although enabling children to realize their rights is part of our mandate, success can also bring long-term rewards. Today’s beneficiaries are likely to become tomorrow’s benefactors, contributing to stronger, more cohesive communities.

So much needs to be done. An increasing population puts existing resources under strain. Poverty and inequality create a sense of helplessness and frustration, which in turn often leads to crime and violence – daily realities in urban centres across the region – complicating the already complex process of fostering an environment where children can grow. It is difficult not to notice the factors that make young people especially susceptible to violence: poor quality of life, limited opportunities for development and recreation, and an absence of viable prospects.

Of course, an environment conducive to child well-being cannot be created through sporadic, isolated actions. We need a comprehensive, concerted approach to policymaking as well as integral service delivery. Our achievements in improving the lives of children and youth have earned us the UNICEF Municipal Seal of Approval every time it has been issued: in 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2008.

Sobral is pursuing a series of intercon-nected initiatives to enable all its children, regardless of background, to have access to appropriate tools to fully develop their capacities. We have steadily focused on enhancing education, chiefly by renovating school facilities and providing continuous coaching to teachers – efforts rewarded by improved results in national tests. We are working to extend access to other forms of training, for example through a planned partnership with the Palace of Sciences and Foreign Languages to deliver language and information technology programmes. This would build on successful initiatives already in place. The School of Music offers complimentary courses in a variety of musical instruments to nearly 650 students, largely from public schools. The School Workshop of Arts and Professions provides training in such professional skills as preserving the city’s historical heritage. In addition, more than 10,000 of our students participate in after-school sports and tutorial classes under Second Round, a federal government project.

Our municipality also recognizes the educational and social benefits of sports – especially their contribution to building decision-making skills, respect for diversity and confidence among young people. Our Social Nucleus of Sports Initiation programme allows children and adolescents to practice sports by making existing sports facilities in all districts of the city available and accessible to them. We also partner with child rights advocates and a local business to promote the participation of marginalized youth in cultural workshops and training programmes. Many of these young people are adolescents who are excluded because they have experienced drug addiction, pregnancy or sexual abuse.

Beyond the numbers and formal initiatives, individual stories tell us that our efforts help adolescents make positive decisions to the benefit of their communities. I remember one young man who, at a recent project impact assessment meet•ing, said that many of his friends had been lost to drugs and crime. He had found the motivation to succeed despite the odds. Having entered the School Workshop vocational training programme at 16, he was now, 10 years later, working as an instructor in historical restoration.

I am one of countless mayors facing similar challenges and opportunities. We all have our own insights and experiences. But some motivations are universal – the satisfaction of seeing children on the brink turn their lives around and become role models for others. This is why I believe in the unique role of local government – in Sobral and around the world.

José Clodoveu de Arruda Coelho Neto is a lawyer and professor. Politically active since his youth, he served as vice-mayor of Sobral from 2005 to 2010 and became mayor in January 2011.


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