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Panel 12

Making child rights constitutional in Brazil

In Brazil, for decades, there had been pressure from NGOs and children's organizations for protecting children battered by poverty and hunger and despised by sections of the community. The most vulnerable children were those living or working on the streets. Often subjected to violence and repression from the police and armed groups, they and their advocates mounted the call for reform. In 1985, they founded the National Street Children's Movement, which in 1986 held its first Congress in Brasilia.

Brazil had then just emerged from 21 years of authoritarian rule and was in the process of drafting a new democratic Constitution. It was a golden opportunity for children to enshrine their rights in law. Even so, it was a daunting task. UNICEF played an important role in strengthening and broadening the alliance of institutions working for children and provided technical support for the drafting process.

Photo: Poverty forces vulnerable families on to the streets. ©

The campaign received a boost in 1986 when the Government established a National Committee on the Child and the Constitution. Along with representatives from government ministries, a wide variety of NGOs participated, including the National Street Children's Movement. UNICEF worked with the Committee in a number of ways: providing a secretariat and technical assistance, recruiting private sector support and helping widen the network of groups and organizations involved.

This momentum led to a widespread public campaign -- including mass gatherings of children in a number of cities, as well as demonstrations in front of the National Congress. Organizations and NGOs from around the country proposed drafts for two constitutional amendments, which were endorsed by 200,000 voters and presented to the Constituent Assembly. These proposals ultimately became the chapter on the rights of children and adolescents in the Constitution -- passed by a vote of 435 to 8.

The success of the Constitution was followed by an even greater victory two years later, when the Statute of the Child and Adolescent was approved by both houses of the National Congress, legally obligating the Government to protect child rights. Children were involved in gaining its acceptance, with more than 5,000 meeting in Brasilia. Joeo de Deus, one of the organizers, recalls, "The day the children occupied the Senate was the most important day of my life....There were congressmen crying who gave up their seats to the children."

The Statute defines children as citizens with clearly stated rights to respect, dignity and freedom. It also gives precedence to important needs in a child's life, such as health, education, sports and leisure. Special provisions guarantee children's protection as a matter of "absolute priority."

To ensure that the Statute's provisions are enforced, Councils for the Rights of the Child and Adolescent were set up at federal, state and local levels, with members drawn from diverse backgrounds. These Councils have the authority to spend an allocated budget and to raise additional funds. This strengthens their work and helps provide protection for the most vulnerable children.

Upon this strong foundation, the Councils now face the challenge of continuing to transform and put into practice the nation's commitment towards its children as expressed in the Constitution.

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