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Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, for instigating this debate and sincerely congratulate him on the hard and constant work that he undertakes on behalf of street children.
On 10 December 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On that day, I became eight years old. I was a wanted, loved, happy and lucky little girl, far, far removed from too many little girls and boys in Latin America today. In the UN declaration there are articles that should be very relevant to young children in Latin America. Article 5 states:
Those were laudable aims in 1948 and remain so today, but for the street children of Latin America they are merely words on a piece of paper. Their aims are a million miles away from these children's daily existence of fear, pain, brutality and degradation.
Reading through the latest UN report, it is obvious that the UN is still working to improve the lives of all children, including street children. The report has a section on street children. It states:
"The sexual abuse, exploitation and deaths of street children in Central America are widespread and increasing, despite its countries having ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that every year many thousands of births go unregistered. Without a birth certificate, families and individuals cannot access health, welfare or education services, and thereby become more vulnerable".
One example given of the horrors that street children face is given in the report, and it is of Honduras. Since January 1998, more than 1,350 children and youths have been murdered. There is a suspicion that organised death squads with links to the security services could be responsible. The government of Honduras are setting up a special unit to investigate these deaths which will work closely with the NGA Casa Alianza in Central America and with other human rights organisations to tackle street crime and investigate unsolved deaths. I understand that the UK embassy in Honduras is monitoring the progress of this work.
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I turn now to some of the street children I have seen on recent visits to different countries. They include three young boys, about 12 years old, high as kites having sniffed glue, and this at 10 o'clock in the morning. They live permanently on the streets. They include a tiny girl, about five years old, playing a tiny battered fiddle while an older boy watched over her begging for money. And most distressing, they include a girl of about 12 trying to sell her body to tourists, watched over again by an older boy.
The latter was in Brazil, a country with which I have had a love affair for years, since I studied Latin American politics as a mature student at Essex University in the 1970s. Brazil is a very large country, apparently 27 times as large as Francea statistic given to me in my university days. It ranges from the modern capital city of Brasilia through the carnivals of Rio to the wonders of the Amazon. The Brazilian economy is among the world's 10 largest, but it has one of the most unequal patterns of wealth distribution in the world. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has illustrated, sadly, there are numerous accounts of street children being killed in Brazil, and in many of these murders the police have been implicated. Too often, violence to street children is acceptedthey are nuisances like rats or cockroaches and can be exterminated accordingly.
Street children are often affectedcaught up inthe widespread sexual exploitation of Brazilian children. Trafficking of women and children is rife in the Amazon basin of Brazil. Young girls are forced or deceived into becoming prostitutes and are "owned" by those who run bars and brothels. In an article dated 21 June 1993, Time magazine estimated that 25,000 girls have been forced into prostitution in remote mining villages in the Brazilian Amazon, and sometimes these girls are bought direct from their families.
I had a glimpse of what is happening in this region myself while on holiday in the Amazon basin in 2003. The cruise ship on which we were travelling called in at Santarem, where I saw the young girl I mentioned earlier. A cruise ship arriving in a port in Brazil is a major event. The tourists are fair game in a small town with one paved main street, a large Catholic church and little else except mud streets with water running down each side and hundreds of hammocks for sale from breach stalls. The young girl was beautiful, as Brazilian children tend to beblack curls, olive skin, large dark eyes. She stood in a small square near to the largest of the open-air cafes and her pimp, a young man who looked in his late teens, stood nearby. She approached a number of men who were alone. To my knowledge she did not find a customer, but I am sure that she would find many at other times and on other days. Indeed her life may well depend on it.
I had been expecting her appearance or the appearance of someone like her, because I knew that Santarem is one of the ports where child prostitution is rife and where instances of children being bought, or kidnapped, is commonplace. Additionally, I had talked about child prostitution in Brazil with members of the ship's crew who went there regularly and they knew of this prolific trade and of the bars and areas where young prostitutes were most likely to be found
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in the various ports of call. This child may not have been literally a street childI do not knowbut she was certainly in need of help and protection.
The Brazilian Amazon is one of the world's wondrous places. The use of this magnificent river for travelling purposes, just as we use our roads, is fascinating, and the warm welcome given by the Brazilian people was heartening. But it is a region with a great deal of poverty. Most of those living by the river live in simple one-room huts on stilts. In winter, when the Amazon overflows, the people and the animals live together in the one room until the water subsides. These people are poor, very poor. It is little wonder that any means of raising money is considered, and too often children's bodies mean money.
It is thousands of miles away from the capital city and the national government, but the Brazilian Government are well aware of the problem and have introduced measures to try to tackle it. However, the country is gigantic and the task enormous.
I understand that President Lula is continuing the work in that area which President Cardoso began, with the establishment of a special secretariat for human rights that reports directly to the president. He is also working with the UN on this matter. The Brazilian Government's efforts are supported, I understand, by our Government, who are funding a number of projects aimed at tackling human rights issues. I would welcome the latest news from my noble friend the Minister on that assistance in his reply.
Finally, I started and I finish with reference to the United Nations, whose role here is crucial. The UN should be the forum where such matters are discussed and where pressure is brought to bear and help is given to countries that have signed up to the UN convention. I understand that Brazil did so in 1990; but how much has happened in real terms since then?
The Brazilian Government need every possible assistance in their efforts to tackle the immense problems that they face and to end the suffering and violation of the human rights of their children, especially their street children.
Lord Hannay of Chiswick: My Lords, the Unstarred Question on the Order Paper from my noble friend Lord Alton is particularly timely. Amidst all the rush of events that we discuss, we should not neglect the plight of the children of Latin America, which is a continuing reproach to the conscience of the international community. It is a reminder that while governments may negotiate and sign documents as worthy in their aspirations as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which the noble Baroness has just referred, signed as long ago as 1990, what really matters is the way in which they implement their commitments. That lags far behind.
I am no expert on the detailed situation of children throughout Latin America, but as a result of an interest that I declarethat one of my sons has set up and runs an activity centre for 500 to 600 children in one of the most deprived parts of Sao Paulo in Brazil
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and also the work that my wife does to raise funds to support that organisationI do have some direct knowledge of the challenges that children face in that country and of the need to prevent children gravitating towards the streets in the first place as well as the need to come to their assistance when they do so.
The present administration of President Lula in Brazil has introduced a number of programmes that have somewhat improved the situation, but it still falls a long way short of what is needed, and such improvements as have been made remain extremely precarious. I am sure that it is right, and indeed necessary, that where the performance by governments in Latin America falls short of the international obligations into which they have freely entered, we should take those matters up with them and press the case for better policies and better performance. We should work closely with other European Union governments when we do so and expand the role that human rights play in the European Union's emerging common foreign and security policy.
But we should take care when we make those representations to avoid a hectoring and didactic tone. We should remember that our own record on the treatment of children over the years has not been without blemish and that the social and economic problems that confront those governments in providing better support and protection for children are real ones that cannot be made to disappear overnight. Above all, if we are to criticise, we need at the same time to offer effective assistance. On that matter, I ask the Minister when he replies to give us some chapter and verse about DfID's programmes for dealing with the problems of street children in Latin America, our recent performance in that respect, and the plans for the future.
Some time ago, when it was decided to reduce, and in some cases to remove, aid to what are called "middle income countries", concerns were expressed in this House about the impact on programmes for children in Latin America. Certain assurances were given that those programmes would not be negatively affected. I would like to hear how those assurances have been carried through. In truth, concepts such as middle income countries are statistical categories that bear little relation to conditions on the ground. I assure the Minister that if he visited some of the most deprived areas of Sao Paulo he would not think that he was in a middle income country. As we rightly devote great attention to the problems of Africa and what we can do to meet them, we must not forget those realities and the children of Latin America.
I am often struck by the huge amount of goodwill and willingness to help among individuals and voluntary organisations in this country towards those who are less fortunately placed than ourselves. We saw that particularly at the time of the tsunami. It must not be limited to times of great crisis such as occurred then. Help to street children in Latin America needs to be professionally organised and directed if it is to be effective and welcome. What help, what information, what advice and what training will the Government give to assist the voluntary sector and to ensure that its efforts are well-directed and focused?
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I would not like to end this brief intervention without paying tribute to our Consul-General in Sao Paulo who, amidst his many duties, finds the time to support the work that my son is carrying out. That is a great encouragement. I hope that this evening we will hear a bit more about the wider picture and what the Government are planning to do in the months and years ahead to face up to this most serious and most moving problem of our times.
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