Roberto Jose dos Santos is a gentle fighter for millions of Brazilian children who must make their way on the streets. Some of these street children live there; many more must earn their daily livelihood there by selling peanuts, helping people park their cars, or engaging in other menial tasks.
Because so many Brazilians, poor and rich, fear theft and violence, these millions of poor street children face widespread hostility, even violence -- from adults, storekeepers, the police, and from one another. With 50 percent of those who start school failing the first grade, these children have few other options.Over the last six years, Roberto has developed a variety of ways to help street children effectively. He has done so while working in two areas of Rio de Janeiro with the greatest density of street children: one is an area where children still linked to their slum families work; the other is an area populated by prostitutes, other "marginals," and groups of children entirely on their own. Increasingly, others are being drawn into Roberto's work and are launching similar interventions in other areas.
Roberto's approach weaves together many ideas. Following are a few examples. Roberto issues the children coveted identity cards that provide an institutional guarantee for the youngsters. These cards identify the youth's parents since strengthening family ties is a cornerstone principle. He has persuaded the local police to give a monthly birthday parties for the precinct's street children born in that month, and he has also encouraged local merchants to participate. These events open channels for the youths and "celebrate the value of life", he says.No longer willing to sell peanuts, teenagers need a constructive avenue into society if they are to avoid marginalization and criminality. Roberto offers intensive training sessions and a legal intermediary, allowing firms to employ these youngsters without shouldering the long term liabilities the law would otherwise impose.These and other programs together are constituting a growing safety net and are helping to define a legitimate place in society for these youngsters. Over the next several years, Roberto will continue this hands-on work in his laboratory on the streets. He will also do more to spread the techniques that he is developing. Roberto hopes to break the vicious cycle of fear and violence that entangles poor children and that afflicts broader society. For years, he has seen this ongoing cycle as an ethical affront and a primary cause of much of the damage done. Here the ethical force that gives this gentle man such strength comes to the surface: "A society that does not respect its people, most especially its children, is self-destructive," he says.When he worked in several of the government institutions housing children picked off the streets, Roberto accepted opprobrium and bureaucratic risk by fighting the established "jail-like" atmosphere that emphasized order through physical retribution. His care strengthened the youngsters with whom he worked and significantly subdued the old pattern of behavior. Roberto now plans to speak up for a higher standard in a similar manner and to begin enforcing it within society as a wholeComplementing his work with neighborhood police and merchants, Roberto is beginning to reach out to the broader public, notably through the media. For example, he recently organized "a walk for fraternity" into the downtown by street children carrying signs with their own messages. One of these signs read: "We want the right to live with justice."Roberto's next step is to develop a systematic response mechanism to give life to this plea, a new Center for the Rights of Children and Adolescents. He hopes to build a network of quick-response centers. Roberto is currently recruiting volunteers, including lawyers and law students, to respond immediately and to provide reliable follow-up to all cases of violence against children. (This work will reinforce that of Valdemar de Oliveira Neto, another Ashoka Fellow elected earlier in the year, whose work with poverty law includes building a national human rights database.) The Center will, in other words, will serve as the country's conscience -- both in defining ethical behavior and in relentlessly connecting such principles to the specific actions of individuals and communities.
Roberto grew up in one of the poor periphery areas around Rio. Sensitive to what he saw around him, as a teenager he started helping a priest who worked with those in jail. As he continued this work later, Roberto realized that much of the cause for criminality and its multiple destructive consequences lay in how society treats its young. His experiments in the streets, reinforced by a law degree that he went back to school to earn in 1981, have prepared him. Now he is launching an attack against the hostility and violence against children.