By Ali Herman
The media has focused in on the corruption and economic instability that accompany the 2014 World Cup. Media reports on the inequality between starving families in the favelas, the plight of sex workers and trafficked women, and the labor injustice surrounding FIFA’s international soccer games reveal a darker side to the sport. But, amid all of the negative news coming out of Brazil, there is an opportunity for change, a chance to recognize and champion the rights of these marginalized communities.
One organization, Street Child World Cup (SCWP), is using the World Cup as an opportunity to advocate for street children worldwide.
The London-based organization holds a mock World Cup in which teams of street children represent their country, putting a face to the thousands of nameless street children. Its mission is a simple one: “provide a platform for street children to be heard, change public perception and realize the rights of street children.”
SCWP works with grassroots partners in each country who sponsor the children in securing the necessary documents for travel. Since its inaugural game in Durban, South Africa in 2010, they have brought together street children from 19 countries. Teams of children from four continents participated in a 10-day tournament with art projects, school visits, and a conference. The success of Durban’s Street Child World Cup encouraged the organization to hold the second Cup in Brazil, prior to this year’s FIFA World Cup.
The Commission on Human Rights first used the term “street child” in 1994, giving an official term to the many impoverished children who either lived on the street—working on the street by day and returning home to their families at night—or were of the street—children who live and work on the street without family ties.
Street children work jobs from shining shoes and washing taxis to selling postcards and picking garbage. Some simply beg in traffic. As a result of unstable and low incomes, many street children are homeless, sleeping on sidewalks, bus stations, or by railroad stations. Many join violent and drug-pedaling gangs, which provide protection and a sense of identity. These gangs often mark their sole chance at survival in a world rampant with the dangers of trafficking, sexual abuse, drug use, and a lack of education.
In 2006, UNICEF estimated that there were 100 million street children worldwide. However, as the United Nations High Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights recently stated in a study, it is actually impossible to measure exactly the number of street children.
Street children are stripped of distinct identities, largely recognized as a mere nuisance to burgeoning cities. SCWC, therefore, works to give them a sense of self worth. It teaches these children that they are, in fact, “somebody.”
Rarely protected, street children often slip through a veil of invisibility and into the crossfire of police patrol. In Brazil alone, 1,397 street children died violently between 1987 and 1990. Similar violence exists around the world and is often the result of governmental and state authority collusion.
SCWP and its partner organizations are pushing to end government-funded street children roundups and police crackdowns, share the voices of street children around the world, and take children off of the streets.
SCWC in partnership with Project Uthombo in Durban, South Africa, ended police roundups of street children in 2010. Together they are implementing a nationwide street child strategy to protect children’s rights.
In Tanzania, the team led a discussion with 50 commanding police officers about police brutality against street children. After this year’s World Cup tournament, the team of Pakistani street children embarked on a 10-city tour, culminating in a visit with the Pakistani Prime Minister. Their efforts encouraged Pakistan’s National Assembly to pass a resolution for a social protection plan for the nation’s 1.5 million street children.
In 2010, the Foundling Museum in London held the “One Voice” exhibition. It featured street children’s art as well as pieces from artists around the world. The exhibit acted as a call to action for the museum’s visitors on behalf of the world’s street children.
In Brazil, Joel Bergner created a mural in support of street children’s voices. Three SCWC figures made of hexagons (reflecting the pattern of a soccer ball) hold watch over the field at Lonier Soccer City: an Indian male player, a Salvadoran female player, and Rodrigo, the deceased (a result of street violence) captain of Brazil’s male team. The mural pays homage to his legacy, one that encourages solidarity among the world’s street children. Within the hexagons, each child wrote or drew a message they considered personal and meaningful.
The mural is a reminder of the hardship and violence these children face. It reminds us that this is a global, rather than a local, problem. Most importantly, the mural reminds the world that street children have voices to be heard.
How can we ensure these voices are audible to governments and policymakers? How do these children begin to engage in the dialogue? First and foremost, they must be removed from the street and given a sense of pride and worth.
SCWC, in support of the grassroots organizations that sponsor each team for the Street Child World Cup, has begun this important campaign. These organizations provide scholarships for education, jobs with sustainable incomes, and programs to connect street children with their own families or foster families. Street Child World Cup is using the world’s great equalizer—soccer—to get children off the street and give them a voice.
Around the world, street children face an institutionalized system that continues to deny them their rights. Without the proper recognition, millions of children are destined to this vicious cycle. However, if funding increased for global organizations like SCWC, these children would no longer be invisible. With increased funding and abilities, organizations would be more viable in encouraging policymakers to protect the rights of street children. At the same time, there is an obligation among policymakers to alter the system and protect these young victims of poverty. Organizations can only encourage so much change; it is up to the governments to recognize the critical nature of this issue and respond accordingly with direct policy and protection plans.
Ali Herman is a communications assistant at the World Policy Institute.