On the night of July 23, 1993, eight children were massacred on the steps of the Candelária Church in downtown Rio de Janeiro. As a regular gathering spot for street children, dozens took refuge here as a place to rest. Official reports differ on the motive behind such action, yet at 11:00pm, police opened fire on the group of sixty-four. Some state it was retaliation against an earlier scuffle between the youth and the police, while others think it to be off-duty officers paid by disgruntled shop owners to clear the streets.

Candelária Church with the imprints of the eight victims, painted red, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

One of the survivors, Sandro do Nascimento, was the subject of the documentary Bus 174. He made international headlines when in June 2000 he boarded a bus in the Jardim Botânico neighbourhood intending to rob its passengers, when it quickly developed into a four-hour hostage situation. The film presented the hardships of the low-income population in a new light. It also demonstrated the inequalities of the criminal justice system through its culture of exemption, where police and military officials are protected from prosecution for abuses committed. Both of these high-profile incidents serve as a reminder of the disparities that continue to exist in current society, affecting the poor, dark skinned, and “unattended” youth.

One of the many legacies of the 1964 to 1985 military dictatorship was creating an urban fabric of social exclusion. The rapid economic growth of the 1960s and 1970s caused the city of Rio de Janeiro to grow exponentially, due to mass migration from the country’s interior. This led a sharp increase in the urban poor population. The recession of the 1980s then caused economic instability as well as high unemployment rates.

Children were increasingly seen wandering and working the streets, forsaking education in favour of supporting their families and themselves. The widening gap between the rich and the poor caused the former to develop a fear of unattended poor children. Specifically, street children can be divided into two categories: those that work on the streets yet retain family support and may return home at night, and others that live and work in the streets without family care. Due to associations with violence and drugs, they are viewed as a threat to social and economic order. As a result, public officials preferred to sweep them out of sight by placing them in shelters, leaving them at the hands of the criminal justice system, or in cases of excessive use of force, having them exterminated. It was in the 1980s that NGOs, research centers and grassroots movements that were tied to the Catholic Church began improving children’s programs and institutions after news of their poor treatment was met with national media outcry.

Street Child World Cup, Rio 2014 - I Am Somebody, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Street Child World Cup is one such movement that has developed into a global event set to occur each season before the FIFA World Cup. “More than just a game,” it aims to provide opportunities for street children, from twenty countries, to demonstrate their full potential, and challenge the negative perceptions that exist towards them. Thus, on March 28, 2014, the ten day soccer event kick-started in Rio de Janeiro, during which time delegates and players from the organization also paid their respects at Candelária.

Can such awareness campaigns effectively challenge the inequalities that continue to exist within Brazilian society, demonstrating the importance of children’s rights and their protection? Further, do these events benefit the children in the long run once the games are over?

Credits: Images by Caitlin Dixon and Rachael Hilderbrand. Data linked to sources