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Internet can help street children  
by Carmen Font

Groups in Latin America are helping homeless children by establishing Internet centers in cities and villages.


The fact that homeless children wander the streets of many Latin American countries, and that entire generations have been doing so for years, looks like a grim reality which is virtually impossible to change. Especially now, after the widespread economic crises and natural disasters in Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador, children often find no alternative but to enlist in bands of drug traffickers which inculcate in them a culture of violence.

The Telecentres give children the self-confidence and skills needed to survive on the streets

The drug barons dominate the 650 favelas (slums) around Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for example, and provide children with guns which they use to intimidate or kill in order to rob. As a result, in the last few years alone, nearly 4,000 children have been shot. Focusing on this problem, a recent conference took place in Rio de Janeiro entitled Children affected by organized armed violence, supported by the Ford Foundation and UNESCO, among others.

This critical situation has also inspired a large number of ordinary people and non-governmental organizations to take action. Some offer simple and immediate help, like the Brazilian judge Siro Darlan, who every Wednesday invites dozens of abandoned street children to a meal: “Sometimes they are blind, deaf or have lost a leg or an arm. They told me that now on Wednesdays they don’t have to kill or steal in order to eat, because I prepare them meals,” says Darlan. “The underlying problem is the lack of opportunities for these children, who have neither future nor present,” he added.

“The internet serves them as a huge library, a great way to improve their education.”

Some new initiatives use the internet to educate children and keep them away from begging, killing and prostitution. Fundación Chasquinet in Ecuador realized the educational benefits of computers and set up a project called ‘Internet for Life’. “The kids come from the poorest families, and their access to education is very limited. The internet serves them as a huge library, a great way to improve their education”, says Ivan, the project co-ordinator.

As a first step, it uses the internet to forge communication links among street children during their daily battle to stay alive. “Telecenters” have been established by the project in cities and villages, and offer children access to well-structured learning and adult guidance to provide at least a basic education and training.

“Since I started going to the Telecentre, I have been talking with Miguel of Concepción, Chile, using a chat-line,” reveals 13-year-old María. “Speaking [to him] through the computer has been a great adventure. I always thought that people spoke by telephone, even though I have never had the opportunity to do so. Miguel from Chile has become my friend and he is helping me with some school work that we must complete for the Esmeraldas Street Children Programme.”  Esmeraldas is a poor region on Ecuador’s northern Pacific coast, where unemployment is rampant and directly affects more than 150,000 people of working age.

Internet for Life has been funded and supported by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), both from Canada, although local organizations from Colombia and Ecuador manage the project on the ground. It not only opens doors to information, skills, and eventually jobs, say the co-ordinators, but gives children the self-confidence and skills needed to survive on the streets. In addition, a sense of community is created as street children share their experiences with others in similar circumstances. The main goal is to take advantage of the opportunities that information and communication technologies offer to improve the quality of life for street children. Many children also receive professional training that could help them to get jobs, especially in electronic commerce.

While information technologies are not a global panacea against poverty, they can make a difference. “For me the Telecentre is groovy,”  says 11-year-old Karina, “because we can go on the internet, share ideas, learn about different countries, and about geography, flora and fauna.”

(Sources: El País, Spain; Fundación Chasquinet, Ecuador; The Ford Foundation, USA)

From the November 2002 issue of Share International


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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005