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Church groups propose ways to meet children’s needs in Brazil in wake of Bolsonaro’s cancellation of policies

A four-year-old Yanomami Indigenous child, who is treated for malnutrition, lies with his father in a hammock at the special yard for indigenous people of the Santo Antonio Children's Hospital in Boa Vista, Brazil, Jan. 27, 2023. (OSV News photo/Amanda Perobelli, Reuters)

SÃO PAULO (OSV News) — As severe childhood malnutrition grows in Brazil, church organizations are proposing public policies on protecting children and are participating in state councils that define and monitor how such decisions are applied.

A recent study conducted by the Brazilian Society of Pediatrics showed that every day 11 children under age 5 are hospitalized in the South American nation due to malnutrition. Between January and November of 2022, 4,135 children were hospitalized, the worst number in more than 10 years.

The Brazilian economic hardships have been intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic, something that contributed to increased famine among children. With almost 700,000 deaths, Brazil was one of the hardest hit countries in the world.

At the end of 2022, the governmental Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics informed that extreme poverty reached 29.4% of the population in 2021. Almost half (46.2%) of the children under 14 live in extreme poverty in Brazil.

Brazilian church groups that work with the neediest in society have pointed out on different occasions that the number of homeless people — including children — had an evident growth in several cities over the past few years.

Church activists say former President Jair Bolsonaro failed to address the crisis. During his tenure, Bolsonaro dismantled 75% of the committees formed by members of civil society to help the government conceive and implement policies in several areas, including food programs.

“On his first day in office, in January 2019, Bolsonaro shut down the National Council for Food and Nutritional Security,” Fábio Garcia Paes, advocacy coordinator of the Franciscan Solidarity Service (SEFRAS) and a longtime activist for children’s rights, told OSV News.

“He also cut the funding for the school food program. Last year, its budget corresponded to only 15% of what it amounted to four years before,” Paes said, adding that many poor children have their only daily meal at school.

According to Maristela Cizeski, a national coordinator at the Children’s Pastoral Ministry office within the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB), the social service funds distributed by the federal government were severely cut over the past few years, and the state and city governments were not able to finance their relief programs.

“Migrants, Indigenous groups and homeless people were the ones who suffered the most,” she told OSV News.

Church-run children’s rights groups denounced the situation on several occasions and even filed lawsuits against the government.

“We went against the tide over the years. We were seen as enemies of the government due to our stance,” she said.

Since President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took office in January, the government has been reinstating the public policy councils or reinforcing their structure.

“This week, the Children’s Pastoral Ministry will have meetings with different ministers in order to present the current humanitarian crisis concerning childhood malnutrition and to suggest actions,” Cizeski said.

SEFRAS also held conversations with government officials about hunger in Brazil since Lula’s transition team began its work in November 2021.

“Our challenge as Catholics now is to keep strengthening civic organizations which struggle for the children’s rights and secure the application of the new policies,” Paes said.

The CNBB will directly work on those issues, as a newly elected member of the National Council for the Rights of Children and Adolescents.

On the state and city levels, church organizations also are advancing policies to protect vulnerable children. That is the case in São Paulo, where the archdiocesan Minor’s Pastoral Ministry had an active role in the creation of a bill that will establish the city policy for homeless children.

“We have worked for four years on the structuring of that project. We heard civic organizations, church members, and dozens of homeless children about their needs,” Sueli Camargo, the ministry’s coordinator, explained to OSV News.

The bill, which was approved by the city council and now awaits the mayor’s sanction, establishes the set of measures that the several areas of the city government must take in order to take the children out of the streets and adequately reinsert them into society.

Camargo also is working to promote the participation of church activists in the October elections for the child care service, the state branch that monitors and secures the children’s rights and is formed by members of the civil society.

“We have great challenges ahead. We currently have something like a post-war situation when it comes to children,” Camargo said.

Eduardo Campos Lima writes for OSV News from São Paulo.

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