National Politics, Society

Hidden in Plain Sight: Brazil’s Humanitarian Crisis


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by Deborah Kaufmann

Vitória da Conquista, BA, October 8th: Child dies from stray bullet; two other teenagers are also shot.
Rio de Janeiro, RJ, November 29th: Five young men are shot dead inside car in the North Zone of Rio.
Porto Alegre, RS, December 8th: Dead boy in Vila Cruzeiro lost cousin in the same way three years ago.

These young people’s deaths are not isolated incidents: within the next hour, another young Brazilian will be a victim of homicide. Although Brazil has made several national and international commitments to protect children’s lives, every day 28 children and adolescents are victims of homicide in the country. According to official estimates, if the current trend continues, the country may register 42,000 adolescent homicide deaths between 2013 and 2019.

Homicide against its younger population puts Brazil in a paradox. The same country that stands out for improving child mortality rates ranks 2nd in the absolute number of homicides of adolescents, only behind Nigeria. In relative terms, it ranks 3rd, only behind El Salvador and Mexico. Since 1980, youth homicide has increased 272% in the country.

Brazil has one of the most advanced and comprehensive laws regarding the protection of children and adolescents in the world: the Statute of the Rights of Children and Adolescents (ECA – Estatuto da Criança e do Adolescente), created in 1990. Since then, Brazil has been struggling to promote a top-level approach to the social and legal treatment of vulnerable youth. In 2007, the National Bureau for the Promotion of the Rights of Children and Adolescents (SNPDCA – Secretaria Nacional de Promoção dos Direitos da Criança e do Adolescente) finally acknowledged the urgent need to focus on the reduction of violence and its consequences against children and adolescents. With the objective of combating juvenile mortality, it established the Program to Protect Children and Adolescents Threatened of Death (PPCAAM – Programa de Proteção a Crianças e Adolescentes Ameaçados de Morte) and the national Program to Reduce  Lethal Violence against Children (PRVL – Programa de Redução da Violência Letal contra Adolescentes e Jovens). They are both important initiatives to monitor and prevent youth homicide in the country, but the effectiveness of their implementation is still uncertain.

UNICEF and other studies have identified that the main victims of lethal violence in the country are teenagers and young people, particularly black, male and slum dwellers with low education levels. Firearms are used in most of these homicides.

Brazil is an international reference in the fight against poverty. Because of this effort, the country has enjoyed large gains in life expectancy, which now stands at 75 years. For this specific group of the population, however, life expectancy might be no more than 18 years old. Due to entrenched racial discrimination and inequalities, most of black youth suffers structural discrimination in slums, where poverty persists. Their rights, and access to education, health, work, adequate housing, among others, are seriously affected. More so, because violence is deeply ingrained in these communities, young slum dwellers become themselves perpetrators of violent acts. However, if they are to be constantly associated with generalized negative stereotypes, one must also remember that such an enduring condition is the result of an unequal and indifferent society. With so many factors contributing to unequal opportunities for this part of the population, a solution will only be reached with an integrated and holistic approach that targets the root causes.

On top of social costs that violence brings to the population, Brazil’s economic development is also affected. The current transition from a population with significant  participation of adolescents (more than 20%) to a population with a higher proportion of adults is an aggravating factor. The high percentage of youth deaths today mean less labour force for the development of the country in the medium term. It is estimated that production cost loss due to homicides in the country already adds up to $2,4 billion per year.

Brazil has no religious, ethnic, color or race conflicts, no territorial disputes, no declared civil war, or political confrontations with the use of weapons. Nevertheless, it is home to more firearm-caused deaths than most contemporary conflicts. After the murder of 2,4 million adolescents in the last 30 years, the Parliamentary Inquiry Commission on Homicide[1] has recently classified the Brazilian phenomenon as genocide. This conclusion was reached after the comparison with other genocides: the Holocaust (6 million deaths), Cambodia (2,3 million deaths), Rwanda (800 thousand deaths) and Sudan (300 thousand deaths).

After 25 years of unsatisfactory implementation of the national Statute of the Rights of Children and Adolescents, Brazil has only two paths to follow: it can continue to be a spectator of a large number of announced deaths, or it can treat the issue as priority and act to ensure the right to life of 42,000 Brazilian children and adolescents by 2019.


Deborah Kaufmann is a Master of Public Administration in Development Practice Candidate at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), Columbia University.

[1] Parliamentary Inquiry Commissions (Comissões Parlamentares de Inquérito, CPI, in Portuguese) are established if proposed by a parliamentary and voted by 1/3 of members in the Parliament.