By René González, ARCORES Brazil
A few years ago I had the opportunity to live in Sierra Leone, West Africa. The first thing that caught my attention when I left the airport in Freetown were the huge potholes or holes in the city streets and “highways”. Paved streets and roads would be a luxury in many African countries. It was a miracle to drive a 4×4 car on those streets and roads.
After jumping up and down in the car seat for 7 hours, I noticed that groups of two or three children were sitting on the side of the road waiting for a vehicle to appear. Suddenly, they would stand up with their hoes and shovels as a vehicle approached and start throwing sand and logs on the sections of the road where the vehicle would not get through. After smoothing the road, there was another boy from the crew waiting a few yards ahead to ask for money for the work they had done in repairing the road.
That scene was repeated several times, and within a few kilometers I ran out of money. One of the boys told me that for “justice at least I should give him something”. Actually, I didn’t know what to give him. I only had two pieces of candy that they divided among the three children. From then on, I started to always carry something to give, including the rosaries they wore as a pendant around their necks.
I tell you this little story because that is the reality of many children in different parts of the world. Child labor is a very present reality in our society and sometimes invisible.
In Africa, I almost got used to seeing children working in the fields, in the forest and on the roads to get something to eat during the day or to bring some money to help their family.
Here, in Rio de Janeiro, it is common to see very young children at traffic lights selling candy, nuts and kitchen towels. It is painful to see mothers with their children beside them or in their arms begging for diapers, milk or money to buy food. Even behind this reality sometimes lies an immense cruelty. Some people rent children to poor families to beg for money on the streets and traffic lights. That way, they manage to touch the heart and the purse of those who walk down the street.
Why not talk about the prostitution of children as a form of slave labor? Why not talk about the slave labor of children inside homes? Why not talk about children working for drug traffickers?
Fear of confronting it
We are afraid to confront these issues because it is a reality that degrades our own humanity and our own values. There is a lot of talk about racism these days. In fact, it can be said that most of these working children are black or from very vulnerable family backgrounds.
Really, it is not the color of their skin, it is not the place where they live, it is something bigger and that demands from us a change of attitude, a reaction, but instead of helping, many of us prefer to run away from all these issues.
Today we have the opportunity to reflect, fight and pray against this reality that is very present in our society. Many of us, perhaps, were lucky enough to have a happy childhood and never lacked affection, food, education and moments of being able to play with other children, but we must be aware that we still have a long way to go to transform this reality and work on our own inner life. That is where the transformation of our society begins.
In fact, St. Augustine said that “slavery is not something natural, that is to say, it does not belong to the original state of the human being. It is a consequence of iniquity, adversity and particularly of war” (Quaest. in Hept. I, 153. PL 34, 590).