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Life on the Edge: In the Mayor's foosteps


By Steve Bradshaw, Life on the Edge series editor

Image caption This traditional Afro-Brazilian ceremony is a beautiful image of childhood, but is it just a misleading fantasy?

Mayor Amilcar is from Peru's Huamanga province. In Huamanga, many children are scarred by the aftermath of the bloody Sendero Luminoso insurgency which cost almost 70,000 lives.

The Mayor's dream is that by catching kids young, before they're even five, it may be possible to build a less violent and more prosperous society.

He's already travelled around Peru with Life on the Edge, discovering how domestic, criminal - and even political - violence can damage kids' chances in life.

He's now in Brazil, looking for ideas for ways to help children he can take back home to the Andes.

And amid the beautifully tiled, decaying colonial houses, the Mayor Amilcar has come to meet the Emperor and Empress of Sao Luis.

Decked in ornate crimson and green robes, Janaina and Christopher sit merrily on their thrones while a brass band, sweating drummers and a female cantor laud their innocence.

Brazil is home to many abandoned street kids and when Amilcar asks why there are so few children in the romantic, colonial heart of the city, he is told it's because some parents like to keep them away in case of sex tourists.

Although in our peaceful stay we see no evidence of sex tourism, and this traditional Afro-Brazilian ceremony is a beautiful image of childhood, is it just a misleading fantasy?

Life lessons

Close by, in the Atlantic fishing village of Guarapiranga, Amilcar sees primary school children who are learning ballet - no mere indulgence, but an activity to help them develop self-esteem and self-expression.

Image caption In Guarapiranga ballet is one activity which helps develop self-esteem

He then journeys south across the poverty-stricken North East, where he meets a fellow Mayor with the same conviction. Marilene Campelo Nogueira is a lawyer who has worked to keep kids engaged in school playgrounds as well as classrooms, using trained 'play assistants' to show the local mums how to play with toddlers.

In Rio de Janiero, at a safer edge of the Complexo da Mare favela, Amilcar meets Yvonne Bezzera de Mello, whose project is inspired by the infamous events at Candelaria church, where renegade cops shot eight street kids dead in 1993.

In the Complexo da Mare favela Amilcar is warned to dress less like an off-duty cop. In fact, we're all warned not to stray more than 20 yards from the sprawling slum's perimeter. One teenager shows us the bullet wound he's just caught in his hand from drug gang crossfire.

Together Yvonne and her colleagues have helped pioneer a physical and provocative approach to learning: dancing, singing, memory games, kids taking over the class. It's all intended to draw children into a pedagogy that's ultimately - but not exclusively - based on writing, tests and formal knowledge.

Yvonne's team works with kids from kindergarten to teenage years - children whom random drug violence risks making either hyperactive or sullen.

Amilcar learns Yvonne's ideas have now influenced many state schools in Rio and just like in Guarapiranga he feels he's learning a lesson himself - one he's determined to take back to Huamanga.

Practice versus policy

But do any of the ideas he's picked up work in the rest of Brazil?

Maria Thereza Marcilio - who runs the national network of Brazilian childrens' groups - explains she's helping identify ideas that work through a network of child-centred NGOs.

Image caption Amilcar: 'We can find a way to rescue victims of political and family violence'

"Kids don't vote" she says, "so we feel like representatives of these children and we militate and do advocacy in favour of early childhood."

The new government has promised to prioritize starting young... what's often called 'Early Child Development'.

But where's the cash?

In the capital Brasilia, Human Rights Minister Maria do Rosario Nunes wrote her thesis on children and violence.

"We have around 20 million children between zero and six years old. And we know most of them are among the poorer families. So all the policies that are focused on assisting the poorest have to be designed primarily for the care of the child."

After extending one last invitation to visit Ayacucho - and handing out a final retablo, or miniature Andean altarpiece - Amilcar stands amid the sunset shadows of Brasilia's Modernist masterpieces and considers his 7,000 mile journey.

"What has impressed me," he tells us, "is that yes, there are experiences and models that can work for the children. We can find a way to rescue the children who have been victims of social, political and family violence and give them opportunities for their development, give them opportunities for their full growth."

"Without a doubt, this job is a task we will begin in Ayacucho."

Life on the Edge is produced by tve for BBC World News.