Children's Rights

Easy Targets: Violence Against Children Worldwide

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Police Violence Against Street Children

The police treat us badly. They hit us. Not for any particular reason. . . just because they feel like it. They’ve hit me lots of times. They hit with their rifles, or with sticks, on our backs and stomachs.  And sometimes they just punch us in the stomach with their hands.  They also take our paint thinner and pour it over our heads.  They’ve done that to me five times.  It’s awful, it hurts really bad.  It gets in your eyes and burns; for half an hour you can’t see anything.

- Beto R., fifteen, Guatemala[43]

Street children risk violence at the hands of the authorities much more frequently than other children.  Children on the street are beaten, tortured, sexually assaulted, and sometimes killed. Several factors contribute to this phenomenon: police perceptions of street children as vagrants and criminals, widespread corruption and a culture of police violence, the inadequacy and non-implementation of legal safeguards, and the level of impunity that officials enjoy.

Street children are easy targets because they are young, often small, poor, ignorant of their rights, and frequently do not have responsible adults to look out for them. Police also have financial incentives to resort to violence against children. They beat children for their money or demand payment for protection, to avoid false charges, or for release from (often illegal) custody.

In Bulgaria, police have harassed and beaten street children, chased them away from areas of safety and shelter, jabbed them with electric shock batons, smeared the glue that the children sniff on their faces and clothing, and sprayed them with gas.  Police robbed street children of their money, and sought out girls on the street for sexual harassment.  Several adolescent girls we interviewed in 1996 said that police often requested or demanded oral sex from them; they said some of the girls comply but most run away or scream for attention when they are approached.  The Roma (gypsy) ethnic identity of the majority of street children contributed to their discriminatory treatment by the police and was reflected in one police officer’s response to being asked why street children ran away when he approached.  He answered, “[f]irst, most of those kids are not Bulgarians, they’re Roma.”[44]

Thousands of children living in Guatemala’s streets have faced routine beatings, thefts and sexual assaults at the hands of the National Police and private security guards. During a 1996 Human Rights Watch investigation, nearly every child we spoke with told us of habitual assaults and thefts by the police. These assaults occurred on busy city streets in broad daylight, on quiet streets in the middle of the night, in alleys and deserted areas, and in police stations. Often, they were witnessed by passersby or other police officers.

A youth who spent nine years on the street told us:

The police bother us every single day. They hit us and steal our money, our shoes, our jackets. If you don’t give them what they want, they’ll beat you up or arrest you . . . .We can’t say anything, or they’ll hit us harder.[45]

Girls on the street are additionally vulnerable to sexual attacks. Susana F., a sixteen-year-old, reported that she was raped by two police officers while a third kept watch. The officers threatened to put her in prison for having marijuana if she made any noise.  “I’m sure this has happened to many other girls. But usually they won’t say anything about it. . . .Ugly things happen on the street.”[46]

Guatemalan street children have also been killed in extrajudicial executions. In September 1996, sixteen-year-old Ronald Raúl Ramos was shot and killed by a drunken Treasury Police officer. More than ten other street children in Guatemala were murdered that year under suspicious circumstances, yet by April of the following year, all of the perpetrators were still at large.

In India, where more than 18 million children live and work on the streets, street children have been routinely detained illegally, beaten, and tortured and sometimes killed by police. In 1995 and 1996, Human Rights Watch interviewed one hundred street children; all reported a fear of the police, and sixty reported police abuse in the form of detentions, beatings, extortion, or verbal abuse.[47]

Fifteen-year-old Rakesh P., a porter in India, told us of being awoken by police on a railway platform and taken with three other boys to the police station.  At the station, Rakesh P. was made to lie on his back with his arms outstretched.  A policeman stood on each of his hands, then his legs were tied and placed in the air.  He said that this happened to all four boys.  Another policeman started to beat their legs and feet with lathis (a police baton) while the police called them thieves and sons of prostitutes.  Rakesh P. said he was beaten for a long time and so badly that his legs and feet bled.  The next morning the police sent the other children to observation homes, but they did not send Rakesh P. because they had injured him so badly they did not want a magistrate to see him.  Instead he was carried to the street by two strangers.  He was not charged with any offense.  Rakesh P. had to walk with a cane for eight weeks because of the injuries he sustained.[48]

The scale of violence against street children in India sometimes included custodial deaths of children.  Between 1986 and 1995, fourteen children are known to have died in custody in Andhra Pradesh province, but no police officers were prosecuted in that period.[49]

Street children in Kenya experience similar abuse at the hands of police.  Children told Human Rights Watch in 1996 that they were frequently kicked, slapped, or hit with a rifle butt for no reason other than the fact that they were street children.  Street children were often subject to extortion, and street girls were asked for sex in addition to money to avoid arrest or to be released from police custody.  One girl recounted her experience:

The police are always calling us names, threatening us, saying we’re whores, trash, homeless, and beating us.  Sexual abuse happens too. It happened to me once.  Four policemen came and arrested me.  They started taking me to the Central Police Station, and brought me here to the park.  One of them hit me and I fell down, and he came down on top of me.  Another held me down while the policeman raped me.  After he raped me, they walked me over to Central Police Station, and just let me go.[50]

In 1996, eighteen months after the acquittal of one Kenyan police reservist for killing a street boy, another street boy was killed by a police reservist.  Children present at the shooting could identify the police officers who came toward them with a whip and guns.  Two boys had hidden in a ditch.  One of them escaped through a tunnel, but the policeman pointed into the ditch and shot the other.  The boy who escaped told Human Rights Watch that his friend was shot at point blank range, that he had his arms raised in surrender when he was shot, and that the reservist spat on his body before he walked away.[51]

[43] Human Rights Watch, Guatemala’s Forgotten Children: Police Violence and Arbitrary Detention (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1997), p 22.

[44] Human Rights Watch, Children of Bulgaria, p. 17.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid., pp. 25-26.

[47] Human Rights Watch, Police Abuse and Killings of Street Children in India.

[48] Ibid., p. 57.

[49] Ibid., p. 84.

[50] Human Rights Watch, Juvenile Injustice, p. 27.

[51] Ibid., p. 30.

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