The population under age eighteen was only 30.7 percent of the total population in 1991. This significant decrease relative to previous decades--it was over 42.6 percent in 1960--was almost entirely the result of rapid fertility decline. Compared with developed countries, as mentioned above, Brazil still has a relatively young population.

Overall, school enrollment in the early 1990s reached about 90 percent of school-age children (seven to fourteen), although there was wide variation, with lower coverage among rural and low-income populations. There were also high levels of repetition, and only a minority of those who entered first grade completed the eight grades of fundamental schooling. One reason for the high dropout rate was child labor. In 1990, 18 percent of the children between the ages of ten and fourteen participated in economic activity.

Because of marital instability, unwanted pregnancies, and above all poverty, there are thousands of apparently homeless "street children" (meninos de rua ) in Brazil. The numbers require cautious use because, in addition to about 10,000 children who actually live in the streets, this category also includes many children who work or otherwise generate income to help their families. Truly homeless street children constitute a small minority. They attracted considerable public and media attention nationally and internationally in the early 1990s because of their high visibility and frequent petty thievery, as well as cases of violent retaliation, including murder, by the police and local businesspeople.

At least officially, minors have long been protected by the Brazilian legal system. Judges in juvenile cases (juizes de menores ) protect their interests, and a network of institutions, in theory, cares for their welfare. In 1990, in response to the problems of youth, the Collor government passed special legislation to establish children's rights, known as the Children's Statute, and created the Brazilian Center of Infancy and Adolescence (Centro Brasileiro de Infância e Adolescência--CBIA) to carry out special programs for children in these age-groups. The government also promoted the establishment of federal, state, and municipal councils of childhood and adolescence, which included participants from government agencies and civil society. The National Street Children's Movement is an NGO. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) developed the Pact for Childhood, and the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops (Conferência Nacional dos Bispos do Brasil--CNBB) supported the Children's Pastoral Service.

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