Honduran First Lady seeks to rescue street children
( 2003-11-25 10:24) (Agencies)
Honduran first lady Aguas Ocana, a former Spanish diplomat with an affable manner, charms her way through state dinners and genteel charity events.
Dressed in jeans and a sweater, the wife of conservative President Ricardo Maduro leads teams of police and social workers who grab children off the streets whether they like it or not and take them to government shelters.
Since June, a program headed by the first lady has taken 670 street kids from Tegucigalpa and the northern city of San Pedro Sula into government care.
"It's best to go out at night and in the early hours of the morning to rescue children. You can find bunches of four or six minors sleeping together under newspapers or cardboard," Ocana told Reuters.
Aid organizations estimate there are between 3,000 and 20,000 street children in Honduras, one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere.
British charity Save The Children says 72 percent of the 3.2 million Hondurans under the age of 18 live in poverty.
But many of the children resist the rescue effort, leading to clashes between their relatives and Ocana's police escorts.
And some aid organizations have criticized the first lady's "Zero Children on the Streets" campaign as a political stunt.
They say it does not address the problem of poverty which forces thousands of Honduran children to make a living on the streets.
Many of the children are homeless and sleep rough while others have homes but work on the streets, selling odds and ends or cleaning car windshields at traffic lights.
Drug taking, solvent abuse and child prostitution is common among the street kids.
"These children should be at home with their families, playing, going to school and not in the street. We should not be indifferent; we have to end these children's ordeal," said Ocana, who is from Andalucia in Spain.
An ex-diplomat who worked at Spanish missions in Tegucigalpa and Italy, 40-year-old Ocana married Maduro, 57, in October 2002 nearly a year after he was elected.
History's most famous Latin American first lady was Eva "Evita" Peron, who won the hearts of millions of Argentines in the 1940s and '50s for championing the cause of poor "descamisado" (shirtless) workers.
The Honduran first couple are in the process of adopting two toddlers, a brother and sister born to a peasant family.
As well her street kids' campaign, the blond, slim first lady also carries out work in support of sick children, old people, battered women and indigenous females.
The Cid Gallup polling company recently attributed an 8 percentage point increase in the president's popularity in part to Ocana's social work.
But not everyone agrees with her shock tactics, not least the street kids themselves.
"I want to go home. Here they don't let us go out to play in the field and they don't give us a lot of food," said Delmer Moises Duarte, 7, at a children's care center.
He was picked up by authorities at the capital's Central Park while begging for money to take home to his family in an impoverished neighborhood of the city.
The children are held at care centers and released if their parents show willingness to look after them and send them to school. If they have no family home, the children are held for adoption or fostering.
"This is not a solution for the children in the streets. It is a trauma for the children. Minors are taken to centers that are not in a condition to rehabilitate them and have no materials. They are simply detention centers," said Elmer Pereira of the United Improvement Association aid group.
"These child detention operations are just public spectacles to boost the first lady's image and do not resolve the problem of the family," he said.
Street children have become less visible on the streets of Tegucigalpa in recent months as many have either been taken into care or gone into hiding to avoid being snatched by authorities.
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