5.1. Civil Society Organizations’ Demands and Activities
NGOs in Uruguay have intervened in a number of different areas, such as juvenile justice, education, disability, child labor, sexual exploitation, and domestic abuse. Poverty, inequality, and other social issues have figured prominently in CSOs’ publications and shaped their day-to-day activities to a large extent. By the mid-to-late 1990s, NGOs had assumed important responsibilities in the co-administration of social policies for the National Institute for Minors (INAME) and other state agencies; public funds represented an increasing proportion of their funding base [34
]. This implementation role became a defining characteristic of government-civil society relations during that period. Additionally, the country’s youth have found themselves living in more precarious economic and social circumstances in recent years. Broader economic trends—most notably changes in the labor markets that entailed a growing wage gap between skilled and unskilled workers and more precarious and unstable forms of employment—have created pockets of poverty [1
]. Rising rates of school desertion and the geographic concentration of poverty in certain areas of Montevideo have led to social exclusion (and made social mobility more difficult). Accordingly, a greater number of NGOs focused their attention on the plight of street children, for example [34
]. Meanwhile, neoliberal reforms had limited the state’s ability to respond to these social problems: since the 1980s, government officials had endeavored to reduce public spending, to privatize the delivery of social policies and services (to an extent), and to provide targeted assistance to at-risk communities with the goal of alleviating poverty [1
The country then experienced an economic recession beginning in 1999. Rising unemployment and decreasing real wages led to greater rates of poverty and inequality in general terms. The percentage of Uruguayans living below the poverty line increased from 15.3 percent in 1999 to 31.9 percent in 2004. The crisis affected young people dramatically: the poverty rate for children aged five and under shot up to 56.5 percent in 2004; 54 percent of children aged six to twelve were also living in poverty at that time [1
Mired in these difficult circumstances, many child advocates insisted upon the interconnectedness of economic, social, political, and legal rights.
Different types of CSOs have been active in children’s causes. The Peace and Justice Service (SERPAJ) and other human rights organizations (HROs) that had emerged during the authoritarian regime embraced the promotion and defense of children’s rights. Indeed, the Legal and Social Studies Institute of Uruguay (IELSUR), an HRO founded in 1984, became one of the more influential groups at the national level [1
]. Additional groups, including Gurises Unidos, Vida y Educación, and El Abrojo, were established in the late 1980s and the period following Uruguay’s ratification of the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990. The Convention established that all children, regarded as rights-bearing subjects, are entitled to certain rights guaranteeing their care and protection [35
]. Examples include the right to participate in the broader community, freedom of expression, the right to health, education, recreation, and an identity (e.g., a name and a nationality), and protection from discrimination, abuse, and exploitation. Uruguayan child advocates have prepared non-governmental reports for the UN assessing the country’s compliance with the Convention. These “alternative” reports, which challenged the official (government-authored) accounts, provided CSOs with an international audience for their research and ideas regarding possible policy alternatives. In short, the global embrace of children’s rights lent further legitimacy to advocates’ demands for reforms.
The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) was especially instrumental in supporting CSOs in Uruguay. The agency also encouraged the adoption of a rights-based approach to children’s issues [1
]. Over time, the integral protection paradigm, discussed below, gained adherents within the NGO sector. The Convention thus served to revitalize civil society in this domain and helped activists raise awareness of the problems affecting children and their status as rights-bearing individuals.
5.2. Advocating for Policy Reform
The process of aligning Uruguay’s legal framework with the norms of the Convention has been gradual. Prior to the adoption of the 2004 Code of Childhood and Adolescence, extant laws and practices were contradictory and frequently at odds with a rights-based approach. The country’s legal framework for addressing children’s issues was based on the Convention, the constitution (which was amended in 1997), the Children’s Code of 1934, the Civil Code, and the Penal Code. Taken together, these offered very different conceptualizations of the family and children. As in other Latin American democracies, paternalistic approaches toward intervening in the lives of “at-risk” children had been institutionalized in the early decades of the 20th century. The doctrine of the “irregular situation” had been applied for decades to young people accused of having committed criminal offences as well as neglected, abandoned, abused, and/or economically disadvantaged children. In cases of alleged “material” or “moral” abandonment, family courts asserted the state’s right to assume legal guardianship of children, remove them from their families, and place them in public or private institutions. According to the doctrine, children were viewed paternalistically and passively as objects of protection and control. Judges enjoyed broad discretionary authority while determining the situations facing children; due process was not always guaranteed.
The Convention sought to replace this framework with the integral protection doctrine, which considers children and adolescents as rights-bearing subjects capable of becoming responsible for their actions and demanding the fulfillment of their rights. This newer doctrine is based on respect for due process and motivated by the goal of interning young people only in exceptional circumstances and as a last resort. For example, a dearth of material resources can no longer be the sole basis for a judicial decision to order separation from one’s family. The integral protection doctrine also emphasizes the rehabilitation and resettlement of juvenile offenders into their families and communities. Child advocates have endeavored for years to harmonizing domestic laws and practices with these international norms; indeed, the irregular situation doctrine and its legal manifestations proved remarkably resistant to change [20
Uruguay’s legal system was no exception. The Children’s Code of 1934, like the laws that governed children and family life in other Latin American countries, was based on the doctrine of the irregular situation and related approaches for identifying threats to the prevailing social order. Public authorities understood combating delinquency and containing other perceived social dangers as ways to protect the greater community. The state targeted young people who were poor, not attending school, sheltered in precarious housing, and/or in other situations deemed “irregular” for intervention [1
]. Most child advocates in Uruguay have therefore called on the authorities (and INAME officials in particular) to change their approach toward assisting children at risk.
In 1994, special commissions established by the executive branch researched and prepared bills, which relevant legislative committees subsequently considered. None of the proposals progressed until September 1999, when one chamber of parliament actually passed a bill [1
Widespread agreement exists among NGO members and outside observers that their mobilization in favor of a new Code was significant and that they achieved high levels of participation in multiple phases of policy making from 1995 onward [1
]. Examples of especially influential groups include Gurises Unidos, Vida y Educación, Arco Iris, El Abrojo, and DNI (Defence for Children International). Members of IACi, a cooperative of lawyers dedicated to defending and promoting children’s rights, offered specialized expertise throughout the policy-making process [36
]. As noted previously, child advocates relied on a combination of direct and indirect advocacy. They met with (and lobbied) lawmakers, published research and analysis, organized workshops, seminars, and other events, and led public campaigns. Partly as a consequence of their involvement, the bill contained provisions that accorded with the integral protection paradigm.
These efforts notwithstanding, the bill did not advance. From a procedural standpoint, the proposal was probably doomed: it was introduced far too late in the legislative session for meaningful debate to take place [1
]. Moreover, civil society pressure alone could not change the mindset of legislators who opposed sweeping reforms. Opponents were found within the ranks of every major political party, namely the traditional Colorado and National parties and the center-left Broad Front. Some apparently found the provisions addressing the institutionalization of young people objectionable. Members of faith-based organizations were apparently concerned about some of the proposed reforms concerning adoption and shared these reservations with sympathetic lawmakers.6
However, in broader terms, no civil society groups organized a major campaign in opposition to the reforms and/or the principles of the Convention, a characteristic that differentiates this case from children’s rights movements in neighboring countries, such as Chile [1
The bill’s demise caused significant consternation among those civil societal actors who had spent years clamoring for reform. Members of certain NGOs were so disappointed that they put their advocacy work on hold [1
]. Others carried on with the goal of keeping the issue on both the public and formal agendas. Advocates with legal expertise and/or experience in human rights remained involved.
Lawmakers resumed their work in the early months of 2000.7
Pereira and Nathán have described the ensuing legislative process as “arduous,” “problematic,” and even “chaotic” due to contending views on the subject, which produced competing proposals ([1
], p. 29). This phase of negotiation led to a bill being introduced into the Chamber of Deputies in 2002. Because some of the more controversial provisions had been eliminated, the proposal differed considerably from previous versions. Once the bill made its way to the Senate, child advocates were fearful that it would suffer a fate similar to that of the 1999 bill. These concerns prompted a change in strategy: members of UNICEF, who had previously encouraged CSOs to mobilize, convinced some groups to retreat. The idea was to allow legislators to bargain with each other and build consensus; reform was henceforth “the responsibility of the parties” and a few individuals and groups with specialized expertise ([1
], p. 29). Prioritizing intra- and inter-party bargaining over civil society advocacy was a quintessentially Uruguayan approach. Indeed, the process was marked by several characteristics associated with the country’s enduring political culture, including a preference for gradualism and partial reforms and the privileged status of parties in the channeling of societal demands [31
Pereira and Nathán conclude that this change in tactics led to the demobilization of many CSOs. According to their interpretation, a much smaller number of civil societal actors—mostly highly specialized experts—stayed involved [1
]. In contrast, the informants for this study insisted that the campaign continued until the law’s passage [3
]. A member of El Abrojo, for example, stated that CSOs sustained “very active participation and mobilization… for almost twelve years (1992–2004).” To the best of her recollection, “there was no explicit decision to leave it in the hands of legislators” [37
]. Some advocates contended further that they redoubled their efforts immediately prior to the Code’s passage [3
]. The extent to which NGO members left politics up to the politicians is therefore disputed.
On the other hand, everyone agrees that the Code finally adopted in September 2004 fell somewhat short of meeting the high standards of NGO members. The Code integrated the norms and language of the Convention into provisions addressing issues such as abuse and maltreatment, child labor, adoption, and due process for children and teens in trouble with the law. A leader in DNI regarded it as a “great advance” in modernizing domestic legislation [2
]. A member of IACi likewise judged the Code to be a step in the right direction [38
]. Nevertheless, traces of paternalistic modes of intervention in the lives of at-risk children remained. Certain provisions of the Code were entirely at odds with the Convention’s principle of progressive autonomy, the right of children and teens to exercise their rights in accordance with their abilities [38
The Code also established that young people should be deprived of their freedom only in exceptional circumstances and for the least amount of time possible. In practice, however, judges continued to incarcerate teens accused of crimes; the loss of freedom was not yet widely viewed as a last resort [38
]. Additionally, INAME’s rechristening as the Institute of the Uruguayan Child and Adolescent (INAU) did not persuade child advocates that the agency’s traditional focus on assisting “abandoned or delinquent” children had changed along with its name ([39
], p. 18).9
NGO members also found vestiges of the age-old attitudes that had objectified young people and denied them a voice and opportunities for participation.
The Code’s shortcomings serve as a reminder that we must distinguish influence over policy outcomes (and outputs) from participation in the policy-making process. Civil society involvement in policy making does not automatically lead to the attainment of desired results. Most scholars of advocacy therefore avoid exaggerating the importance of outcomes and insist that actors articulate “positions or sets of demands” without “necessarily securing them” ([40
], p. 297). In the case of Uruguay, child advocates could not overcome entrenched forms of resistance enough to create an ideal law. One respondent observed, “The Code that was achieved was the best that could be negotiated at that time” [3
]. Yet this failing should not detract from their major achievements in this case and, in particular, their high levels of engagement and involvement throughout the policy-making process.
Moreover, some NGO members have subsequently worked to strengthen the Code. To illustrate, IACi recently proposed changes that would address cases of sexual abuse and maltreatment [36
]. The Civil Association SAI (Rainbow Program) formulated a law prohibiting the use of physical punishment and humiliating treatment to discipline young people; participants then pressured parliament to adopt the reform (Law no. 18.214) [3
]. Civil societal actors have also been proactive on the issues of juvenile justice, adoption, and education, among others.
The advocacy campaign in favor of a new Code should be analyzed as part of a longer-term process of bringing domestic legislation in line with the Convention, which Uruguayan scholars have deemed “one of the most constructive developments in NGO-state interactions” in recent history ([1
], p. 26). Certain issues have led to especially “fruitful” forms of dialogue and cooperation between governmental and non-governmental actors ([1
], p. 40). The status of Uruguay’s street children is an important example. A working group comprised of NGO members and officials in INAME/INAU has analyzed the phenomenon and devised innovative, coordinated strategies for more than a decade [1
]. Participants viewed it as an “important achievement and an enriching experience for state-civil society interaction” ([34
], p. 49). Since 1998, representatives from the NGO sector have also contributed to the agency’s consultative body (Mesa de Diálogo INAME/ONGs
), which began functioning in 1998.
CSOs continued to engage the policy-making process during the Tabaré Vázquez administration (2005–2010). From 2006 onward, opportunities for “exchange and dialogue” between organizations, civil society alliances, and members of the Broad Front government arose in certain areas of social policy ([32
], p. 4; see also [33
]). Under the current administration of President José Mujica (Broad Front), high-level officials within INAU are “always willing to receive civil society [representatives],” according to one NGO leader. He described his organization’s relationship with legislators representing certain Broad Front parties as “very good:” they “consult us on a permanent basis” [2
In short, examples of NGO-government collaboration abound in this policy domain. Although these interactions vary in terms of quality and the satisfaction levels of those involved, they are suggestive of a certain amount of mutual respect between both sets of actors. What explains the child advocates’ ability to link up with government officials, to exert considerable pressure on policy makers, and, more generally, to play such a prominent role in the process of reforming Uruguay’s laws and policies to achieve compliance with the Convention? I submit that alliance building has been a significant factor. It is the subject of the following section.
5.3. Civil Society Alliances
Civil societal actors promoting the rights and well-being of children have created several relatively effective partnerships. The Uruguayan Committee for the Rights of the Child (Comité), founded in 1991, is one of the most important NGO networks to have emerged. Its members have served as diligent monitors of the state, prepared the non-governmental (alternative) report for the UN, and used their findings as a basis for raising awareness of problems affecting children, making demands, and promoting a rights-based perspective [1
]. The Comité united more than 50 groups across the country under the leadership of some of the most influential CSOs in this issue area, IELSUR, El Abrojo, and Colegio de Abogados [34
By the mid-1990s, it had achieved a strong media presence, increased its visibility, and begun to influence the government. According to the vice-president of an NGO, Comité members “worked arduously in the formulation of the Children’s Code so that it would incorporate the … integral protection doctrine” [2
A majority of the organizations that participated in the Comité also belonged to the National Association of NGOs of Uruguay (ANONG), an umbrella group that had nearly twice as many members. Although ANONG was not comprised exclusively of children’s NGOs, the alliance did bring together many of the most important groups engaged in this issue area. By the mid-to-late 1990s, it had raised its profile considerably, intensified its activities, and assumed the role of “spokesperson” for the NGO sector vis-à-vis
the government [1
]. With support and financing from UNICEF, ANONG organized a working group in the 1990s with the concrete goal of facilitating NGO involvement in policy making [34
]. As lawmakers embarked on the process of reforming the Children’s Code, participants in the working group were well positioned to offer suggestions. Their efforts to modify the proposal were productive: a number of their recommendations were incorporated into a draft prepared for one of the relevant committees in the lower chamber [34
]. Indeed, these activities coincide with the period discussed previously, when civil societal actors achieved the highest levels of participation and managed to shape the content of the bill that was almost adopted in parliament.
CSOs created the even-larger Childhood Collective, a national meta-network of various alliances and federations, in 2000. The umbrella group united hundreds of organizations that worked directly with children, teens, and youth across the country. Like ANONG, it became an important interlocutor vis-à-vis governmental actors and agencies [1
]. Participants in both alliances endeavored to represent the interests of their members, for instance, during the formulation of the policies and programs in which they were heavily invested and/or involved.
Yet another alliance, the Network of Childhood and Adolescence NGOs, also brought together a diverse group of CSOs that provided services to children, teens, and families in Montevideo, including daycare centers, early childhood schools, communal kitchens, and recreational facilities.11
These groups were important sources of specialized knowledge and expertise on problems affecting young people. Many CSOs had gained legitimacy in the eyes of government officials by carrying out successful projects on their own as well as implementing public policies [34
]. To illustrate, El Abrojo developed a literacy program that targeted children and mothers living in extreme poverty. Effective projects such as this one, which was recognized by the UN, “increased the level of confidence” in the NGOs’ work ([34
], p. 54). Furthermore, staff members of some of the more prominent groups possessed highly specialized forms of legal expertise in the areas of juvenile justice and/or human rights. They also worked closely with lawyers who did not belong to NGOs but nonetheless offered technical assistance. Their cooperation was especially welcome given that some participated in the commissions that had formulated the first proposals for a new code [1
In summary, by forming partnerships, CSOs shared their experiences, combined their areas of competency, and pooled other resources (such as media and political contacts, legitimacy, and human resources), thereby augmenting their political influence. The Childhood Collective was a means through which many organizations earned a seat at the table within INAU on the above-mentioned Mesa de Diálogo
. Similarly, thanks to their membership in ANONG, they gained representation on the National Advisory and Consultative Council for the Rights of Children and Adolescents, a body created by the 2004 Children’s Code [37
]. According to several respondents, alliances served as one of the main vehicles for engaging in advocacy. A member of El Abrojo concluded that participation in several partnerships—namely, the Network of Childhood and Adolescence NGOs and, subsequently, ANONG and the Comité—was a crucial dimension of their advocacy efforts [37
Another participant in multiple alliances observed that they “allow us to mobilize and strengthen our efforts, to take advantage of each organization’s capabilities, … [and] to combine the resources that increase our chances of achieving influence” [2
]. Still others considered inter-organizational cooperation to be an effective strategy for achieving influence and “demanding accountability;” it was especially necessary considering the relatively “deficient” government-created spaces for participation [3
]. Thus, the remarks of NGO members suggest that civil societal actors do not merely wait for invitations “from above” to participate in policy making; instead, they try to create their own opportunities by joining forces.
5.4. Collective Action Frames
Effective framing strategies also generated opportunities for participation. Several patterns can be discerned. To begin with, the broad resonance of human rights discourse proved advantageous for activists defending children’s rights. Citizens had experienced an acute identity crisis during Uruguay’s democratic breakdown and descent into authoritarianism. These were astonishing and traumatic events for a country that had formerly been regarded as the “Switzerland of Latin America” due to its relatively high levels of economic and social development, extensive welfare system, and stable political democracy. It was henceforth known as the nation “with the highest per-capita rate of political incarceration anywhere on earth” ([42
], p. 85). An estimated one in 50 citizens was detained at one time or another during the dictatorship, and one in 500 received a lengthy prison sentence for political offenses [42
Following the democratic transition, human rights and democracy attained an unchallenged status as political goods to be cherished and hegemonic discourses that transcended political differences [34
]. Over time, advocates included the problem of social exclusion—and specifically, high child poverty rates—in the larger struggle to defend and promote human rights [34
]. Framed as a human rights question, childhood gained significance. Additionally, civil societal actors adapted their discourse to the language used in the Convention [1
]. Normative and discursive changes at the international level therefore had a profound effect on domestic activism. Like their counterparts in other Latin American countries during this period, NGO members constantly invoked the norms of the Convention to raise awareness and underscore the gap between those norms and existing policies.
Moreover, public officials were increasingly talking “rights talk” [20
]. At the “highest levels” of government, people were embracing rights-based discourses and approaches to children’s issues [41
]. One advocate attributed the change to sustained civil societal efforts: “The [civil society] organizations are the ones who have imposed … a language of rights. Most of the innovations that the state has incorporated into policies and programs addressing children come from discourses, practices (and individuals) from the NGO world” [37
]. The methodological challenges that arise while trying to determine the true origins of “rights talk” and the direction of causality are considerable. Nevertheless, we can conclude with some certainty that this shared discourse has facilitated government-NGO interactions and CSO participation in policy making. A participant in the movement offered a concise summary of these trends when she observed, “Human rights are politically correct” in Uruguay [36
As discussed previously, civil societal actors made a strong case for the gravity of the country’s social problems. In doing so, they succeeded in communicating a sense of urgency to policy makers and the broader public, thus attending to the motivational task of framing. To illustrate, a non-governmental report assessing the country’s compliance with the Convention contained a lengthy discussion of social exclusion and segregation in Montevideo [43
]. A second such report likewise emphasized the disproportionate effects of poverty on the country’s youngest inhabitants. Its authors concluded, the “social situation of children … deteriorated enormously between the years of 1997 and 2004” ([39
], p. 50). The poverty rate for children aged five and under was more than 50 percent by 2001. Meanwhile, the rate for people over 64 years of age was dramatically lower (18 percent) due in part to the state’s more generous social spending on policies helping the elderly meet their needs. In short, the “infantilization of poverty” was a recurring theme in these documents.
Child advocates provided a powerful call to action: the country’s growing “marginalization and social exclusion” is a “dramatic reality that should concern us,” they asserted; yet the fact that poverty affects children and teens most, “harming their own development and injuring their future, is a reality that should deeply move us” ([43
], p. 91). The trends were especially disquieting in a country that for decades was known and esteemed for its high levels of development. Compared to its neighbors, Uruguay had lower levels of income inequality, a more sizeable middle class, and an expansive welfare state, which provided social security and access to health care and education, among other benefits [1
]. Although Uruguay was still one of most equal countries in Latin America in the late 1990s, the distinction was rather dubious considering the world’s highest levels of income inequality were found in the region: “we must recognize that we are among the best of the worst group,” the advocates lamented ([43
], p. 27). Civil societal actors underscored the gap separating reality from deeply cherished middle-class values and the country’s self-image as a highly equal, integrated society. The message that something important and special was slipping away resonated broadly.
The frames were also resonant because, as noted earlier, many activists viewed social problems as obstacles to the full enjoyment of human rights. They discursively linked reforms in this issue area to the defense and promotion of rights and even the preservation and strengthening of democracy. Advocates expressed concern that children were experiencing “everything that we want to leave behind: poverty, vulnerability, and social and political invisibility” ([43
], p. 91). In addition, they issued a warning:
Each child who experiences any of these situations today will very soon be a citizen who will have sufficient reasons to distrust democracy and promises of growth. To neglect children … is to resign one’s self to nearly half of all future adults having sound reasons for distrusting the political system and the development strategy
Such rhetoric emphasized the importance of social integration for democratic citizenship, present and future. By deploying these discourses, CSO members performed the task of motivational framing while also incorporating hopeful, positive elements. Moreover, in their prognostic framing, activists proposed a feasible solution to the problems affecting children while demanding that lawmakers adopt a new Code. Although additional reforms would certainly be needed, child advocates hoped the law would pave the way for future changes.
Some advocates included a similarly constructive theme in their frames: they called for more universal social policies that would extend to all
children and teens, not only those living in extreme poverty [37
]. We must once again place this demand in its proper historical context and consider the long tradition of making claims based on economic and social rights and the extensive support for the welfare state. Furthermore, proposing universal policies amounted to an indirect criticism of neoliberalism as opposed to a full frontal assault. The idea that neoliberal policies were harming young people or violating their rights did not appear as often in their publications. CSO members instead identified poverty as the primary force causing injury, a view much less likely to provoke controversy or backlash.
NGO members did not shy away from scrutinizing the state institutions and practices that were preventing children and teens from fully exercising their rights. In particular, they voiced concerns over the culture of guardianship that still shaped child protection policies, the application of the above-mentioned doctrine of the irregular situation, and the treatment of young people in the juvenile justice system. They lamented the fact that many children and youth were detained, housed in institutions, and deprived of their freedom. To illustrate, the detention rate increased 18 percent from 1995 to 1999 [43
]. Participants in CSOs noted the authorities’ inclination to “punish and criminalize the poverty of families” who lacked the “basic rights” to work, an education, and health ([43
], p. 32). Discourses that privileged security, with their usual emphasis on fighting crime, became more prevalent during the 1990s, and child advocates argued that these were being institutionalized in state agencies and programs. The idea that poverty was generating crime and constructions of young people as dangers to society were pervasive and contributed to the justice system’s “repressive” and “severe” treatment of children and teens ([43
], p. 43). Maclure and Sotelo have identified similar trends in Nicaragua, where “many people question the value of assisting youth who are deemed to be hooligans” ([35
], p. 98).
These critiques notwithstanding, advocates generally used cautious language and avoided rhetoric emphasizing the most negative characteristics of state institutions and actors. Importantly, they refrained from assigning blame to judges and other powerful elites who supported the status quo. These discursive choices were not especially threatening to the policy-making establishment. Their frames can therefore be contrasted with those deployed by child advocates in neighboring Argentina. For years, Argentine activists traced the plight of children to structural and systemic factors, most notably neoliberalism, the criminalization of poverty, and “perverse” state institutions. Identifying these as the main forces harming children was key to diagnostic framing but problematic for prognostic framing. The frames did not privilege feasible, workable solutions to problems, and they mostly lacked positive messages. Members of CSOs frequently drew connections between the neoliberal model, poverty, and the lamentable state of the nation’s children and underscored the precariousness of social and economic rights in the wake of structural adjustment, social spending cuts, and widespread unemployment. Additionally, child advocates were adamant that state institutions and the juvenile justice system deprived children of their rights and jeopardized their well-being. These discursive strategies complicated their ability to influence the policy-making process [25