New Internationalist

Street children: read between the lines

April 2005

It hadn’t gone well for 12-year-old Jack. He’d spent a whole morning trying to tell us about his life on the street. But it came out as a bit of a jumble. Later, when the conversation had been transcribed, it turned out that what he had struggled to say in those hours amounted to just a few paragraphs. Wishing to thank him for facing up to tough memories and realizing we had kept him from earning his livelihood that day, we suggested taking him shopping for things he and his family could use.

To which he asked: ‘What is “shopping”?’ A simple question revealing deprivation so acute it challenges our empathetic abilities.

Similarly, when 16-year-old Ricardo mentions he’s been raped as just one more detail of his life story, the words pluck your heart out like a pair of hot tongs. If you let them.

This edition comes to you purposely shorn of the flourishes of the writer’s craft; it leaves aside the observations of the analysts; its messages are unembroidered. Instead there is the burning honesty of the children’s words.

By giving the children centre stage we wished to avoid the usual mediations of paternalistic reportage or the soundbites of charity-speak. Most of these children face such brutal social exclusion that letting them speak for themselves and have their say seemed the only sane response.

All street people, not just children, face tremendous challenges keeping body and soul together. Children are just much more vulnerable. Lurking somewhere in our heads is the notion of the sanctity of childhood. Yet in almost every country in the world in which you care to look, multitudes of them are being pushed on to the streets. Their population may change continually as they drift on or off the streets. Their numbers may be manipulated – played down by coy governments; inflated by special interest groups. But the children themselves are always there. They must demonstrate a remarkable resilience and sense of enterprise in order to survive.

The working life begins early for a street child – whether it is selling goods, running errands, rummaging through rubbish for saleable things or sex work (prevalent even in the most prudish societies). Crime can be a further blight – gangs of street children are more feared than pitied. Substance abuse is commonplace. On the other hand, street kids face violence and murder, often by the authorities that are supposed to protect the social fabric. The police top the list in many countries, robbing kids, forcing sex on them and ‘cleansing’ the streets. Children create street families even though they may still have close links with their blood families. Street families can be key to survival but they can also bring problems of bullying or exclusion.

Most of us, if we put our minds to it, have a pretty good idea why kids land up on the street. But we rarely get a chance to hear what their lives are really like from them. Instead, the rhetoric of demons and angels pervades. Of course street kids are neither. They are as diverse, complex and unique as the lives they lead. There is no ‘type’. So we’ve chosen individual stories, believing that they reveal more than an analytical approach would have done. We’ve not let the fact that boys outnumber girls dictate who got to have a say. And we’ve not just spoken with individuals in countries that have large numbers of street children, but also sought perspectives in places where they are less numerous. Although children can be on the streets right from their infancy, we spoke mainly with older children who were able to articulate their experience better and could exercise more judgement in what they chose to disclose.

In pockets around the world, street children are raising their voices to demand their rights. Sometimes the desperation of their measures highlights the desperation of their situation. This was evident in an unorthodox protest last year by over a hundred imprisoned Kenyan street children in Nairobi. Jailed for weeks without charge, they stopped eating, smeared themselves and their cells with their own excrement, and banged on the doors. The Nairobi Fire Department was called to hose them down. ‘The stench was unbearable,’ complained a firefighter.

I don’t think society likes being reminded of the existence of those it treats like shit. It would rather they were flushed away. But that is not to deny their innate dignity, though dignity is constantly denied them.

A hopeful first step is to listen to what they have to tell us. Walk a mile in their shoes.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 377 This feature was published in the April 2005 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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