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Righting the wrongs of life on the street

Human Rights
Street children

Bangladeshi street children attending a centre that acts as a school and as a place of safety. Melanie Ko under a Creative Commons Licence

For millions of children worldwide, life on the streets can be a brutal mix of violence, loneliness and shrinking opportunities. The reality for these children is shocking, not only for what they must face, but for how much society has shunned them. In these circumstances, child rights aren’t just conventions dreamt up in some conference room, but an essential part of basic human development.

The UN estimates that there are 150 million street children globally. At least half will die within four years of living on the street. Yet despite the existence of a Street Child World Cup, the rights and protection of street children remains largely invisible on the international stage.

This is borne out in national and international contexts. According to a recently published report, there is a ‘global crisis in child protection’. As a result, children are left uneducated, stigmatized by society, or suffering from serious physical or mental-health problems. The situation is made worse by a lack of funding for social services. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, 50 to 60 per cent of social work positions are vacant.

Sidelining street children and the systems designed to protect them often translates into serious abuse of their rights. In Ethiopia, police violence has long been documented. Viewing street children only as a problem to be dealt with has led to authorities rounding them up, placing them in solitary confinement, or dumping them in remote locations outside the city. Earlier in the year, Indian state police launched an advertising campaign reflecting prevailing attitudes that stigmatize street children.

Forced to live on the street because of neglect and abuse, it is a tragedy that children must suffer the same cycles of abandonment by the people tasked with protecting them. By better understanding why institutional brutality occurs – because it is seen as the easy way out, fitting in with social norms – we can offer alternative solutions that promote dignity.

The mission of the organization I work for, Retrak, is to serve the needs of marginalized children and see them as valuable agents of change, capable of serving their own communities. But this is more than a mantra for a single organization. It should inform universal efforts to invest in children and provide for their future.

When children flourish, they contribute to social cohesion through more integrated families. When fortified with healthy minds and bodies through nutrition and education, they advance local and national economies. When empowered to act as leaders, they inspire future and current generations to carry the vision forward.

Given the pace of urbanization, our leaders must do more to address the concerns of the most vulnerable groups. The UN has already upped the ante, outlining an ambitious goal to end extreme poverty in all its forms by 2030. The experiences of street children – living on the outliers of society – must galvanize the world to put their priorities at the forefront of a new anti-poverty agenda.

Echoing this call, Diarmuid O’Neill, Retrak’s Chief Executive, said, ‘No child should be forced to live on the streets. Our promise to end poverty and leave no-one behind should be matched with a real commitment to uphold the rights of children to a safe, secure and prosperous future.’

With concerted national government plans, backed by international commitment, children will be able to access basic services like health and education, gain the support of strong families and reclaim childhoods lost to the street.

This blog is part of the New Internationalist's series on human rights for Blog Action Day 2013.

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