issue 164 - October 1986
Children of the street
Fifty million - maybe a hundred million - children have allegedly
been abandoned on the streets of the world's cities by their parents.
But is this really true? Judith Ennew sifts myth from reality and
brings the problem down to manageable size.
A grubby eight-year-old boy was sitting on the floor of the YMCA in Kingston, Jamaica, covered in scars from knife fights with other boys in the park where he spent his nights. He worked at a busy traffic intersection, wiping car windscreens to get the cash for his survival - and for gambling with other street boys. In his right hand he held the filthy rag he used. The thumb of his other hand was stuck firmly in his mouth. I saw him there in 1980 and I have no idea where or how he is now. How does one watch over more than fifty million children?
Fifty million is the staggering figure usually given for the number of street children in Latin America and the Caribbean alone. If this were so, what would the worldwide figure be? For most purposes figures are meaningless because even a single child living, working and learning about life alone on the street is one too many. In any case, the figure is a wildly inaccurate guesstimate. If there were indeed 50 million street children in this region, it would mean that nearly a third of the 158 million under- 15 year-olds in this region would be living permanently on urban streets. A more realistic estimate for the whole world would be around eight million.
Still: eight million children cut off from their families ... eight million children abandoned by their parents?
But 'abandonment' itself can be another myth. Many of the children who are actually visible on urban streets, though ragged and showing physical evidence of poor diet and housing, are neither abandoned nor running away. They continue to live with their families, though they spend their days working on the streets. In some cases they pay their way through school with their earnings or they may be helping out with some extra income during vacations or through a family crisis. Many who are earning a living are proud to be doing so. They are still 'children in difficult circumstances', as UNICEF labels them; but they come from families in difficult circumstances. If the adult members of a household could gain a reasonable income, through better wages or social welfare provisions, then children would not need to work for their living.
But financial hardship is far from being the sole reason for children leaving home. Sometimes household violence drives the child out permanently. Violence, especially at the hands of fathers and father-figures, means that some children are exploited, abused, rejected - in rich as well as poor parts of the world. When life at home seems unbearable, children do run away. These are the true street children, and they are the most vulnerable.
True street children are most likely to survive through activities like scavenging, begging, prostitution and picking pockets. Because these are illegal the children are vulnerable to the law: the police, far from helping these defenceless members of the public, often see an opportunity for intimidation and extortion. If they go to gaol, adult prisoners may follow suit. And even fellow street people like alcoholics and vagrants often bully and reject these children. The respectable close their doors. Society does not race to embrace the children it sees abandoned.
It often seems as if we simply want to sanitise the streets, to remove these strange anti-social beings from public view, rather than tackle their problems seriously. When I was working in Peru in 1982, a series of articles in a daily newspaper provided profiles of street children by a well-known journalist. Each day for a fortnight the readers were provided with the story of a different child: the girl who sells roses, the car washer who carries his little brother on his back as he works, the boy who sells newspapers and so on. Each report was published alongside an interview with a representative of the local élite. A committee was set up to solve the problem of street children once and for all, amid much publicity from the same newspaper, but by the second meeting well over half the participants had lost interest, and those who remained seemed to be most worried that street children might be easily influenced by a guerilla organisation, Sendero Luminoso. No money was forthcoming, no preventative measures were ever discussed and the committee soon stopped meeting.
Some people romanticise street children emphasizing their independence and dignity. But this is another myth. In reality they are hungry for care. The windscreen-wiper might have coped with knife wounds, but his thumb was firmly in his mouth. Street children usually latch on tightly to any adult who takes a kindly interest: they hope for big returns from the smallest investment. Their overt affection and interest mask a desperate need to improve a pitifully small stock of self-esteem. They demand physical contact, often alternating fierce hugs and cuddles with aggressive behaviour seemingly designed to elicit blows - which may have been their only physical contact with their parents.
They have other psychological difficulties too. The life they live reduces their concentration span so far that they find it difficult to sit still and listen. They are on constant red alert. They may want to be able to read - but be incapable of understanding that they cannot learn to do so by nightfall. The frequent fights in which they are involved are a reflection not just of the violence to which they are subjected in the streets but also of the 'short fuses' they have acquired.
There are three possible strategies for working with street children - containment, cure and prevention. But only the first two are usually attempted.
Containment usually takes place in closed institutions where children are subjected to repressive correctional measures: the reformatory shown in the Brazilian film Pixote is a particularly unpleasant but by no means atypical example of these. Sub-standard, overcrowded buildings often house youngsters of all ages with multiple problems and are staffed by poorly-qualified and overworked staff. At the worst this means inhumane, sometimes brutal treatment and even in the best institutions children receive little individual attention to counteract their acute emotional deprivation.
The 'cure' approach involves weaning children away from street life, gradually reintroducing them to education and regular work patterns. This seems to be more cost-effective and more successful, especially when working on an out-reach, street-educator basis.
Prevention - stopping the children appearing on the streets - is the least explored alternative. This is largely because people assume that children end up on the streets because poverty has caused their family to disintegrate. They then give up, on the assumption that it is impossible to eradicate poverty.
But it cannot successfully be argued that poverty alone causes families to split up or parents to abandon or exploit their children. Cuba used to have an enormous number of street children who have now mysteriously disappeared even though they are not much wealthier. And many wretchedly poor families would not dream of sending their children out to play on the street, much less to work.
Little is known about the factors which make some families or household groups pull together rather than rip apart. Many of the families I have lived and worked with in Peru show an extraordinary resilience in the face of the drudgery of surviving in desperate physical and economic conditions. Lacking adequate food, clothing and shelter they still interact with affection, co-operation and happiness. The magic ingredients which enable these small human miracles to take place, which I would characterise by the words love and duty, are never taken into account by either economic or political planners; but it is surely not romantic to point out that these, as well as squalor, misery and violence, are part of the whole phenomenon we call poverty. Until these family dynamics are taken seriously - and studied with fewer preconceptions - the complex set of reasons behind a child's decision to leave home and live on the streets will remain largely unexplored.
Dr Judith Ennew is a researcher at King's College, Cambridge and is the author of 'The Sexual Exploitation of Children' and a co-founder of 'Streetwise International'.