200 million children worldwide live or work on the streets. This represents a number higher than the entire population of France and Britain together.
In South America, at least 40 million children live on the streets. In Asia, 25 million. And throughout Europe, about another 25 million children and young people live on the streets. By 2020, there will be 800 million children in the streets.
What is a Street Child?
UNICEF defines street children in different ways:
- Children who work on the streets because their families need money to survive.
- Children who come from poor families and who sleep in the streets. Some arrive in the city from less privileged areas of the country, others have fled.
- Orphans and abandoned children, whose parents have died from illness or because of the war or beause they could not take care of them.
This latter definition is not always easy to apply.
The term «street child», thus describes three different groups of children:
- Children working on the streets during the day but who sleep in the houses of their relatives.
- Children who work in the streets during the week and who only go back homes of their relatives over the weekends because the distance between their «workplace» and their family home is too long, for example.
- Children who do not have any contact any longer with their families. They both work and live on the streets.
In the latter group, according to various estimates, belong about 80 million children. Many of them live in big cities in Latin America. The youngest are between 4 and 5 years. It is very difficult to establish accurate figures. Many were born in the streets. However, experts are convinced that the numbers of children living on the streets will continue to rise. One argument that supports this hypothesis is the fact that more and more people migrate from the countryside to the cities. There are many reasons why children end up on the streets. Couples split, violence or abuse rule the family, children are forced to perform hard labor to financially support their families. Many couples are unable to feed their children properly. On the streets there are multiple threats. Street children are victims of prostitution, sexual abuse. Many girls suffer premature pregnancies after rape. Drugs, hunger and disease threaten their lives.
Damian, 15«My mother would get drunk and hit me and everything. I felt bad. I suffered innerly.
Never mind that she would hit me leaving marks behind all over my outer self, because they will disappear.
But it's your inner self that hurts, because there's always something that stays there, within your heart.»
Truly it is very painful to see street children. It's such a hard scene, something that should not be happening in the 21st century.
Children are abandoned by their parents, family, government and society: nobody takes care of them, we see them in the streets and we are indifferent or, rather, their presence bothers us. Someone told me a few years ago referring to children who beg on the street: “These children are professional weepers, they will start crying so people give them money. Don't even bother paying attention to them.”
These are children who do not have a nice present. Necessity makes them deprived of the most basic satisfactions of a normal childhood, that is: going to school, having time play or to make friends, having any hobby or simply watching television. No, these children do not have a childhood. They are «privileged» if they go to school. If they eat twice a day, it is a gift and if they have a toy, a dream come true.
And the street child? Is he not entitled to have the same dreams as the rest? Many of these children spend their childhood working for their parents or a family member or adult who in some cases exploit them thus trampling all their dignity. They are helpless, in spite of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Children.
It would seem that these children are not aware of its existence. The authorities are not ware of it either. Other children take the wrong path and become «pirañitas», who are candidates to join the ranks of the criminals who are collapsing our capital. They begin to wander aimlessly without a destiny, they do not longer work, and they do not care about anything. They steal when they get a chance to do it, get glue «to get high». Sometimes they do not even eat and survive in an underworld of terror and fear, avoiding everybody, escaping from more dangerous criminals or from the police.
Whatever the type of street child mentioned, those are children who have no future in this world, no objective or destination. Nobody wants them and nobody cares about them.
What is Child Neglect?
Abandonment is the lack of attention to the basic needs of a child. There are four types. Physical neglect is inadequate and/or unsafe child monitoring. Medical neglect is to deny the necessary medical care to children or any medical treatment prescribed, which could include nutrition, hydration and proper medication. Educational neglect is failure to comply with state laws regarding mandatory child education. Emotional neglect is to ignore the emotional needs of the child so he can have a normal social and emotional development. These children are left to live in the street.
What do Street Children Do?
Street children do not only wander the streets doing nothing. To survive, most of them work over ten hours a day. They distribute newspapers, clean cars, collected scrap metal, push carts, watch parked cars, sell candy, carry luggage or beg. Some work in prostitution, domestic service or as pimps, pushers, pickpockets or for builders and garage owners, as well as in the country fields..
Diego, 12"«Once, when I was sleeping in the street some ladies walked by and said:
«Spot those lazy kids. They should simply die.»
I was very sad, at that time.
Some times, you wanna do crazy things. I wanted tot go down there, to the bridge, and jump over.
But I didn't. I threw some water all over myself and I calmed down.
I thought, «Why should I commit suicide?
They should help me, take me to your homes!»
Street children see others, especially adults, with a mixture of distrust and opportunism. Tourists are a good target because they are impressed by what they see, unlike many of the people who live there, those who ignore these children and young people.
Disappointed once and again and abandoned by society in general, many street children take the standard values and possessions of their communities with complete contempt. How can respect a society that has abandoned them or thrown them out like garbage?
Street children eat whatever they can. Their stomachs are not always empty, but they are likely to be malnourished. Their reddish hair may look nice at first: the color is but a sign of serious lack of vitamins, accompanied by anemia and malnutrition. When they do not have enough money, then there are always rubbish bins where they can pick, the back doors at restaurants that open to throw leftovers late at night and anything they can steal or buy in the streets.
Street children are very creative when it comes to making money. Begging can be good if you have a little brother or sister with a sweet look who can raise pity. And then there's sex. This is what gives more money. Heterosexual or homosexual sex in hotel rooms, in the back seats of cars or in dark alleys while a friend watches over the main street. They sell their body and provide sexual favors in exchange for money is a common practice among street children.
Street children sleep where they feel safer. The door to a store, a bench in the square, a hot air duct, the stairs of a train station... Many sleep by day, as they think they are safer during daylight hours.
Some sleep alone, others huddle together in search of warmth or protection. The bed is a piece of cardboard, the blanket are old newspapers. If they are lucky enough to have a pair of shoes, they take them out and sleep with them under their heads to prevent them from being stolen. The coins they may have are introduced in their mouths for the night, so no one can nick them. These children never know when they will be awakened by the boot of a policeman, a jet of cold water from a cleaning truck or even a bullet from a group of guards or law official who uses his weapon trigger-happily.
Street children get sick and they get worse quickly. Soon a fat film appears on their skin, not to mention the oil and grease from roads that cover their feet and lower part of their legs. Dirt makes their skin dry and crack easily. Cuts and wounds are their daily bread, most of them ignored. Infections are common. Even if the injury is serious, the hospital will not want to take care of them.
Maicol, 14"All street children want to be free, without the adults' terms.
They do not understand that true freedom comes from a home where everybody loves each other».
Street children worry about just a few people. The group they belong to is a replacement, an extended family, where there is love and loyalty by dint of blows. Affection is expressed with kicks and punches.
Street children spend their free time in the same schizophrenic way in which they show their affection. They can spend a while playing football in the park or doing children mischief of children by the road and the traffic lights. Next thing, though, could be to deeply inhale out of the neck of a paint bottle or out of a pot of glue. With a full stomach and a dull head, it could be time to earn their wages by selling their body, for example.
Street children like the present but want a different future. The streets are free for them to do what they want whenever they want and no one to say no to them. But they do not want to stay here when they are older. A good job and money, no matter if they have not finished school.
Why Are Children Abandoned?
Children can end up in the street for various reasons, the most typical are:
- They have no choice: They have been abandoned, they are orphans or have been expelled from their homes.
- They choose to live in the street as a result of abuse suffered at home, parental negligence or simply because their family is unable to cover their basic needs.
- They choose to live in the street because of the income their activities can bring to their families. If those homes and families, as an integral part of society, are unable to sustain these children's life, it can therefore be said that the ultimate reasons for the abandonment of their parental home are the social, economic, political and environmental conditions imposed upon them by society as a whole (where that this marginal group fits in).
A WHO report suggested the following factors as causes of this phenomenon:
- Disintegration of the family
- Armed conflict
- Extreme poverty
- Physical and sexual abuse
- Child exploitation
- Post migration journeys
- Uncontrollate building and sprawling of suburbs
- Illiteracy, lack of education and culture
- Social catastrophes (corruption, mismanagement of resources)
- Political disasters (war, civil strife, ethnic conflict)
- Natural disasters (droughts, floods, earthquakes)
- Economic collapse (loss of home, parents, family, education)
- Abuse of drugs and alcohol
- Disease and lack of health care
- Death of parent
Disappointed once and again and abandoned by society in general, many street children regard the standard values, heritage and possessions of their communities with complete contempt. How can they respect a society that has abandoned and abused them?
Lucho, 13«In the street I was nothing. I was just a lazy bum.»
This is a very common cause. A dismembered family where parents are missing:
- Child denied by father who does not recognize him/her
- Child denied by mother who chooses to have other children with new partner
- Orphan child (both father- and motherless)
- Often picked up by a grandmothed, child is left alone when she dies
- Child whose mother was a prostitute
Many children of prostitutes flee their home when they find out about their mothers' activities. It is a drama with serious psychological consequences. It may happen that in order to apologize, the mother floods her child with gifts. This will pose other problems.
- Drug-addict parents' children
When parents take drugs, life is unbearable for the child who becomes independent at an early age. Unfortunately for him the drug is demystified and s/he may also become a drug-addict who will be very hard to detoxificate.
- Son of homeless parents
They also will become homeless. This future perspective does not satisfy them and they prefer to flee.
- Child whose parent/s is/are in prison
It often happens that nobody cares about the future and welfare of the children.
The following table shows an estimate of the reasons why parents abandon their children:.
|Falta de recursos económicos||6||30%|
|Falta de principios morales||4||20%|
What Happens to Street Children?
Traumas / injuries and some infections (parasitosis) are the most common conditions among street children.
80% take drugs regularly. The most common are contact adhesives ('clefa') often taken to keep hunger at bay. Thus, they get initiated into drugs. Cocaine and marijuana follow lead. Sexual activity begins at an early age, teenage pregnancies are very frequent and early due to high promiscuity.
Children perform intermittent activities. Car washing and car watching, peddling, begging, stealing or prostitution. Some form bands with a hierarchical structure, although most groups are not-so-stable and show less defined roles and consequently are more adaptable to the problems in the streets. Many children become go-betweens who carry small doses of drugs and are paid with a sandwich and glue, cocaine or marijuana, doses, inhalants and drugs that burn their brains.
Adolfo, 16«I had kidney and lung pains.
People from different institutions came out to the streets, such as doctors.
They helped us, then I knew I was sick, but I didn't know not what to do,
nothing got to my mind.
My mom learnt about my health, but she had no money for my healing.
I wanted to stay like that, with my pain and thought about killing myself,
I thought I was good for nothing, not even for society.
I went to take drugs and a miracle happened.
An institution helped me with kidney operation.»
- To feel more confident at beating others and at having the courage to steal
- So that when they catch you stealing and beat you up, you do not feel the pain
- To forget problems and be happy
- Because they help you sleep
- Not to feel pain
- They make you braver and that way you'll fight anyone who doesn't want to pay for your services.
- Because when you kill someone you do not see it as something bad
- So do not feel bad when you steal
- So you don't think too much
- Not to feel the cold in winter nights
- Not to feel fear
What Kind of Drugs do They Take?
Street children take any drugs, the easier to get and the cheaper, the better. For example, glue in areas where shoes are manufactured, solvents in industrial areas, coca paste and cocaine in regions where those are produced, opium and heroin in areas where opium is produced.
Various kinds of inhalants (industrial glue, paint, nail polish, cement glue, shoe polish, gasoline, cleaning fluids) are universally used as if they were alcohol, nicotine, cannabis and pharmaceutical products.
When inhaled, industrial adhesives cause lack of mental clarity, occasional hallucinations, loss of appetite and nausea. These substances are readily available on the streets.
The World Health Organization (WHO) claims that one of the most urgent health problems faced by street children worldwide is drug abuse. Virtually all street children in the world are hooked to inhalants or other stronger drugs. Only a few of them can live on the streets without taking any drugs.
The media, the police, justice, many companies and society in general, consider street children as a group of criminals who pose a threat to society.
Both the government and civil society as a whole should be aware of the value of these children and the contribution that each of them can make to solve the present situation.
Street children often live through moments when they want to leave street life. However, the rooting they have to life on the street is very strong and has generated a physical and emotional impairment on them that does not allow them to project themselves into the future and to make the decision to change their lives.
If they come to this decision in a time of crisis, it is very unlikely they can manage to stay off the streets for more than a few weeks or months.
What Do Street Children Do?
Street children do not only wander the streets with nothing to do. To survive, most work over ten hours a day. They distribute newspapers, clean cars, sell stolen items, offer entertainment to tourists, watch parked cars, juggle at traffic lights, clean boots, push drugs. Some work in mining, agriculture and tending livestock in rural areas close to the city.
Adolfo, 16«I walked the streets on my own and I wanted to steal but fear would not allow it.
One day I had nothing to eat and I suddenly I thought of begging and did it, but they refused me.
They gave me nothing, not even something to eat.
I cried and cried and I went stealing without any fear, because need allowed me to.
And so it was. I stole more and more and did not have any fear.
While I had money I took drugs.
I was hurting mysefl but didn't even realise anything.»
From this perspective, life in the streets (rather than an individual «pathology») represents a system of relations and representations built from a particular reality by a specific and complex group. Among other things: the function of providing a sense of identity that is necessary for the construction and survival of the individual and collective subject.
Permanence in the street, strategies to survive, violence and even drug itself, are components of this street life and despite the damage that many of these elements cause to children, they act as integrating and meaningful elements for this group.
For this reason, at present, programs increasingly seek ways to address street children so that this system of relations they are inserted into, can be gradually modified and rebuilt so it moves towards strengthening a different identity from the one that keeps them in the streets, one that doesn't end up reinforcing that street identity.
While from this perspective present models may be built and reviewed, there is evidence that there are models that ultimately reinforce they stay in the streets.
In the development of an alternative identity to that of the street, the need to build models that provide an environment where children feel integrated, listened to, partaking and sure is growingly clear. Massive models even if they are built with the best of intentions, find it difficult to achieve this process and almost always end up becoming children «warehouses».
The raising of the child in the family is an identity provider link, complemented by those who represent emotional, cultural or social continuity (eg, the community). Material support is essential for the functioning of the family plot.
Socioeconomic conditions are directly articulated with the effective possibility of achieving full right to identity.
In the context of poverty, the phenomenon of abandonment appears as a component of social geography, from which it is not possible to attribute primary responsibility to parents who abandon their children.
The Don Bosco Testimony
In the projects where we work with street children, the Don Bosco homes are not only a place of welcome for those children and young people who have made the street the center of their life, we are also fighting for their rights. We denounce police violence and the marginalization of these children within the city and question the values and behavior of a society that allows so much abuse against these children. Basic training programs and job training offers are the basis of everyday work. Apart from this, the professionals of the different projects work alongside children on their lives, traumas and wrecked relationships with their families. The voluntary workers work with street children on health risks and strive to protect them against violence and abuse. We support, help and assist throughout the complicated detoxification process. Those are the children who subsequently enroll in primary and secondary schools from the Project itself. They are granted scholarships and can definitely get out of the streets and obtain a fair future fair in terms of equallity.
Carlos, 17«Sometimes the street shatters you, but it also turns you into a man and makes you become aware of many things.
It shows you the way life is, the world we live in.»
In conclusion, one might think that neither charity nor tutelary institutions solve social and economic injustice. But behind their present sophisticated legal framework we continue to deny, conceal and isolate the causes that produce neglect, abuse and abandonment and send children into the streets. And we blame the parents and the children themselves for this situation (it comes as a relief when you do not to admit that we all have some degree of responsibility in this state of affairs).
Despite the criticism, it would be unrealistic to think that these forms of tutelary institutions should disappear or that social work (or any other discipline) is to find a solution to the problem.
So these are the forms, resources and institutions that we have to address the problem of poor street children.
What concerns us today is to see how all these structures allow us to develop more humane interventions with children that must not forget that the child is the subject of rights and above all a human being like any other (even more vulnerable because his/her condition as a child).
We must be aware that street children were forced to forge their identity in the street and that that is a very difficult process to reverse since their acquired habits and vices are deeply rooted.
In contrast to the identity developed in the streets, we are faced with the challenge of providing them with protection, understanding, affection, trust, hope and a better life: essentials we must give back to the child.
Not to mention the fact that the history of children coming from extreme poverty must be rescued. Moreover, we must try to establish links with their family (community) because in some way they are a part of it and not condemn them to a destination he surely did not choose.
The ultimate goal of social action on this issue is to be able to reintegrate these children, whether into their family closer or directly into society. To do this we must be aware that the strategy to achieve it should be based on three basic principles:
- Restore confidence: in themselves and in society
- Offer them an education in moral, ethical and academic values
- Give them a tool for their reintegration into society: teach them a trade or profession
The success of actions should be measured solely by the number of reintegrations obtained. The problem is that the internal factors (motivation, education, resources,...) as well as the external ones (social and official positioning in front of this problem's consequences, the kids) surrounding this issue are still too numerous and resistent as to allow the statistics trend to be promising..