April 12, the day set aside since 2012 as the International Day for Street Children, has come and gone. In our dear country, with its hustles and hassles, the day went largely unnoticed, barely reported and scarcely celebrated. The International Day for Street Children is meant to call attention to the plight of children without home – variously called ‘homeless children’, ‘beggars’, ‘juvenile delinquents’ ‘street urchins’ or ‘bad kids’. They are the children, who, while their mates are being pampered elsewhere; rough it out daily with the inclement elements. During the day you can find some going through trash, begging for alms, working in motor park as touts, hawking items on streets, hustling as bus conductors or doing sundry other menial jobs. At nights, most sleep in uncompleted buildings, under bridges and flyovers or in street corners. Quite a number are on cheap drugs such as sniffing glue or paint thinner to get high – initially as a way of numbing pangs of hunger, keeping out the cold or as a mental escape from the sorrows and travails of life – before eventually becoming addicted to the substances. Not only are street children among the most vulnerable people on earth – deprived of basic needs like food and shelter and disproportionately targeted by purveyors of violence – they are also penalised for the things they have to do to survive.
The International Day for Street Children reminds us of the humanity of these children, and that just like our own children, or those chubby, well-groomed children we too often admire, they too need love. Just like other children, they too deserve access to education, healthcare and the care and compassion of the society.
While the notion of who is a street child remains contested, many practitioners and policymakers use the United Nations International Children Emergency Fund’s (UNICEF’s) definition, which regards a street child as a boy or girl, aged under 18, for whom the ‘street’ (including unoccupied dwellings and wasteland) has become home and/or a source of livelihood, and who are inadequately protected or supervised. While the exact number of street children worldwide remains a matter of conjecture, UNICEF estimates that they run into tens of millions. In Nigeria, the UK charity Street Child estimates that about 1.3 million children have been forced to flee their homes from Boko Haram conflict in the North East – with another three million being unable to go to school. Many are struggling in temporary (IDP) camps – where diseases and hunger are strife. Every part of the country has its own ‘street urchins’ and child beggars.
UNICEF differentiates between three categories of street children – candidates for the street (street children who work and hang out on the streets), children on the streets (children who work on the street but have a home to go to at night), and children of the street (children who live on the street without family support).
The causes of street children phenomenon are varied. They are sometimes related to domestic, economic or social circumstances such as poverty, breakdown of homes and/or families; political unrest; sexual, physical or emotional abuse and domestic violence. Some street children are youngsters lured away by pimps, Internet predators and begging syndicates; some are on the streets due to mental health problems, substance abuse and sexual orientation. Children may also end up on the streets due to cultural factors. For example, some children in parts of Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda are sent away from their homes on suspicions that they are witches who bring bad luck upon their family. In Afghanistan, young girls accused of ‘honour crimes’ such as adultery or who refuse arranged marriage, may be forced to leave their homes. In Nigeria, some children from the ‘core north’, known as the almajiris, are forced to leave their homes to be under the tutelage of a mallam (Islamic religious teacher).
Several countries around the world are increasingly developing programmes and projects to care for street children and give them the love the streets cannot give them. In South Africa for instance, street children are legally protected by the South African Children’s Act 38 of 2005, which defines street children as “children living, working and begging on the street” and as “Children in need of Care and Protection”. The South African government not only partially funds street children organizations, parents of vulnerable children can get a monthly child care support, and some organisations have developed effective street outreach programmes and drop-in centres.
In India, which has an estimated one million street children in each of its mega cities of New Delhi, Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) and Mumbai, one of the notable successful interventions was Ashalayam (house of hope) set up by Salesian Father Antony Thaiparambil. Fr. Thaiparambil opened his first night shelter for 14 street children in a slum area near Howrah and began to live with them. His second shelter, which he named Ashalayam in 1991, was blessed by St Mother Teresa of Kolkata. It is estimated that about 500 street children now live in 23 Ashalayam shelter homes in Kolkata and Nadia district of West Bengal state. Fr Thaiparambil, who died on March 19, aged 84, was reputed to have rescued over 80,000 Indian children from the streets.
In Kenya, which has an estimated 250,000 street children, you have the Saint Boys Project – an effort to take boys off the streets and put them in a home where they will be loved as members of the family. In the United States, where an estimated two million youth run away from or are forced out of their homes each year, the government uses a number of legislation to protect this section of the population such as the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act of 1978, which made funds available for shelters.
I am not aware of any governmental intervention to cater specifically to the needs of street children in Nigeria. True, the Jonathan government set up almajiri schools and Nigerians tend to show some compassion to street beggars by giving whatever they can, a nation-wide policy targeting this section of the population is largely absent. Rather state governments routinely announce ban on street hawking and round up beggars for deportation to their states of origin. Certainly the International Day for Street Children is a golden opportunity for us to reflect as a country if we are doing enough for this section of our population.
True, street children may have rough manners (what do you expect from people who are denied parental love and have to fend for themselves on the street?), they are not irredeemable. There are numerous instances of rescued street children who were successfully re-integrated into the society. For instance during the funeral of Fr. Thaiparambil many of the former street children he rescued from the street turned up, some from very far distances to mourn the priest they literarily regarded as their father. One of these, Bimal Das, was reported to have made a very emotional statement in-between cries and sobs: “I have not seen God, nor have I seen my parents. But if God is there, I am sure he looks like this man,” he reportedly said after the ceremony. Another was quoted as saying: “I hardly remember when I was rescued because I was too young, barely six years old, and was wandering with other children there,” he said. “My name and age were given by father [Thaiparambil]. But not just that … my entire life is his gift.” For me, this is what ‘touching lives’ is all about while we are still on this side of life’s divide.
Consider also the case of Rithy, who grew up in a broken family in Cambodia. He never met his father, and his mother, an abusive drunk, tried drowning him in a lake once in her drunken state. Rithy was orphaned when both his mother and grandfather passed away. He became a street child and quickly became hooked on drugs. He was rescued by the charity HAGAR when he was 12. Initially he trusted no one – not surprising given that his own mother had tried to kill him. In school he resented the fact that everyone else was much younger than him. However through persistence, encouragement and care, Rithy is today a medical doctor who has dedicated himself to giving back to his community through the medical outreach he carries out in the slum communities of his native Phnom Penh via his mobile clinic.
We can certainly do more for our street children. We need street angels – because let’s face it; any of us could have had their fate. Even if we simplistically blame poor parenting for their fate or the irresponsibility of parents siring more children than they can cater for, the truth is that they did not choose their parents. As the screenwriter Darlenne Susan Girard noted in her book Freefalling (2012), “On the street there is no tomorrow. There is only here and now and nothing else. And yesterday is just another day you’re trying to forget.” That’s how chilling life is for our street children.