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eJOURNAL OF THE INTERNATIONAL CHILD AND YOUTH CARE NETWORK (CYC-Net) – ISSN 1605-7406

ISSUE 29 JUNE 2001 •  CONTENTS •  HOME PAGE

street children in developing countries

Cross-cultural problems faced by people who work with street children

Lewis Aptekar of the University of Swaziland speaks at an HSRC Conference "Street Children: From resolutions to action"

I want to talk about four points where culture and work with street children interact, often in a problematic way. Then I will give some practical suggestions on how the problems might be overcome. The four areas are:

How cultural issues alter our perceptions of the families of street children
World-wide, at least 75% of street children are raised by their mothers and live in patrifocal societies. Yet, the most common theory about the origins of street children are that they come from abusive, neglectful, immoral, and irresponsible parents. I propose that across cultures the major cause of street children is poverty. For the most part, poor urban women cope with poverty by raising their male children as quickly as possible so that they can contribute to their family’s financial well being.

The view that parents are to blame for street children was expressed recently in a regional meeting at which a special Task Force, comprised of governmental organizations and NGOs working with street children, announced their findings of a study that claimed that the causes of the increase in the numbers of street children were "broken families, single parenthood, and irresponsibility among parents." Shortly after this report was issued, a woman wrote a letter to the local editor. She said that "these otherwise innocent children are being moulded into lazy adults and criminals who will never want to work, but will get money from people by other means." Because the parents of street children have not fulfilled their responsibility, society should intervene.

Many women whom my research teams have spoken with, in a variety of developing countries, feel that marriage ‘spoils’ a relationship and gives the men too much power and control over them. Indeed, many mothers feel they are better off without husbands, who they say are too expensive to keep in clothes, food, and drink. Beside these reasons for not wanting husbands, the economic situation in the developing world, with increasing opportunities for women in the formal and informal sectors, and the decreasing opportunities in these sectors for men, makes men, compared with women, less marketable and more expensive.

I recently visited a mother of four boys and two girls who lived with four of her six children in one room — no bigger than a small bedroom in a middle class home. The room was divided by two blankets hung up by clothes pegs. Behind one blanket was the mother’s loft, behind the other, three levels of shelves, each of which was used for a bed. In one corner was a small one-burner gas stove surrounded by two pots and a stool. The only source of light in the house was from the front door. Open sewage ran from the front door, through the path down to the front of the house, where it met the drainage from other homes.
The woman was nearly able to support herself and her children by selling illegal beer. She had never attended school, had no job skills, and was illiterate. Her two oldest boys, half-brothers well into their teens, both lived and made a living on the streets. They came home periodically, usually with some gift, and were very welcome. Their mother had taught them that the time they could stay at home without making a contribution ended shortly before puberty. The male children accepted this. They preferred the streets to their homes, particularly when they could come home when they needed to.

One cultural interpretation of this mother’s situation would be to describe her as irresponsible and immoral. However, she can also be seen as coping quite adequately. She taught her two oldest boys to make their own way, she found a means to feed the other four children at home, and fulfilled her hopes of educating as many of her children as possible by using the sale of illegal brew to pay the children’s school fees.

To label these families negatively (largely because the mothers have developed their own cultural criteria for supervision and protection of their children which are different from those espoused by the middle and upper social classes) is to compound rather than solve the problem. Not only do such negative attitudes condemn the hard effort of mothers; they dismiss the fact that unmarried mothers can raise children without a husband, and discount the judgment of street children who have left unhealthy homes, such as girls who have been physically or sexually abused.

I contend that the cultural notion that claims that single poor mothers are, by virtue of being single and poor, irresponsible and incapable of raising moral and productive children, represents an ethnocentric point of view. Among the families that produce street children there are many skills, but for the most part the families are adequately coping with extreme poverty.

How cultural factors alter our assessment of the mental health of street children
According to the predominant cultural point of view, street children are psychopathological, delinquent, carriers of AIDS, and drug abusing. I propose that this is an ethnocentric bias, and that most (though not all) street children function adequately, given their circumstances.

Nowhere is the negative point of view expressed more than in the alleged connection of street children to drug abuse. Because I have witnessed so many children inhaling glue while still maintaining their ability to cope with demands of the streets, I began to think there was more to their use of inhalants than the explanations most commonly given, such as to self medicate fear and depression, to kill hunger, to provide strength to live in difficult circumstances, or as indications of a pathological need for immediate gratification.

One evening a few months ago I was visiting Street children in the "Little Mogadishu" section of Nairobi. There were about a dozen boys inhaling glue on a small island of refuse in the middle of a busy roundabout. Around them sped a steady onslaught of traffic. I observed them through the traffic as did other pedestrians. All I could see were many pairs of eyes peering over noses covered with paper bags or shirt sleeves. It occurred to me that as I and the others watched the boy’s eyes, the boys were also watching us.

Across the island on the main corner of the intersection, another group of about 10 street boys was also consuming inhalants. Unlike the relaxed demeanour of the island boys, these boys were in constant motion playing various forms of tag. Although they chased each other at a full run and fought each other in mock battles of kicks and fists, they were moving fluidly between and among the pedestrians and cars. At times the boys stopped to ask for alms, to make up a story for a pedestrian designed to get them money, or to tell a shopkeeper they would watch their store in exchange for food.

To me the most impressive thing about these scenes wasn’t that one or two boys had obviously overdosed — even though these would be the boys most likely to leave a lasting impression on most observers. The most impressive aspect for me was that as every street boy in the group was inhaling, every passer-by was consumed with interest. Each group eyed the other as if they were shopping in a market filled with exotic goods. The two were interwoven, making me think that the psychological value of using the drug was less important to the vast majority of these boys than its social value.

Knowing that the boys were very adept at manipulating public opinion, it was no accident that every passer-by saw the boys using the inhalants. In fact, if they had wanted to advertise their consumption, they could not have developed a better strategy. Kenyan street boys come from traditional cultures where initiation into adult roles is a powerful experience, and one held in full public view of all the elders in the community.

Staring down the pain of circumcision in front of one’s parents and elders is needed to become a successful initiate. Similarly, part of the wide use of inhalants in public can be seen as a way of declaring adult status to the community.

The boys were also using inhalants to initiate and enhance friendships. In their traditional cultures, boys are raised with other boys in similar age groups. Ties between them are lifelong and intimate. The boys need and want this intimacy, and sharing in inhaling glue while in full public view of adults who do not approve, builds group solidarity. The combination of social, psychological, and cultural factors related to the use of inhalants by street boys is not fully considered by many people, before they draw conclusions about what effects the use of inhalants have on the boys’ mental health. If all the reasons for the use of inhalants were considered, and the emphasis was placed on observing the boy’s coping skills rather than on sensational accounts of drug abuse, we would find that most of the boys who use drugs do not fall to them. Indeed the alleged inevitable connection between street children and drug abuse is more of an ethnocentric accusation that serves to diminish the children’s capacities, than it is a culturally free statement about their mental health.

How cultural beliefs alter the way we provide services to street children
For the past several years, we have been running a research programme in Nairobi, Kenya, where I have had the good fortune of getting to know an elderly priest who has been working with street children for the last 40 years. Each Monday night he conducts street work on the streets of Nairobi with several young men and women interested in learning how to work with street children. It has been my pleasure to accompany him. One rainy evening we stopped to talk to a group of about a dozen boys who were living at the back of a dead-end alley. After talking with them about getting help we bought each boy a bag of chips and were off to the next group of children who received the same treatment. As was the custom at the end of each evening we sat down to discuss the evening’s work over chicken and chips.

Afterwards, on our way home, we encountered a group of seven girls about thirteen to fifteen years old. They came into the street stopped our car and pointed to one girl who stayed behind in the shadows. This girl clearly had a high fever and was delusional.

She was either suffering from malaria, or from an overdose of drugs, or even syphilis. Whatever the reason for the girl’s illness they implored the priest to take their sick companion to the hospital. He refused and told them he would check on her in the morning. As we drove back to the hotel I asked him why he left the sick girl in such a crisis. He said that it was past ten o’clock at night, and if he took her to the hospital he wouldn’t get to bed until past one in the morning. He had to say Mass at six and a full day of street work to do afterwards. "I have to draw the line somewhere."

One fact of street work that each person eventually learns is that there are always more troubled children than there are resources to help them. At some point, everyone has to draw back — if for no other reason than to be able to move forward the next day. The priest’s refusal to minister to the sick child, a decision learned from decades of experience, was based on the greater good. Yet, when I saw him leave this sick young girl alone in the rainy night I felt betrayed. He wasn’t living up to the moral standards of his calling. I found myself evaluating forty years of good work by a single late night decision.

I had mistaken my own cultural view about the righteous life and made a judgement about what was appropriate and inappropriate to helping street children. I did this in spite of the fact that each time I visited a programme for street children, no matter in which hemisphere, people spoke disparagingly about another programme across town. They also spoke badly about people helping in a style different from their own. I had seen the religious assail the secular, the tough disciplinarians complain of the easy-going, those in favour of sheltering fight against those who favoured fostering, etc.

My own quick ethnocentric judgments were inappropriate for several reasons. There is little correlation between a programme’s official policy and the way the child experiences it. Street children are also very different from each another, and their needs change over time. There is, in short, plenty of room for nearly all philosophies and nearly every style of help. What keeps diversity, experimentation, and variety from flourishing can often be traced to ethnocentric values.

How cultural differences contribute to the hostility toward street children
Most studies from all over the world indicate that street children are treated badly by their communities. They are sold into what amounts to indebted servitude and are assassinated for no more than petty crimes and haughty behaviour. More street children have been killed in Brazil, for example, than all the people who died in the civil war in Lebanon.

This past summer, a Kenyan street child was murdered by a police reservist. The boy, later identified as Simon, was first said to be 13 years of age, then 15, and finally 18. Whatever his true age, Simon was shot five times at point blank range, then kicked into the gutter and spat upon. Evidently, Simon had stolen an indicator lens from a parked car. There were no other complaints about Simon’s behaviour. It was not said that he was belligerent or that he assaulted anyone.

What was it about this boy that aroused such anger? Was he seen as a grand menace? Was he used as a warning to the larger group of street children? Ironically, the connection between Simon and the larger group of street children was not as clear as it might have seemed to the reservist. Simon was a street child, but he also had loving parents who were full of grief and were present at his funeral. In their mourning they talked about his good character, his sensitivity to others, and his contributions to his family and younger siblings. Like most people in many parts of the world, it appears that the reservist construed a scenario about street children that did not include loving parents or good character. The connection between "inadequate parenting" and "lack of character" is at the heart of the dominant culture’s concept of the origins of street children.

Street children, in nearly all cultures in the world, have become symbols of moral judgment because they violate the norms that most cultures hold about children — by not being under the same roof as their parents, by working instead of going to school, and by assuming the right to enjoy the fruits of their work as they choose (such as consuming drugs).

The violence toward street children emanates from cultures that have different child rearing practices.

Among the socially and economically elite in many cultures in the developing and developed world, the father is present and powerful in child rearing. Boys learn to respect his authority. In contrast, among the poor it is common to have women at the head of families. Boys in these families are raised not so much to respect authority as for an early independence from home.
The judgemental attitude toward street children and which leads to violence comes from the perception that street children are not accepting their childhood. Indeed, the street children do not accept their beholden-ness to adult authority merely because they are younger than adults.

What makes the climate so volatile is that the phenomenon of children taking on the roles of adults is peaking at a time when many societies are moving from traditional codes of conduct, related to birth rights and long accepted roles of authority, to cultures where conduct is based on rational values, democratic choices and a worldwide culture based on the western entertainment media.

Many people draw their views about street children from their personal encounters with street children in highly visible but anonymous places, such as when they are asked for money at traffic lights or approached for alms while shopping, and from the information read in the press where their numbers are exaggerated, because they are equated with the much larger group of working children, where negative and inaccurate descriptions of their families are found, and where the children’s alleged psychopathology is explained by experts.

These opinions are strongly influenced by culturally biased and ethnocentric values, which generally are held dear because of the unpredictable and rapid changes in social roles taking place in highly tense, changing, developing societies.

Like the alleged murderer of Simon, who seemingly quickly (and falsely) made a connection between large scale-societal problems and the petty problems of minor delinquency caused by some street children, other murderers of street children justify their actions in self-righteous, moral terms, seeing themselves as heroes in cultures which are rapidly approaching moral decay.

Street children have become cultural scapegoats portrayed as carriers of all the large-scale social problems, including inequality of income, changing family values together with changes in the roles of men and women, and the reduction in personal security in an overly romanticised past.

Only when the vastness and complexities of this situation are confronted, will the hostilities be reduced. There is an old African saying: "If you want to get to the root of a murder, you have to look for the blacksmith who made the panga."

What can you do?
Ten cross-cultural commandments

1. Examine your culturally-bound beliefs about the families of street children and about the psychological functioning of the children.

2. Embrace alternate family structures as legitimate.

3. Don’t confuse poverty with psychopathology.

4. Accept young people in adult roles.

5. Focus on the child not the drug.

6. Work with street children without forcing them to accept your moral point of view.

7. Refrain from quick judgements against others who work with street children from different cultural points of view.

8. Give psychotherapy only to those who need it; give the rest of the children practical help.

9. Do your best to increase income generation and self-sufficiency.

10. Educate the public — the most difficult, and potentially the most rewarding of the tasks you can do.