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street children

Society makes survival a crime

Most children in the world work: but there are profound differences in the kind of work, the conditions under which it is done, and the meaning of the work in the child’s social world. Linda Richter of the SA Medical Research Council and Jill Swart-Kruger of UNISA discuss the social, economic, and other issues related to work done by street children

It is commonly assumed that the views of children and adults as to what constitutes acceptable and meaningful work dovetail. Analyses of children’s work, and protective mechanisms instituted to protect children, are, however, usually imposed by adults rather than decided upon in consultation with children. Most children in the world work: but there are profound differences in the kind of work, the conditions under which it is done, and the meaning of the work in the child’s social world. Children have always worked and carried responsibility for part of the household economy, especially in agricultural communities. Such work is not considered to he "bad" for children; in fact, many Western social scientists now argue that children in rich industrialised societies feel alienated because they are excluded from household and community work.

It has been suggested the ‘good-for-you’ work, which usually takes the form of self-care and/or some form of family or household activities, promotes the development of social and co-operative behaviour, fosters the development of responsibility, benefits the child through experience of adult-guided learning, supports the acquisition of gender roles, and enables children to learn the rules which link work to relationships. This is all very good, though very Eurocentric and individualistic. But it serves to make two points:

  1. It is not work per se which is damaging to children: the damage depends on the nature of the work, the working conditions, and the meaning of the child’s work.

  2. Issues surrounding children’s work are inseparable from the social order. A child who helps her parents hoe the fields and harvest their subsistence crop, no matter how arduous the work, is doing something very different from the child of a tenant labourer, who is forced to work for the profit of the farm owner.

In the UNICEF Situation Analysis of South Africa, it is reported that nearly 800 000 African and Coloured children are involved in child labour, mostly in the farming sector. Some children are sold or duped into conditions of bondage, where they work in a variety of home-based enterprises. Simply outlawing all work by children under a certain age and ensuring the effective application of such laws, however, may not actually be as helpful to children as it would at first sight, appear.

In South Africa, the Basic Conditions of Employment Act of 1983 prohibited the employment of children under 15 years of age; thus children who work for money are acting illegally. In June 1995 extensive proposed regulations regarding the employment of children were gazetted, for debate prior to formal regulation. The content of these proposals, however laudable, appear largely to encompass the formal sector, which is not the main sector in which children work.

To deny a child all access to work, to make it illegal for a child to work other than in controlled formal sector activities, criminalises the working child. This not only draws attention away from the abusive employer, making it impossible for the child to obtain redress in cases of exploitation; it also does not address issues such as social inequity, poverty, and the unresponsiveness of the school system.

Street children’s work
Myers (1989) has pointed out that it is important to ‘avoid conceptual clichés’ — misdiagnoses of problems which can lead to inappropriate interventions that aggravate rather than ameliorate a situation. An example of such misdiagnosis, which has been made in many parts of the world, is to treat children who work on the streets as vagrants and delinquents. For us, examining the situation of street children is helpful for throwing into relief some of the most important issues surrounding children’s work. Extensive research has shown that the income-generating activities of street children originate in the poverty and accompanying social disorganisation of their families. In Brazil, for example 14% of the economically active population is between 10 and 17 years of age: On the basis of this and other information, Sanders (1987) argues that street children are in the streets as part of a strategy by which poor families use every resource to survive, including the labour of their children. A survey in South America showed that the majority of working street children turned their money over to their families, although about a third used it for their own living costs (Myers 1989). Aptekar (1996 in press) makes a similar point with regard to street children in Kenya, as does Bourdillon (1985) in relation to Harare. In Asuncion, 64% of street children said they worked to help their families economically (Espinola et al; 1988).

Our own research shows that most street children in South Africa work to glean money to live and that many contribute income or goods to their families. They listed elements of basic survival — food and money — as the most important things in their daily lives, whereas shelter youth stressed activities, which showed their close identification with the goals of most shelter programmes.

There is evidence that the work of street children is damaging to them in many ways. Our own findings are similar to those identified by Moerat (1991:82) in a study of newspaper vendors in Cape Town:

Their exploitation is evident in their deprivation of family life, of reasonable working hours, of time to pursue social and leisure interests ... of a negotiated wage, of favourable working conditions, of dignity, of the acknowledgment of the value of their labour, of legal protection, of membership in an effective worker organisation, of further acquisition of knowledge and skills, of opportunities and scope for advancement.

Other areas of exploitation are typically those outlined by Rajani and Kudrati (1993:22-23):

Many children talked about the risks of making a living on the streets and low rates of return as their main difficulties. Street vendors complained that their assets and money were often stolen by older children and adults. Children who worked for others talked about having to work long hours with irregular and little pay in return. Those who worked in restaurants reported having to wait until late to eat cold leftovers scraped from the bottom of the pot. In most cases, the ‘steady’ occupations were considered low paying...

While we observed overt prostitution in only one case, virtually all the girls were pulled into relationships in which they were exploited sexually. A complex combination of protection, affection, gifts and threats was offered in exchange for sex.

But earning money can also be personally enriching for street children. They take considerable pride in being able to contribute to the economic support of themselves and their families, apart from often enjoying the work itself.

Recently, journalist Dan Moyane (The Saturday Star, 24 February) wrote nostalgically of how, as a boy, he used to buy boxes of apples to sell on the trains and at crossroads in Soweto, ‘so that I could have money to buy goods I fancied." And Bourdillon (1995: 13) tells of a small girl selling bananas on the street who refused to sell her whole bunch to a single customer, asking "What am I going to do for the rest of the day? I can’t sit here with nothing to sell." He cautions us to remember that "spending a few hours earning extra money for himself or the family can be quite fun" for a child.

Street children prefer to work informally: ‘We want this money easy ... washing cars is simple, unlike working on contract. Well we do not get a lot of money but with the little I get I can afford to buy a pair of shoes and satisfy my wishes. For instance, if I would like to buy a tape recorder, I can give a deposit and pay it off bit by bit.’ (Schurink & Schurink 1993:185)

One of the most exploitative aspects of street children’s work is the way it is redefined by society and stripped of its validity. The children’s concepts of work do not coincide with those of local residents, shopkeepers and public authorities. They view all their income generating activities — whether this be parking or washing cars, scavenging in dustbins, sweeping the pavement for a café owner, or simply entreating passers-by to give them money — as work. 

Society, on the other hand, labels such activities as "parasitic" or "unproductive", or as "sub proletarian activities". These negative connotations do not take into account that work is "any activity where time and effort are expended in the pursuit of financial gain, or of material gain derived from other persons in exchange for the worker’s labour or the products of such labour". (Bromley 1982:62)

In South Africa, official interventions in street occupations are usually negative and restrictive; both the status and the unique situation of street children are ignored. Many of the activities — including begging, trading in stolen goods, gambling, "parking" cars and commercial sex — are punishable offences. Alternatively, if they are simply considered to be an eyesore they can be removed as vagrants. The Children’s Status Act of 1987 discusses parenthood and guardianship but ignores the situation of children under 21 who have to support themselves and/or their families.

The problem of poverty is not just a shortage of income but, more importantly, a shortage of bona fide income opportunities. In concluding a review of street children in the developing world, Aptekar (1994:2 16) maintains that "Street children ... are allowed to be on the streets in the poor urban areas of capitalistic and nondictatorial countries in the developing world. It is in these places that they learn to find a niche in the economy of the poor and that they participate as citizens by earning a living."

Bourdillon (1995: 13) concludes that the biggest problem of all for street children is harassment by public officials and private citizens: criticism of their way of life and their values diminishes their self-respect and the demand that our beliefs about what is right for children are the only correct ones undermines their resilience. He urges that "We need to remember that sometimes our problems are their solutions and sometimes our solutions are their problems."

The policy of the Street-Wise organisation concerning child labour is as follows: ‘If a child has to work in order to live, then the child’s physical, emotional and spiritual development should not be impaired and a minimum wage per day should be paid. Given the dire social and economic distress that street children experience and the failure of our society to adequately care for them, we recognise that such legal income generation activities are a means by which children can gain some control and mastery over their lives. All street children work in order to survive, whether this work be begging or washing cars. This type of work needs to be regarded as economic activity rather than as child labour, and Street-Wise supports such economic activity.

We insist that the eventual aid of our efforts as a society should be to provide and care for all children (and families) so that they need not have to resort to such income generation activities to survive. To this end Street-Wise dedicates its energies.’


Aptekar, L. (1994) In Cross-Cultural Research 28, 195-224.
Aptekar, L. (1996, in press) in Africa Insight.
Bourdillon, M. in The Child Care Worker, Vol. 13, No.3, 12-13.
Bromley, R. (1982) in Gilbert, R. (Ed.) Critical approaches to the analysis of urban issues. (59-77) London: Wiley.
Espinola, B. et al (1988) In the streets: Working street children in Asuncion —A book for action. Bogota: UNICEF
Myers, W (1989) in lnternational Labour Review, 128, 321-335.
Rajani, R. & Kudrati, M, (1994) Street Children of Mwanza. A situational analysis. Dar es SaIaam: Kuleana.
Sanders, T (1987) in UFSI Reports, (TGS, 7-‘87) 1-7.
Schurink, W & Schurink, E. (1993) in Schurink, W (ed.) Street children. an investigation into the causes and incidence of the problem of street children in RSA. (167-2 10) HSRC, Pretoria.

Reprinted from Recovery, a journal on research and co-operation on violence education and rehabilitation of young people (now renamed ChildrenFIRST).