ISSUE 35 DECEMBER 2001 BACK

street children

The children on our streets

The first of a two-part article based on a workshop by Professor Michael Bourdillon of the University of Zimbabwe

Part I: The Problem

Everybody seems to agree that street children comprise a growing problem in Africa's cities. This is why most of us are interested in street children. This agreement is, however, very deceptive. When we start asking precisely what the problem is, we find we get different answers. So the first question I think we ought to face is: “Is there really a problem?' If so, what precisely is the nature of this problem?

I remember once raising this issue in a workshop. A social worker started asking aggressively: “Are you suggesting there is no problem?' I hedged and tried to explain that the issue was not as clear as seems at first sight. Eventually she got tired of my academic talking round the issue, and said firmly: “The children are no problem; the problem is the police who keep rounding them up and sending them to us!'

When we start thinking precisely about what the problem is, we will find there are different problems for different people. Let us start with administrators, including government officials at all levels.

Administrators' problems
Planners do not plan for street children. Wherever street children appear, they are not in the plans “and not wanted. But they are there through force of circumstances. It is no good deciding where we do not want them and trying to wish them out of existence. We need to decide where and how we do want them to live in a way that is practically possible.

The government has the responsibility for looking after all its citizens. When there are children on the streets, who do not have adequate food and shelter, government is clearly failing in its responsibility.

Some members of government genuinely care about their responsibility for their people. So deprived children are for them a problem.

From the administrators' point of view, there are at least three other evident problems that do not arise from such social conscience. One of these concerns is the image of the city or the country: street children are unsightly. They tarnish the image of a modern, well administered city.

They offend middle and upper-class ideas of what life should be like in a city. The presence of street children offends particularly those administrators who are responsible for running the city properly: it looks as though they are incapable of doing their job properly.

If this is the major problem, the solution is simply to round up the people concerned and put them out of sight. I think most of us would agree that this is not the way to conceive the problem, and that such solutions are not humane. But it is the way some people subconsciously think. We hear people talking about "cleaning up" the city, as if these children of our country can be considered "dirt" “sometimes they are explicitly spoken of as "dirt".

A second problem facing administrators is that if they are to be held responsible for the running of society they need to be in control. Flagrant breach of law cannot be tolerated. Street children often do break the law. They are often involved in minor crime. They certainly do not respond well to attempts to control their activities “especially where money is concerned.

This leads to a third, and more serious, problem for administrators: street children sometimes threaten the rights of other, more law-abiding, citizens. Apart from threat to people's property, street children sometimes harrass the public, and can threaten their physical safety.

The public
The public has diverse perceptions of the problems of street children. Some of these relate to the threat to persons and property that I have just mentioned. There are also some less selfish problems perceived. Street children are often homeless, hungry and abused, and we need to do something to help them. Street children appeal to our paternal or maternal instincts to protect and care for young children.

Having young children on the street offends our ideas of what childhood should be about. We believe that all children should have a home to go to, to provide shelter, and a caring family environment.

All children should have security. They should be able to play games and have fun. They should be improving themselves at school. Children should not have to earn their own living. They should be clean and wash regularly. They should be healthy, and get help immediately when they are sick. These we regard as the fundamental rights of children, and street children appear to be denied some or all of these rights. Partly out of sympathy, and partly out of a sense of guilt about our own comforts, it offends us when see children deprived of these essentials of childhood.

One reason for trying to do something for the children is our concern for the future. When we see children neglected on the street, we worry about what this means for the future of our society. When we see young children fighting with knives, we worry about how violent they will be when they grow up. Our concern for the children is mixed with a concern for ourselves and our own children.

Related to all this are issues of society and culture. People are fundamentally social beings. The human body operates in cooperation with other people through a system of learning. From infancy onwards, we have been learning skills of how to cope with everyday situations, including skills of language, of etiquette, as well as more specialised skills.

Our learning only works within society and culture. These need a degree of stability for us to feel comfortable as we carry out our intricate variety of learned routines. So we have an image of how society should be. We are disturbed by people who threaten this comfortable stability with radically different ways of organizing themselves and behaving generally. Street children, by their visibly different way of life, disturb us.

Our instinctive reaction is draw such children back into our way of life and our values. We think of reintegrating them into society and into schools. We think of how to get these children as near as possible to what we think childhood ought to be. Our instinctive reaction, like the reaction of authorities, is how to keep the children off the streets. We would be less disturbed if they were made less visible.

Welfare organisations
Social welfare organisations often share the problems of other people among the public, but they may have further problems specific to their work.

People in government departments of social welfare may subscribe to the ideals of the government they work fo. Or they may be more sympathetic to the children, as the lady I described at the beginning. In this case, they have yet another problem. How do they reconcile what they think is best for the children, with what their superiors tell them to do? How can they satisfy their superiors and, at the same time, the needs of the children?

NGOs often have problems of interference from government, or at least lack of co-operation. How do you try to help children on the street, when these children are constantly being rounded up and imprisoned in institutions? How do you try to protect the interests and rights of the children, without acquiring the reputation of being trouble-makers “with all the problems that go with such a reputation?

The children and their families
For the children and their families, being on the street is not a problem. It is their solution to a number of problems. Crowded living conditions are a problem. A young lad who shares a single-room with his mother and two grown-up sisters with children of their own, solves a problem by finding somewhere to sleep with his friends. He remains attached to his family and visits them regularly. He is integrated with them and does not need to be reintegrated. But it is better for him to sleep out than to stay at home. When he finds a group of friends with whom he can stay at night, his situation has improved. He becomes visible as a street child and part of our problem, but for him, being on the streets solves the problem of sharing an overcrowded room.

For the families and the children, child labour is not a problem. It is the solution to the problem of not having enough money to feed and clothe the children. Child labour can be a problem. If a child is forced to work all day for an adult who takes most of the child's earnings (as sometimes happens with refugee children who are afraid of being repatriated if their plight is known), this is inhumane and unjust. It may be a problem for children to have to do hours of manual labour at school, or to spend much of their day in misery learning useless and boring information. (Somehow, we always accept child labour if it is enforced in the “respectable' environment of the school.) But spending a few hours earning a bit of extra money for himself or the family can be quite fun.

One little girl was sitting with her friends selling things by the side of the road. She had a large bunch of bananas to sell. When a potential customer wanted to buy the whole bunch, she refused. After much argument, she eventually explained. "If I sell you the whole bunch, what am I going to do for the rest of the day? I can't sit here with nothing to sell."

Being out of school may not be a problem. Paying school fees for an education that will be useless in terms of finding employment is a problem. Living under an authoritarian teacher can be a problem, especially one that regularly beats, or verbally abuses, vulnerable children. Spending hours doing boring and totally useless and meaningless learning is a problem. Opting for the streets solves all these problems.

Breaking the law in moneymaking rackets is not a problem: it is a partial solution to the problems of poverty. Sniffing glue relieves the pain of cold and hunger. Taking alcohol or marijuana relieves boredom, and enables a child to become part of a supportive group. And so on.

For the children, being on the streets may be a solution to problems of violence or neglect at home. It may fulfil a need for ambition or adventure. It may be the solution to having no home or no parents.

The problems for the children are things like lack of security, cold in the winter, keeping dry in the rains, hunger at times (though quite often they earn very well in Harare), what to do when they are sick, where to keep their belongings or savings, how to prepare for an adult future. Perhaps their biggest problem is harrassment “from the police, from government, from criminals, from their peers.

They also have problem maintaining their self-respect and self-image, when people like us criticise the way they live or their values, or demand that our feelings of what is right for children are the only correct ones. They may feel inferior and guilty when NGOs or social workers tell them how they ought to go about things, what they ought to want and do.

There may be other problems of which they are not fully aware, the danger of AIDS or other diseases, or of sniffing glue. But let us not confuse our problems with theirs. We need to remember that sometimes our problems are their solutions, and sometimes our solutions are their problems. If they are part of our problems; part of their problem is us!

If authorities, the public, social workers, children and their families all have different problems, what are the real or most important problems? Our first reaction may be to say that the children's problems are the most important. But there is no simple answer.

Children know what some of their problems are, but they often do not have the knowledge or the experience to understand the difference between their fundamental problems and the symptoms. And they often do not know how to resolve their problems in the long term.

Sometimes the children have to adopt the tough culture of the streets. When they are with their peers, they have to act and speak as if they enjoy street life. When you continually act and speak in a particular style, you get to think that way.

When they are with us, they may express a desire to leave the streets, go to school and fit into a more normal mode of life. Then back with their peers, they give up the opportunities we offer them, and steal from the hand that feeds them. How do we work out what they really want and when they are pretending? Sometimes they do not know themselves. The other problems I have mentioned are real problems, even if they are not the problems of the children. Most of us want an orderly and safe city to live in, and we cannot simply let people disrupt the order of our lives with impunity. There is another issue in trying to assess the real problem: it is not always clear which children are most in need of help. The boy who looks most pathetic might in fact be the boy of initiative, and a talented actor, earning a good living from his begging routine. The children that respond most readily to any organisation offering to help, might again be those with a sharp eye for gain and a good sense of initiative.

The children who are not coping with street life might be more withdrawn and thus less visible. Such children might be suffering abuse, or extreme poverty and overcrowding at home. The visible children attract attention, but they are not necessarily the ones most in need of help. In Harare, much attention is paid to street boys, who are very visible on the streets. Homeless girls quickly get drawn into the sex industry. They spend less time on the streets, and when they do appear they look well dressed and well nourished. They are not so noticeable, and people hardly ever talk about them. As far as I know, no organisations here have focused their attention on such girls. Yet, arguably, these girls are more abused and more in need of help than the boys. There is no simple answer to what or who are the most important problems, and what are the best solutions. In different organisations, we try to help in different ways. We do the best we can, not expecting it to be perfect, hoping that in some way we can help. But we cannot help if we do not think very carefully about what problems we are trying to solve, and whose problems these are.

Michael Bourdillon has taught for many years in the Department of Sociology at the University of Zimbabwe. He helped establish Streets Ahead to help street children in Harare. He has published a book on a harrassed homeless community.

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