Africa Children's Day 16 June
Focus On Street Children

Ask most children who have never visited Africa about the lives of their age-mates there, chances are that they will have a mental picture of them playing outside huts or herding cattle in a spacious rural landscape.

Less likely would be a picture of an African child like Canésius Ndihokubwayo eking out a living on the streets of towns and cities. As the continent marks the Day of the African Child on Wednesday, Ndihokubwayo's story illustrates his plight and that of those like him.

At 13 years old, Ndihokubwayo is already a veteran of the streets. When, after his father died, he left his village in Bubanza Province in 1999, he was confident of finding a job and hopeful for a better life; but disappointment swiftly followed. Ndihokubwayo ended up living on the streets because his surrogate father, who had promised him work, failed to deliver.

Ndihokubwayo is among thousands of other street children in Burundi's urban centres, such as the capital, Bujumbura, Ngozi, Kayanza, Gitega and Rumonge, compelled to fend for themselves. Some lack proper shelter and all face disparagement from adults, who routinely accuse them of being guilty of all sorts of social demeanors, yet are happy to use their labour without pay.

The director of social affairs in the Ministry for the Promotion of Women and for Social Action, Eugène Sinzumunsi, told IRIN that there were some 5,000 street children in the country, although 70 percent of them slept at home each night. Even so, they all face difficulties in their daily lives.

Why they end up in the streets

Poverty is one of several factors accounting for children taking to the streets. In a 2003 survey, the Association for Community Development (Association pour la promotion de développement communautaire) found that 48 percent of the street children in urban centres were where they were due to poverty, the association's legal representative, Anicet Havyarimana, said. He added that the survey showed that 18.6 percent were on the streets because their parents had died, and 17 percent because of war.

The rural-urban exodus is a major reason for the phenomenon of street children in Bujumbura. Children had been flocking to towns to escape the drudgery of rural life, said Déo Ndikumana, the representative of Libejeun, a local organisation advocating children's rights. He said children dropped out of school early to escape farm work, which they found unattractive. But having taken such action their choices are usually limited: the streets for the Hutu children and the army for Tutsis. Children born to unmarried mothers unable to care for them are another factor for the move to the towns.

In the absence of family or government action offering a better alternative, children live as best they can. Some resort to begging, others to pick pocketing or, like Canésius, work as porters; others hawk. Such activities enable the children to eat, but they lack decent shelter, medical care and protection.

Emmanuel Harerimana, 11, spends his nights in a wrecked car in Bwiza, a slum in the city centre. Children of his age on the streets are used as sex partners by the older boys, and are sometimes raped. Some adults also beat street children when they demand payment for services rendered, such as porters.

A failed solution

The street children are also accused of involvement in street crimes. After being blamed by the police for a series of rapes in December 2003, 700 street children were rounded up, screened and taken to the government centre for training and eintegration of street children, CERES. But now only 175 remain at the centre. The rest were either sent to their provinces of origin, or simply returned to the same streets.

"Children need more than food; the ministry simply regrouped them without having a clear plan for each individual with a view to reintegrating them," Ndikumana said.

Placing more than 200 children together for more than a year in places like CERES was likely to result in regimentation of the institutions or the formation of gangs, said Rwamo Athanase,the secretary-general of the oeuvre humanitaire pour la protection et le développement de l'enfant en difficulté, an organisation which cares for street children; in either case reintegration of the children would fail.

Solving the problem

Searching for a new solution to the problem, the Ministry for the Promotion of Women and for Social Action is preparing a one-year programme to rehabilitate street children. Initially, 1,500 children would be targeted, Sinzumunsi said. The ministry's role would be to coordinate the different efforts of its partners, thereby to avert isolated actions or a situation in which children were passed from one organisation to another.

Therefore, with the help of its partner organisations, the ministry plans to send 795 children back to school, to reintegrate 137 with their families, and provide 885 with vocational training.

"If every partner honours his pledges, there will be no street children within two years," Athanase said.

For eight years now, several organisations have been working to rid the nation of street children, without success. Libejeun's Ndikumana said many organisations claiming to be experienced and working for street children had neither the legal status nor requisite capability to do so.

"But nobody controls whether the individual has the material conditions or the morality to take care of the children," Ndikumana said.

Normally, he added, an organisation should only help the children obtain a judge's authorisation on their legal status before guardianship could be passed on to a recognised body. Moreover, in the absence of a law on child delinquency, some organisations can maltreat minors. Havyarimana said that of 528 children assisted by such organisations, just 193 said they were satisfied with the care provided.

Ndikumana said such organisations failed to provide the requisite care because they did not bother to tackle the root causes of the street-child phenomenon. As a possible corrective measure, he said, these organisations should encourage income-generating activities in rural areas.

Libejeun, with help from the Belgian aid agency, Cooperation Belge au Developpement, is helping unmarried mothers have their children recognised by their fathers so that the latter could provide financial support.

Meanwhile, the street children say they are not asking for too much. Ndihokubwayo told IRIN he would be happy just to get vocational training. Others, like Emmanuel, said they would settle for a chance to return to school and get daily food rations.

UN Integrated Regional Information Networks
ANALYSIS June 15, 2004



home / Previous feature