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
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
"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
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,"
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