The Question of Street Kids in Rwanda

The overlapping perception of street kids all over the world remains a challenge and in Rwanda its quite a new phenomenon in which several questions have been raised as to what could be the remedy to what is understood to be a social menace.

However, scholars have distinguished the relationship of child streetism to mainstream society into the three additional attributes.
First, it is an exclusive urban construct. Children in rural areas who are similarly placed are not identified as such including children in rural villages. Nor, for that matter, are children in other traditional groupings, such as fishing communities, even if they live in a city.
Secondly, street children belong to middle and late childhood age groups for example in the Ghanaian survey by Van Ham, Blavo and Opuku, 1992, whose findings have been replicated elsewhere, 51% of children were 13 to 15 years of age and 34% were 7 to 9 years old. Only 4% of the children were younger (4-6 years of age). This distribution of age apparently reflects the fact that the youngest age at which a child can work on the street is around 5 and can survive -if alone-when s/he 6 or 7 years old, while older children leave the streets in search of more profitable, socially rewarding and stable forms of employment.
Thirdly, most street children are male. Girls make up no more than a quarter of street children and typically far less. For example, in Namibia and Botswana, they account for less than 5% of this population. This much lower participation rate for girls is usually attributed to cultural constraints and families' insistence that girl children help with the housework, a duty from which boy children are generally excused.

Perception versus facts

The typical depiction of street children by the media invariably connects them with physical deprivation, inadequate nutrition and hygiene and, the skirting of the law. It also portrays children as being vulnerable to adult (particularly male) exploitation and to environmental hazards.
These and other negative traits are supposedly evidenced by the street child's poor health, inadequate clothing and alienation that percolates down to feelings of personal insecurity, resulting to emotional disabilities and destructive behaviour. All this reflects the fact that these children spend much of their time away from adult support. Yet, empirical evidence is quite different. Any street child earns, on average, as much as the adults in their vicinity and often up to one and a half times the minimum wage of most of these adults. For example, in Gaborone, Botswana, where a maid usually earns $20 for eight hours of work, few street children would spend 15 minutes to clean a car for less than $5. Their income, therefore, is generally sufficient to meet the cost of decent and nutrition meals.

Indeed, for many, food is far less plentiful at home, if available at all. For this reason, too, a good outfit is usually not beyond their means, although they often ignore middle-class views of decency in preference for worn-out clothes, or, if engaged in begging, then they wear tattered clothing and wash only weekly, to increase their earning potential.
In the same vein, research regularly shows that most street children are predominantly healthy and that when they are ill, they are usually looked after by a relative. Thus, many of them resort to self medication purchased from traditional drug sellers or over-the counter, which is a phenomenon common in the under developed world.
Another misconception about street children is that they are highly individualistic or that they are driven to individual behaviour by their circumstances. Research shows, however, that they are more likely to lie and operate in groups, where solidarity extends from sharing food, so that everybody at least gets something, to providing emotional support.

These groups are highly organised. They usually have a recognised leader, whose position is rarely based on harassment, while other members treat each other as equals. Indeed, it is as if they create for themselves new families. For example, Vittachi (1989) described a group of children in Chile who lived under a bridge. Every morning they drew up shopping lists and distributed tasks, while the older members went to work, the middle aged children cared for the youngest.
The last facet of child streetism suggested that its members live largely in a “children's society.” However, at one and the same time, most street children (including those of the street) are rarely cut off from positive adult influence. This is because their resilient, family anchored counterparts often attach themselves to adult “mentors” or are temporarily “adopted” by adults in times of trouble. This is especially so in Africa, where in spite of the weakening of the traditional responsibility of adults to direct the conduct of children-whether or not their parents- practice persists.
Finally, and again in contrast to popular perception, most research shows that few street children are actively involved in crime, although given that some of their activities, such as begging, are regulated by law, they are often 'attended to' by the police.

For example, in both in Windhoek and Bombay, two out of five children reported that were at times arrested, incarcerated (Taçon, 1991a, Blanc, 1994).
Similarly, in Botswana, 75% of the children who were detained by police were found to be criminally 'clean' (Okello-wengi, 1994), and in Zambia, Taçon (1991a, 1991b,) was able to stress a single street child who was ever brought to court. Instead it appeared that most detentions of street children are driven chiefly by so called clean up companies in the belief that their presence affects tourism adversely (Dorfman 1984; porio et al, 1994).
Other reasons are that informal trading competes with established enterprises and established government revenues they can generate from issuing permits.

No wonder, that it remains a big threat to the government and the society at large because it is a challenge as to to how it can be dealt with.

26 April 2005


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