NUMBER 1082 • 9 NOVEMBER • street children
Children interviewed cited the following reasons for leaving home: ‘ family violence, parental alcoholism, abuse, poverty, and personal reasons. Keen (1990) quoted a street child’s words: “When my mother drank she skelled us out, she said we were — ! It was so ugly we couldn’t take it anymore. She used to chase us out of the house and we had to go and find somewhere to sleep. Then she started to sleep with the man next door and they used to skel every day. We became ashamed, my sister and I, and I thought, ‘No, I’m not going to stay here anymore’.” (p. 11).
This is a description of a broken home characterized by alcoholism, violence, and desertion by family which according to Keen’s study, cause 90% of street children to leave home. Although some children flee in search of excitement, adventure, personal freedom and self-fulfillment, a comfortable, independent, and financially secure life, and to become part of the “action” in society (personal factors), the majority leave as a result of socio-economic and other factors within the family or immediate environment. These family factors may include: abuse of alcohol and drugs; financial problems and poverty; family violence and family breakup; poor family relationships; parental unemployment and resulting stress; physical and/or sexual abuse of children; parents absent from home for personal or financial reasons (e.g. a migrant labour system); collapse of family structure; collapse of extended family; and emergence of vulnerable nuclear families in urban areas (Le Roux, 1993).
According to Fall (1986) reasons for children leaving home can be categorized as “push” and “pull” factors. Pull factors include: excitement and glamour of living in great cities; hope of raising own living standard; and financial security and independence. Push factors include; natural population increase above carrying capacity; international trend of urbanization; cost of living; search for additional income; child abandonment and neglect; family size; and disintegration of the traditional family. Many children come from structurally disadvantaged homes where poor living conditions result in many difficulties. Parental loss through death or abandonment and/or family conflict or shortage of housing may force children onto the streets. In many cases the move to street life is an adaptive process to the stress and severe oppression experienced by families living in a society of conflict.
Thus, the move to the streets often represents a desire to take control of one’s life and displace old values and conditions with new ones (Hickson & Gaydon, 1989). According to Cockburn (1991) “In extreme circumstances street children are the neglected, abused and rejected offspring of parents and communities benumbed by the minimal conditions of their lives ... 80% of all children we see have a history of abuse – physical, sexual or emotional” (p.13).
Swart (1988) also refers to the above reasons why children leave home. The street child phenomenon is directly linked to rapid industrialization and urbanization with the concomitant breakdown of extended family ties: “Harsh or neglectful treatment of children by their families frequently derives from parental depression, anger, anxiety and frustration at life circumstances” (p.34). Other reasons mentioned by Swart include the political systems such as migrant labour and racial segregation, as well as unrest and violence in black residential areas in South Africa. Other authors (Richter, 1991; Swart, 1988; Cockburn 1991; Peacock, 1989; Scharf, 1988; Rose, 1991; Keen, 1990; Swart, 1990) gave more or less the same reasons for children taking to the streets. The present research confirms these findings.
It needs to be emphasized that street children represent a worldwide phenomenon despite cultural differences. Examination of the literature also indicates that the backgrounds of street children, despite some differences, are remarkably similar. Although findings presented in the present study reflect aspects of the South African street child’s condition, most of these are common among street children internationally.
JOHANN LE ROUX
Le Roux, J. (1997). Backgrounds of Street Children in South Africa. In Boikanyo, S. and Donnell, P. (Eds.) Children and Youth at risk into the 21st century. Pietermaritzburg: Masakhane Youth Consultancy, pp.17–18.