Today is Bloggers Unite for Human Rights Day.
I’m not a great one for ‘Days’ in my non-blogging life. Sometimes it seems that every day of the year has been designated International Something Day. But occasional mass-blogging awareness-raising days like Bloggers Unite for Human Rights appeal to me in a completely different way – I suppose because in the eleven months since I started blogging I’ve encountered so much evidence of the vast and astonishing communicative power of the blogosphere.
And given that, for so many of us, blogging is a pretty 'me me me' activitity - 'hello world, look at all the books I've read/buy my products/read my book/see my pretty garden/marvel at my home decor/see how beautifully I can write/knit/paint' etc etc - which is all excellent fun and terribly therapeutic and mutually beneficial for many of us, I for one welcome the occasional jolt brought about by a mass blogging day.
Such initiatives demand that we stop and lift our heads and look beyond our usual sphere of blog topics for a moment, in order to explore and communicate something of slightly more global siginificance than our latest walk on the beach or amusing family incident.
So today, I’m joining in. And my chosen subject is Street Children of the World.
The term ‘street children’ is a contentious one. Some say it is negative – that it labels and stigmatises children. Others say it gives them an identity and a sense of belonging. The term embraces a very wide range of children, from those who are utterly homeless to those who work on the streets but sleep at home; some have family contact, others do not; some live on the streets with their entire families; others live in day or night shelters; some spend a lot of time in prison. The term ‘street children’ is used because it is short and widely understood, but of course street children defy such convenient generalisations because each child is a unique individual.
Much of what follows is based on information from the Consortium for Street Children website and the report State of the World’s Street Children: Violence by Sarah Sarah Thomas de Benítezah
Nobody knows how many street children there are in the world. Estimates have been as high as 100 million. The true numbers may never be known. But do the numbers matter? Isn’t one child abandoned to his or her fate on the streets of New York or Cairo or Bucharest one child too many? Some governments continue to believe that violent tactics are an effective method of dealing with street children. Most others pay lip-service to street children, sympathizing with their problems but not investing in resolving those problems. Instead of finding solutions governments are compounding the violence street children face and creating additional hurdles for children to manoeuvre past in their efforts to survive. However, governments are not alone in their negligence and it is an unfortunate tragedy that international agencies ignore these children in their policies and programmes.
Labelled a ‘social problem’, street children have sometimes found themselves at the sharp end of short-sighted policies which appear to protect wider society from ‘antisocial’ children instead of protecting children from societal violence.
Cambodia’s turbulent history has left a legacy of social problems, including large numbers of street children. One source estimated 10,000-20,000 street-working children ; another found 1,050 sleeping on the streets plus 670 returning home at night in Phnom Penh . A study of ‘vulnerable’ children, including street children, in Phnom Penh found 88% had had sexual relations with tourists. M’Lop Tapang (MT) is a local NGO working in partnership with International Childcare Trust to protect street children in Sihanoukville, Cambodia’s only beach resort, which has a burgeoning sex tourism industry.
My name is Vibol. I am 13 years old. I have been street living on and off as long as I can remember. My mum died and my dad does not really care about me … We have lots of beaches and tourists here. I can make good money from collecting cans and I used to get presents from tourists and scraps of pizza from them. They often gave me money or bought me coca cola.I used to hang out with Sambath and Kosal, they made me try glue. That was 6 years ago and I am still struggling with this habit. One boy in my gang, Sok, knew a way of making fast money ... he encouraged me to go with him and his friends. They met a German tourist, he was about 30, and he paid them $2-5 to sexually abuse them. I would not join in; I just kind of hung out with them. It happened for 5 nights, behind the sand dunes … After a few months, I saw more kids getting paid to do this. I needed the money and wanted to be like my older mates. The first time it happened, the man took me and my two mates to his apartment and made us watch sex movies ... then he started to touch us. It was horrible, he is a bad man, but I wanted the money for glue … I told MT Child protection team and that man is in jail now. Now I stay every day at MT drop in center, but I still sometimes go out on the streets and use glue. I do not really care that much about myself or my family, I just like moving on,
but for now, I am learning at the center, we get nice food, lots of football and dancing.
Case Study: Girl-mothers in Sierra Leone
ChildHope and Help a Needy Child International (HANCI) are working in Sierra Leone on a Peace and Reconciliation post-war project to improve the situation of street children, especially girl-mothers.
Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world and has the highest death rates for children under 5. After 10 years of civil war two-thirds of Sierra Leone’s population of nearly 5 million people was displaced. 60% of these were children. During the war, an estimated 5,000 boys and girls were recruited or kidnapped to become child soldiers. Although statistics are sketchy, it is estimated that at least 5,000 girls were used as workers or sex slaves by the rebels, with many becoming pregnant. Unlike other children caught up in the civil war, girl-mothers were not considered “ex-combatants” or refugees by the State and were largely excluded from protection and support. Pregnant girls and young mothers, abandoned by their captors and the State, also faced cultural taboos in which childbirth out of wedlock brings shame upon the family; they were considered a negative influence on other pupils, blamed by community leaders for their association with rebels and rejected by families unwilling or unable to feed returning daughters and their shameful progeny. As a result some girl-mothers left their home communities for the streets to try to survive. Once there they joined the growing numbers of children living in the streets.
Maria was kidnapped and raped by rebels. She became pregnant in 1999, and her captors vanished after disarmament in 2000. Maria’s mother refused to accept her, the community judged her for living with the rebels: she fled to the streets. Maria heard about HANCI on the radio; she contacted staff and expressed a desire to return to school. HANCI persuaded the Principal to enroll her and helped with school fees. Staff then traced Maria’s mother who, after intensive counselling, accepted Maria and her child home. Attitudes in the community are also changing and Maria feels welcome.
Case Study: Iraq
International relief agencies are understandably reluctant and often unable to operate in the unstable environment in Iraq, leaving vulnerable children, including those living and working on the streets, with frighteningly little support.
With employment opportunities scarce, street working children have little option but to accept dangerous and demeaning jobs such as selling drugs or alcohol, pushing carts or searching through rubbish dumps for materials to sell. As 12-year-old Ashraf said: “We are born to work. This is our life.”
A War Child research team was told of a boy electrocuted while attempting to remove wire from an electric pole to sell and whose body remained on the pole for 3 days. Street working children also talked of exploitation by employers who delayed payments (sometimes for months) while verbally and physically abusing their charges. Some children told us they themselves use violence and aggression as a way of dealing with their circumstances. Street working children also reported sexual abuse at the hands of adults and peers and felt stigmatised by the wider community: during our research one street child drew a picture of a dog, explaining: “This is how society looks at me”.
Mustapha, aged 10, had been so severely abused by his stepfather (his father was killed as a result of sectarian violence) that he felt he had no option but to leave home. Mustapha lived on the streets making a living selling drugs and alcohol. He soon started taking drugs himself, was arrested by the police and sent to a juvenile detention centre, where we interviewed him. Mustapha blames himself for his situation and self-harms regularly to deal with the pain and trauma he suffers. Mustapha dreams of leaving prison and setting up his own shop.
Some children in detention in south Iraq are street working children from dislocated and acutely poor families who come into conflict with the law by working on the streets selling drugs or pornography or engaging in sex work. These children reported being subjected to violence by prison guards and other inmates.
War Child’s current objectives in Iraq are: to continue building local capacity to protect marginalised children including street working children; and to help families in Nassiriyah develop viable livelihoods to prevent children from being forced onto the streets in search of employment.
For more information on street children and the work being done by voluntary agencies to improve their lives, you can find links to 57 members of the Consortium for Street Children here.
Thanks for listening.