25 Mar 2011

Play, Learn, Work, Struggle, Suffer, Belong: Children and the Dynamic of the Street

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Illustration by Bernice Schwartz

‘le plus ça change…’
Not much has changed for the prospects of street children worldwide since I wrote this research paper in the late 90s for CIDA and Street Kids International. The work remains rewarding, and the need is increasing (check out the new book, Arrival City).

This paper deconstructs some of the common images and assumptions that cloud the subject. “Pity would be no more/ If we did not make somebody poor.” —William Blake.

“Nighttime in the city…children huddle in corners, walking about, dirty, disheveled, a pitiful sight. Some are selling cigarettes, peddling lottery tickets or flowers. Others are just loitering around. As night progresses, we see these children doing other things—gambling, smoking, sniffing solvents, taking up with tourists for a night of ‘big money’… For the street child, life on the street is a constant struggle to overcome various negative elements that threaten to overtake him
and destroy his hope for survival.”

—Childhope Asia/UNICEF, “The Street Children of Asia”, 1992

“The definition of street children has always included some pejorative qualities. The boys are defined as delinquent or psychopathological and the girls as prostitutes. This pattern is neither random nor accurate.
Such misconceptions illustrate certain fears…”

—Lewis Aptekar, Street Children of Cali, 1988

Street kids in the developing world are the in-your-face minority of the children that UNICEF now identifies as urban “children in need of special protection” . This new term is useful, but it begs some new questions. Are they all to be defined as victims? Does this help them? What complex perception of their circumstances or needs is most useful in order to serve them in direct youth service work and in community development programs; to make changes to teacher training and school systems; to understand and improve the context in which they live? There is a growing consensus among leading scholars, educators and NGOs in the child-serving field that we can help street children most by helping them to transform their circumstances rather than simply by ‘rescuing’ and ‘rehabilitating’ them.

Stories of the horrors of street life that no child should have to endure are useful moral motivators to push people beyond complacency, over the threshold of outrage to respond with compassion, political will and resources. However, inauthentic images of street children as ragged urchins whose childhood has been ‘stolen’ by ‘society’ are the main obstacle to planning appropriate programs for them (Ennew and Connolly, 1996; Veale and Taylor, 1995).

It is important to understand the reasons commonly repeated in the literature for the phenomenon of street children such as poverty and rural-to-urban migrations, but if we want to understand how to help these children, it may be counterproductive to dwell on the deficiencies of a slum birthright. Typical slums are colonies of normal people struggling to make a living (Bose, 1992; Maier, 1991).

We need to acknowledge the pro-social, logical, reasonable motives and causes for many children to make use of the street, and not to simply ground all discussion in the negative forces that “drive” children toward it. The attractiveness and opportunity of the world beyond home and school needs to be profoundly understood from the child’s point of view if we are to help these children make positive choices and changes in their lives.

This paper will deconstruct some of the common images and assumptions that cloud the subject. It will argue that the term ‘street working children’ is useful to separate street children from the broad category of working children or child labourers. For the purposes of clarifying international development policy directions, the discussion concentrates on issues affecting street children in developing countries and in the destabalized regions of the “second” world throughout the former Soviet Union and the Balkans.


Street children attracted the attention of social researchers working particularly in Latin America as far back as the early 1970s, and since then much of the most helpful insight in the field has come from anthropologists working in Africa and Latin America. Up until the 1980s the historic focus of UNICEF , the Save the Children Alliance and other international child-serving agencies has been aid and relief directed at young children (age 0-5) in the context of assistance to families and communities. Attention to the problems of adolescents and young people as actors seeking economic and social access to adult options is relatively recent.

In cities around the world, there have always been compassionate individuals who have tried to help or rescue homeless children, often with a Christian missionary motivation. The Salesians, a strong order of Catholic brothers with projects in many countries, was founded at the turn of the century by the Italian Don Bosco especially to serve homeless boys in towns and cities.

Susanna Agnelli’s 1986 book, Street Children: A Growing Urban Tragedy had an enormous impact in popularizing concern for street children within the UN system, among international NGOs and among governments. Through the activism of Canadian Peter Taçon within UNICEF, street children became a burning issue demanding a special response. This led in 1987 to the establishment of Childhope, “the international movement on behalf of street children,” funded under the wing of UNICEF with Taçon as its founding director. This pioneering advocacy work was complemented by the efforts of local activists in the Philippines, India, Kenya, Peru and elsewhere.

Since then, local programs for street children have proliferated in the world’s cities, and all major international child-serving agencies claim positions and program expertise with respect to street children.


The figure of 100 million street children worldwide has been widely repeated since the late 1980s and continues to be used as a convenient figure to conjure the magnitude of the problem. Among at least 250 million working children under the age of 15 worldwide (ILO, 1996), there may be 100 million children working in the urban informal sector. Nobody knows the real figure. However, we do know that the vast majority of these children, from 75% to 95% of them, have families and homes of some kind (De Beers, 1996; Kudrati and Rajani, 1994; Bose, 1992).

The case of India shows how the numbers can be misinterpreted. A 1983 government-sponsored study estimated the urban child labour force at 44 million, but this number is sometimes quoted as an estimate of the number of “homeless” children in India (Farrow et.al., 1992) or of “street and working” children (Remington, 1993). In fact this figure includes all urban children working in all sectors with or without family or school contact.

This analysis in no way diminishes the problems of street working children. A recognition of their family relationships allows for more effective programming grounded in the realities of the slum-to-street continuum.

To be clear for policy purposes, the term “street children” does not include the millions of girls in brothels—an estimated 500,000 in Brazil alone (Dimenstein, 1994)—or the millions of girls exploited as domestic servants such as the infamous restavek children (from “rester avec”, to stay with) of Haiti and their counterparts in many other countries. While these children may have health and education needs in common with children at liberty on the street, they require social justice and law enforcement responses that are quite different from those required for street working children.


“The vast majority of street children [in Brazil] were in fact neither homeless nor delinquent, but simply looking for income to help support themselves and their families. The problem (of street children) should be redefined as one primarily of unprotected working children who were frequently exploited and who worked under abominable conditions for very low returns.” (Myers, 1988)

Children go out to work on the streets when community capacity to take care of them is undermined by chronic urban poverty, or eroded by pressures such as civil conflict or ecological disaster. The “problem” of street children is really a symptom of deep systemic problems which are now well understood.

More than anything else, children in developing countries are drawn to the street by economic need, to contribute to their families or simply to support themselves. An expression from the slums of New Delhi captures it well: children go to work instead of school to perform ‘pate poojah’ (stomach worship) (Chatterjee, 1992). Nine out of ten of Nairobi’s homeless street kids say that when they were at home, they went to school without breakfast and ate only one meal a day (Aptekar, 1996).

Typically, children do not end up on the streets due to a single cause, but are there due to a combination of several factors. Many of these boys and girls go to the street for legitimate reasons—to get money for food or school supplies, to be with friends and to play. In both the North and the South, young people on the street may leave home because of conflict with their parents— particularly over sexual orientation or experimentation. In Africa, there are increasing numbers of AIDS orphans among homeless street children. In the faces of street children we also see the impact of child abuse and neglect, both by families and by institutions.

It is often said that work keeps kids out of school, but school may also be a cause of work (Boyden, 1994). Many street working children are refugees from poorly administered school systems where incompetent teachers and irrelevant curricula turn school into an ordeal of boredom and punishment. If school is mediocre, children may be justified in asserting that in their experience, work is more fulfilling than school.

School and work are not incompatible in many parts of the world. At best, many of the world’s children are only offered half-day access to school. Millions of children work for the price of admission to school, to meet requirements for school fees, uniforms and supplies for themselves or their siblings. If they make it to school, they rarely get their money’s worth. There is often a great disparity between resources allocated to schools in poor districts in comparison to middle class neighborhoods, a fact which children are acutely aware of. Beyond the basic problem of inadequate resources, rigid scheduling is a key issue for children who are economically active. Night school is a popular option for street working children where it is available, as in some Latin American cities.


While there are characteristics common to street children in the south and the north the contextual differences are significant. The basic difference is that the great majority of street kids in developed countries are adolescent and teenage ‘runaways’ from all social classes who are motivated by emotional needs , whereas most of the street children in developing countries have a basic need for money and food not available at home. It is simplistic to say that the former are runaways and the latter are primarily workers, because this underestimates the universal ludic (playful) attraction of streets teeming with life and adventure.

It also obscures the common thread of pain and betrayal that runs through the lives of so many children “who no longer love their homes.” Street boys in Bangkok compress all of the negative experiences of their upbringing into this gentle phrase. They don’t identify themselves as “street children” (Fr. Joe Maier, 1996, personal communication). In many places where this term has not become politically useful, or where it is used as an insult, street working children reject the “street child” identity, preferring to be known, for example, by their work—”lustrador” (shoeshine); “vendedor” (vendor); or simply “worker”. In places where financial need and cultural habits dictate, parents may put their children out to work as young as 6 years old, whereas the adolescent runaways of America and Europe tend to start out at the common international minimum age for child workers, 14.

Street children of the same age in cities as far apart as Moscow and Bogotá respond to similar adverse conditions with coping strategies that amount to a kind of common culture. The child is not defined by the street; on the contrary, it is only one of many spaces that he or she uses. Destitute families and problematic educational opportunities are common denominators. Key aspects of this common culture are the formation of fostering groups of friends, mistrust of authorities, and strong emphasis on the basic human values of friendship, courage and ingenuity. Hostile adults present similar threats to vulnerable children everywhere (Connolly and Lowry, 1991).

Outside of protective home and school environments, health risks increase. With respect to children on the street, it is important to differentiate between health risk exposure and risk behaviour, rather than assuming that the young person has chosen to put himself in harm’s way. Many harmful things happen to kids that they feel helpless to avoid, such as rape, traffic accidents and poisoning by city pollution. Risk behaviour includes unprotected sex by choice as well as substance use.

In the developing world, the majority of out-of-school youth visible on the streets are boys. The numbers of girls working in the marketplace, often supervised by adults, are much higher in some cities than in others, depending on local cultural norms. Across cultures, unaccompanied girls are at high risk for sexual harrassment, rape and coercion into sex work, but this is also true for vulnerable young boys.

It is essential to grasp and respect the depth of suffering, loss or betrayal that many of these children carry with them. There are children, for example, who live in desperately poor communities haunted by vigilante death squads. “Brazilian street children live in daily fear of the police, state children’s asylums, anonymous kidnappers, death squads… In all, their lives are characterized by a profound sense of insecurity” (Scheper-Hughes and Hoffman, 1994).

In specific regions of the world for particular periods of time, street children are orphaned by civil war, AIDS or ecological disaster. However, if they have spent their early years in a family, they often demonstrate strong inner resources and values common to the wider culture. This has implications for the most appropriate provision of services for them, since these children are more easily attracted by opportunities stability, safety, etc. than kids who have chosen to work or play on the street.

Street children as a group are neither heroes nor victims. They are marginalized children of the urban underclass who take care of themselves and their peers with minimal adult guidance. Aptekar (1988) contended that almost half (42%) of the Colombian street youth that he studied were functioning well and were not in need of or seeking any support from the helping professions. He called them the afortunados, the fortunate ones who were making a successful adjustment to life and would continue to do so. This controversial view was subsequently rejected as a “Tom Sawyer” idealization by a number of other researchers such as Lusk (1992). Some street educators criticized S.K.I.’s 1989 film Karate Kids for depicting this positive, convivial side of street life. Recently Lucchini (1996), Ennew (1996) and others have re-affirmed Aptekar’s thesis that the street is very attractive and continues to be a fulfilling place (among others) for many of the young people who are active there.

The term “street children” has emotive meanings. Western consensus morality tells us that children do not belong in the streets independent of parents, and the words used together make it quite clear that the children referred to in this way are out of place. Children belong in the home, playing in residential areas, or in school (“school children”, “students”), and if they stray across the boundary into a commercial district then either they or their families are problematic (Aptekar, 1988; Ennew and Connolly, 1996). It has been argued persuasively by Fabio Dallape and others that, despite its common currency, the term “street children” should be scrapped. “It focuses the attention of welfare agencies on a small proportion of children visible on the main thoroughfares and ignores the larger numbers in slums and shanty towns who have less access to food and services. It also focuses public attention on labeling children as delinquent…” (Ennew, 1996). The term “street working children” is a useful alternative emphasizing the economic aspect of children’s instrumental use of the street. The phrase “children on the street” is perhaps the most inclusive and neutral.

Although an often-cited motive for rescuing street kids is that they are hungry—e.g. “street children are generally malnourished and anemic, many of them physically stunted” (Childhope Asia, 1993)—studies in Colombia in 1988 and in Nepal in 1995 suggest that street children’s physical and emotional health can be better than that of their siblings and neighbors who stayed at home in economically marginal communities (Aptekar 1988; Baker et. al., 1996). By participating in the cash economy as well as scavenging around restaurants, for example, they may have greater access to a variety of food than some peasant children in the countryside. This new understanding points to hunger as a factor that may push children toward the street, and not only a daily challenge on the street. It also reinforces the primary pervention value of morning meal programs for market children and children in inner city schools.

A growing body of research also challenges the assumption that most street kids come from dysfunctional families. (Veale and Taylor, 1995; Rizzini et. al, 1992). This new insight is grounded in respect for the courage and resourcefulness of urban poor women and the children of matrifocal homes. What is referred to as abandonment and neglect may often be “a method of child-rearing that is deliberate and helpful in training boys to be independent and self-assured in the existing subculture of urban poverty” (Aptekar, 1988). Inside slum cultures from Bangkok, Thailand to Rio, Brazil children who can successfully negotiate the realm of the street are seen as resourceful and self-reliant, as long as they don’t get in trouble with the police. Adolescents and older youths may also inspire fear in the neighborhood along with respect. Their street smarts, exuberance and often chaotic life force may be seen as a menace, but this energy and resourcefulness can be directed in positive ways by creative community-based programs.


“The ideal of childhood as a period of up to eighteen years dedicated to learning and play, without economic responsibilities, bears little relation to the experiences of most of the world’s children and obscures the benefits certain work can have for children’s development.” (Marcus and Harper, 1996)

Working children in the urban informal sector, where the vast majority of street kids look for work, are generally employed at unskilled tasks which require long hours, small capital input, and are labour-intensive: informal trading, shining shoes, carrying goods and guarding or washing cars. Some may also earn income through illegal means such as begging, theft, sex work or drug trafficking. Typically, children who choose the dangers of sex work say that it is better to be paid for sex than to put up with the abuse that they suffer at home.

The conditions that cause children to be working are now well understood. “The supply of children’s labour relates to poverty and vulnerability; poor educational services; lack of social security mechanisms; gender- and age-specific characteristics of particular labour markets; and consumerists pressures” (Marcus and Harper, 1996). Out of this matrix of pressures, some kids emerge as “street children.”

The “work vs labour” distinction is problematic. It is not appropriate to defend the acceptable kinds of work available to young people in the marketplace in contrast to the evils of “child labour”. It is most useful to conceptualize children’s work in a continuum ranging from completely unacceptable activity at one end, to beneficial work at the other end. “Where work lies on the continuum would then be assessed on criteria of exploitation, hazard, risk of damage to children’s development and opportunities foregone, rather than whether work is paid or unpaid. This may be a more fruitful way to analyze the negative aspects of child work, rather than drawing a distinction between work and labour” (Marcus and Harper, 1996).


A child-centred approach to the “issues” can provide a useful shift in perspective. Several participatory consultations with street children and working children have been conducted in recent years by child advocates in many countries, particularly in Latin America, India and Southeast Asia (Liebel, 1996; Childhope, 1993). Repeatedly, the children raise similar issues:

1. Do I have recourse to protection from abuse; from violence in my family or community; from harm on the street?

2. Do I have options, access to services including recreation, learning, life and work skills training, employment placement, health care, legal aid, and social services to help my family deal with hardships?

3. Do I have a safe public place to make friends and be with them? Are we welcome in the marketplace and the street?

Working children’s movements have developed to advocate for recognition of working children’s rights in many countries including Peru (MANTHOC); Nicaragua (NATRAS); groups assisted by Concerned for Working Children in Bangalore, India; associations promoted by ENDA in francophone West Africa; and the National Movement for Street Children (MNMMR) in Brazil. They are linked through international associations such as the Amsterdam-based International Working Group on Child Labour (IWGCL). These organizations have all had an impact on legislative change to some degree, with the most celebrated success achieved in Brazil by the MNMMR.

The common-sense policy of the South African NGO StreetWise is a model for child-serving agencies to consider:

If a child has to work in order to live then the child’s physical, emotional and spiritual development should not be impaired and a minimum wage per day should be paid. Given the dire social and economic distress that street children experience and the failure of our society to adequately care for them, we recognize that such legal income generation activities are a means by which children can gain some control and mastery over their lives. All street children work in order to survive, whether this work be begging or washing cars. This type of work needs to be regarded as economic activity rather than child labour (Richter and Swart-Kruger, 1996).


Programs are on a spectrum from those that respond to societal structural deficiencies and seek social change to those that blame the bad families and the bad kids who must be reformed. Interventions range from orphanages and correctional facilities to primary prevention activities “upstream” from the street.

In many cities street working children can make use of a variety of street outreach and community-based services including shelter and food, education, pre-vocational and vocational training, health prevention and intervention and substance abuse programs. These programs may incorporate individual and/or group counseling, family interventions or development of surrogate family support structures (Bemak, 1996). The rationale behind the choice of services, the benefits to children and the moral agenda of these programs varies considerably. Kids will often move among various projects to get what they want and to avoid any unwelcome rehabilitation efforts.

Support services are extremely important to improve the quality of working children’s lives. Unfortunately, strategic focus by NGOs on direct services alone can depoliticize the wider issues facing street working children. “Such programs may therefore need to be combined with advocacy and action at national and international levels addressing the roots of working children’s disadvantage and exploitation, in order not to end up supporting the status quo” (Marcus and Harper, 1996).

These roots are deep, and have as much to do with international macro-economic policies that need to be humanized, as with cultural habits that need to yield to the child rights imperative.

At present there is a general reluctance among donors to relate poverty and resultant child work to structural inequality and macro-economic trends… This leads to a focus on recommending that governments attempt to mitigate poverty only through improving social safety nets and the quality of education (both important measures) rather than questioning the macro-economic policies which, in part, perpetuate poverty and necessitate children working, or addressing the social, cultural and political basis for inequality (Marcus and Harper, 1996).

Street working children will benefit from a broader and deeper analysis of the social effects of macro-economic policies, because to a significant degree they are the visible result of those policies.


Child-centered services for children on the streets will achieve the greatest impact if they (1) respect the choices of the children; (2) help them reject exploitation and abuse; and (3) provide them with appropriate opportunities for learning.

Street youth programs that achieve a sustained regenerative impact on their clients and communities “share an important element: they deal with the context as well as the kids. That is, they recognize the interplay among youth, family, peers and society and make that recognition explicit to the kids by acknowledging the reality, humanity, and point of view of the youth. …Further, youth leadership and involvement as well as community participation are essential elements in successful efforts” (Tyler et. al. 1992).
For the deepest impact, community participation in program design and implementation should include families of street working children and other stakeholders such as police, city administrators and local merchants as much as possible. “…it takes, in fact, a whole community to raise—or oppress—street and working children” (Easton et al., 1993).

Although it is not necessary to engage in assistance efforts for street children in order to have access to the places the kids come from (primary prevention, looking “upstream”), preventive programming can benefit from linkages with respectful and useful street outreach work. That is, an understanding of the realities faced by street working children is important for planning primary prevention programs such as daycare services for single mothers or improved learning and play opportunities for urban and rural children. Families and children at-risk are not well served by the perpetuation of myths, fears and prejudices about so-called street children.

Entrenched misunderstandings about the sex and drug practices of street youth (drug addicts, perverts, prostitutes) abound in the literature and in common prejudice with significant negative effect on institutional and judicial responses. Substance use is not the same as clinical drug addiction, and the latter is relatively uncommon among young people. An approach based on empathy and respect for youth’s efforts to take care of themselves can vastly improve or replace the more clinical detox approach (Springer, 1991; Lowry, 1995). Similarly, adolescent sexual activity for comfort or survival on the street is not necessarily a professional choice. It may be an occasional coping strategy which is best approached from a sexual health perspective, to help the youth avoid physical and emotional harm. Negative labels invariably impose a wall of shame between street youth and helping professionals or the public.


The experience of a group called Kuleana in Mwanza, Tanzania combining assistance and prevention actions demonstrates that in a small city it is possible to improve the situation of street children in a matter of a few years. When Kuleana started in 1992 they were the only agency doing outreach with street children, and they recognized police brutality and arrest of vagrant kids as the #1 issue they faced. They applied a multi-level approach to the problem, demonstrating compassionate concern for the children while effectively lobbying the police on the street, in the jails, and in the administration to lighten up on the kids.

Four years later, they had: reduced the number of arrested children in city jails to only a handful; reduced the number of homeless kids on Mwanza’s streets by more than half; shifted their focus toward systemic problems including the lack of flexible non-formal education options in the local school system and the right of pregnant girls to stay in school.

Kuleana is now pursuing an ambitious Child Rights Advocacy program which includes innovative actions such as working with local schools on school rehabilitation as an incentive to abolish corporal punishment. Child rights training for teachers, school committees and student leaders is also done as part of the package, along with delivery of creative child rights materials for display on classroom walls. The success of both their youth work and community advocacy efforts have given them the freedom to tackle problems that remain remote from the crisis management and welfare provision priorities of typical street kids NGOs in big cities.

Community-based groups that move into child rights advocacy should not be tempted, however, to give up the difficult work of addressing the basic needs of street working children and youth. The child rights discourse can be just as paternalistic as other top-down development talk. Posters, rallies and lobbying gain enormous legitimacy if they are answerable to young people on the street and the people who do the difficult day-to-day work of accompanying them. Child rights campaigns on behalf of street working children must be grounded in a proactive commitment to enhance the quality of services for those children.

Effective youth work begins with the strengths and gifts of the children.
Programs should not underestimate the resourcefulness of street working children. Clusters of close friends on the street can be understood as fostering groups. The best projects encourage this peer support and build on it.

Many child-serving programs focus on younger children, because the older adolescents and youth are viewed as hardened, difficult and resistant to change. Typically, around the age of 13-15 street working boys are no longer cute enough to beg or attract customers the same as before. As they mature, they hit their heads against a “glass ceiling”—many of their old tricks no longer work and their options narrow rapidly. Some choose high-risk, illegal means to make money that involve exploiting themselves or others. This is the life-transition period when they are most in need of access to life skills and enterprise skills training. It is important for programs to focus on children in the vulnerable developmental “window” between age 8 and 14, but it is equally important not to abandon young people when they enter the troubled period of late adolescence. Street youth from age 15 to 18 can benefit from opportunities to channel their energy in productive activities that are not illegal or dangerous, and the best programs have the capacity to continue to accompany these young people in this difficult transition period.

This age group will not accept or rely on paternalistic approaches. Rather than label them “hard-to-serve” youth, agencies serving street working children and youth may need to look at the barriers that make programs hard to access. For example, because older adolescents may not be seeking immediate protection and care, the programs cannot rely on dependency-creating hand-outs to attract clients. They require a different relationship based on respect.

Many street children are resistant to formal education and respond more readily to flexible, participatory, non-formal learning environments. While some kids may be able to move from non-formal learning to formal schooling, non-formal education is an important element of effective street outreach work (street education). To interest street working children for whom time is money, educational interventions must be conceived to arouse a desire for learning. A key to achieve this is to provide opportunities for experiential learning embedded in activities that present solutions to concrete needs.

Vocational training needs to be grounded in real market demand if it is to lead to employment opportunities for youth. Technical training programs are not cost-effective unless they are linked to a/ apprenticeship opportunities, or b/ preparation for entrepreneurial self-employment responsive to the local marketplace.

Micro-enterprise and credit programs hold promise for youth who do not have access to formal education opportunities. However, these types of programs are labour-intensive. They require a high level of involvement of staff, and a high level of training for youth workers.

Recognition of common experience and issues for street children across cultures as noted earlier has profound implications for the sharing and transfer of “best practices” among child-serving agencies. While approaches and educational materials need to be adapted to local contexts, sharing of resources and harmonizing of effective methodologies across borders holds great promise for street outreach services worldwide.


While the street may be an attractive, rational choice for young people to meet natural adolescent needs for comfort and identity, it can also be a dangerous place. Street working children encounter violence, the temptations of the drug trade and high health risks including sexually transmitted infections. Adults, including the police, insult them and deny their most fundamental human rights.

On the deep end of the spectrum, local responses to the perceived menace of street children can include the contempt of passers-by, police brutality, and even killing by vigilantes and off-duty police paid by local merchants. In Brazil it is now well established that thousands of children have been murdered this was in recent years (Dimenstein, 1991). This vicious practice has a racist and class origin which is not widely acknowledged in media accounts of the problem. It is not a coincidence that the vast majority of murdered street children in Brazil are Afro-Brazilians from the poorest class (CEAP, 1990; Scheper-Hughes and Hoffman, 1994). Police brutality against children on the streets is well documented by human rights groups in many other countries such as Kenya, India and Guatemala.

Lack of protection for street children in a weak or reactionary civil society opens up the space for violent persecution. Street kids are caught between the rock of endemic hostility toward children and the hard place of our tendency to blame the poor for their situation. They are percieved as morally corrupt, rather than simply limited in their options. These are the underlying currents of prejudice, the context of the negative stereotypes and the crime-control school of thought that fuels punitive actions against street children. So much apparent concern for street kids is deeply reactionary.

Street working children and youth suffer deeply from adults’ denial of their right to be out in public. Aside from a few local cultural exceptions of permissive child-rearing, autocratic adult control of children is the traditional norm worldwide. This cultural habit can lead to acceptance of the idea that if children are “out of control” they can be anything from rescued to exterminated. The desire for control by any means is deepest where there is widespread perception that the ineffective justice system and the corrupt police cannot protect citizens from crime.

This is where the need for local systemic change is greatest, and where public education can have the most significant impact to replace fear -based reactions with respect and support.


Cities and towns are not all the same. Their qualities and problems can be seen in the local marketplace and on the streets. Not only the vitality of the local economy, but also the integration of classes and races, the access and accommodation of women and children into community life can be assessed through attentive observation. Although the notion of child-friendly streets is tinged with nostalgia for a more innocent time and place (the village before we left, the old neighborhood) some urban communities and markets are much more tolerant and friendly toward children than others. Why? Is it possible to promote the kind of urban renewal that includes a celebration of children’s right to be part of the vitality of the street?

A first step must be to change the emphasis from the child to the street (Ennew and Connolly, 1996). What is needed is legislation and political will to give the kids space, not only to de-criminalize but also to legitimize their “out of school, not at home” presence.

Activists, planners and politicians need to envision a city where children are welcome on the busy streets and sidewalks. In urban communities that work, civic life is cultivated to assimilate children and adolescents, by giving them permission to play and hang out in public among adults in their social and commercial intercourse (Jacobs, 1961). This vision is not so remote as it seems (writing in the early 60s, urban planning guru Jane Jacobs celebrated the example of her thriving downtown New York neighborhood). In balanced communities and city neighborhoods in many cultures, the village does indeed raise the child. This happens in places where young people are respected, where their energy is enjoyed and not feared. It only happens if we give them the public space to learn the way of our world by being a part of it.


If we recall the macroeconomic and political, the moral and legal, the cultural, community and family matrix of street kids’ lives, laid out in the stories I have told here, we have an overview of the context in which those lives are nested.
The street can be an exciting place to be. We have seen how youth on the edge of society find ways to withstand the stress; they are surprisingly resilient, though almost universally wounded. They have deep capacities for self-management, positive social relationships, and growth. The best programs focus on their strengths and gifts, while emphasizing a compassionate, harm-reduction approach.


Institutional donors should not simply look at child rights in a legalistic way, but should seek creative ways to make use of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is not enough to tell a young person that he or she has the right not to be beaten. Institutions that claim the high moral ground of the Convention must commit resources to work down in the messy realm where young people are struggling to defend their rights.

A number of clear policy directions emerge from this analysis.

1/ Local actions for children: personal, educational, work

2/ Local actions: housing, advocacy, protection from exploitation by authorities, creating of prosocial public environments

3/ Broader policy actions: support for NGOs, support for governmental social and economic reform


• Support organizations that:

— demonstrate real integration of program and advocacy work.
— provide girls with concrete opportunities for advancement and full participation in society.
— practice open participatory methods, with genuine respect for the voluntary choice and decision-making rights of the child/youth.

• Support programs and initiatives that:

— enhance resilience of urban children in difficult circumstances, particularly street working children.
— demonstrate innovation in providing enterprise and life skills training and/or access to credit for street working youth.
— facilitate mentor-apprentice relationships between benefactor/employers and street working children.
— provide street working children with education that is functionally relevant, meaning: “It will have to impart both practical (vocational) and analytical (e.g. business orientation) skills that are immediately applicable on completion of the education. It will also need to broaden the learners’ appreciation of survival-related issues such as health and nutrition (drug use and abuse, AIDS, etc.), environmental consciousness and their rights and obligations as individuals in society” (Mbgori, 1991).
— involve children in urban renewal efforts including neighborhood environmental assessments, ecological restoration of urban watersheds and green space, recycling of waste materials and street-based efforts to improve the environment.
— provide culturally appropriate training for front-line youth workers that emphasizes the above program priorities from a child rights perspective.

• Support the proliferation of Child-to-Child as a fundamental program to implement the participatory ideal by facilitating the active engagement of children in civil society through non-formal peer education.

• Support international NGOs to build capacity, systems and infrastructure of indigenous urban NGOs to advance the initiatives of low-income youth micro-entrepreneurs.

• Encourage child-serving NGO and government initiatives that aim to increase integration of NGO creative initiatives and “best practices” into local government programs and resource allocation for street working children.

• Support coordination and harmonization of child-serving NGO efforts and expertise—sharing and maximizing “best practices”. In many cities there is no need for more projects, but there is a great need for consolidation and improvement of existing interventions to prevent duplication of work and services.


• Support initiatives that empower indigenous NGOs to undertake active policy advocacy for systemic change with and for street working children through actions designed by and with them. It is appropriate and necessary to connect micro-level poverty alleviation with macro-level advocacy to eliminate the root causes of inappropriate children’s work. Working children’s organizations are particularly legitimate change agents in this work.

• Commit to the elimination of all hazardous and exploitative forms of work involving children and youth—all those which endanger children’s health and development.

• Give priority to support for urban renewal projects to regenerate the ‘street’ as viable social space.

• Support advocacy and public education to validate children’s right to use public space, and to pursue their legitimate claims to participate in the adult socio-economic sphere.

• Support the elimination of barriers to formal school access including economic barriers such as student responsibility for school uniforms, supplies, or school fees, and health barriers such as expulsion due to pregnancy. Daycare provision in schools must be a top priority worldwide, particularly in Africa where 40% of girls become pregnant before the age of 17 (UNFPA, cited by Kuleana, 1996).

• Support school reform measures such as introducing greater flexibility in scheduling (part-time schools, night classes), and curricula and teaching methods appropriate to the lives and expectations of low-income children and their families (Boyden, 1994).

• Support public education programs and demonstration projects to convince communities that investing in girls is both securing girls’ rights and a smart way to strengthen overall community development (Kuleana, 1996).

• Support local information initiatives such as radio programs that aim to replace existing sentimental or antagonistic attitudes toward street working children with an empathetic child rights orientation based on information about their abilities and resiliency, gifts and strengths.

• Engage in proactive efforts that encourage governments and law enforcement agencies to respect the dignity of street working children as citizens who have a rightful place on the city streets. Champion the recognition that children on the street must be protected under the law.

• Apply clear, consistent and continuous diplomatic pressure, including the possibility of trade sanctions, toward state governments where Amnesty International and internationally recognized local human rights groups report inadequate state remedial response to extrajudicial persecution or killing of street children (such as Brazil, Guatemala and Colombia).


Some key messages for a new public awareness campaign can be derived from this investigation of the issues.

• Promote an understanding of out-of-school adolescents and young people as actors seeking economic and social access to adult options.

• Promote a vision of cities where children are welcome on the busy streets and sidewalks, where civic life is cultivated to assimilate children and adolescents by giving them permission to play and hang out and engage in appropriate work in public among adults.

• Emphasize the dignity of street working children, in contrast to the marketing of misery practiced by some charities. “Pity would be no more/ If we did not make somebody poor.” —William Blake.

This essay is based on a Draft “Issue Paper” on Street Children in the Developing World prepared for the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) when Chris was at Street Kids International in 1997.

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