By Dave Ball
There are estimated to be 11 million street children in India. This includes those who are on the streets in the day but return to a family or other home in the evening, as well as those who sleep on the streets. Worldwide there could be as many as 170 million street children. The April 2005 issue of New Internationalist (NI) (published on the web at www.newint.org) focussed on the issue, giving most of the space to street children themselves to tell their experiences and put forward their hopes in their own words.
The magazine featured the words of children from Mongolia, Philippines, India, Zimbabwe, Canada and Uraguay. It was a reminder of the brutality of capitalism, particularly in those parts of the world where that brutality is most acute. It is also a reminder that capitalist cruelty is not confined to the workplace but permeates throughout society — the family home, the police, state care homes, schools. The Canadian story shows that even in “comfortable” first world societies, there is poverty and despair on a significant scale.
For the most part it is poverty and abuse that drives children onto the streets and keeps them there. Some are forced to work the streets in petty trading or sex work. Others flee abuse in the home and become homeless. In turn, they are forced into street work. Poverty itself is a factor in abuse perpetrated by adults, although parents and other guardians do still have a choice about how they treat their children. Nevertheless, where misery, despair and social isolation lead to the high consumption of alcohol or other drugs, abuse and neglect inevitably become more likely.
Sometimes the abuse is so bad some children choose to live on the street in preference to staying in the family home. There they put themselves at risk of further abuse. They may join gangs to seek protection, but suffer violence within the gang. If they sleep on the streets they must learn to sleep lightly. The heavy sleeper can be easily abducted — carried away while sleeping. Even in sleep, they never escape their stresses and worries. Involvement in crime, drug dependency, sexually transmitted diseases and other health problems are also far more common among street children.
There are some NGOs doing valuable work, engaging with street children, providing informal education, health care, food and shelter, for example. But for most street children there is no way back from the streets. They won’t seek help from the state authorities because they do they are treated as offensive and dangerous.
What these children need is sensitive support services that acknowledge their dignity and allow them a degree of independence, while providing them with safety education and health services. There is hope on this front in the existence of street children’s activist movements – the NI gives brief details of organisations in Brazil, India and Africa.
A world which fails to tackle the root causes of homelessness and child abuse — poverty, brutality, a general lack of respect for children and their rights — is not likely to provide the sensitive and respectful solutions that street children need. The NI has done an important job in highlighting an issue that demonstrates the barbarism of this world and the need for another world with a humane set of priorities.