There is no denying the fact that street children are those who are homeless, helpless, found living on the street and pass miserable lives. The true character of a society is revealed in how it treats its children. When we see the children, the way they are dressed, completely emaciated, we are really moved. The children who sleep in the streets, reduced to begging to make a living, are testimony to unjust, unfair and inhuman policies that we have embarked on. Those in government every day brag about their economic and development achievements but they don’t tell us how these are benefiting children, whose numbers are continuing to increase on the streets. The reward of economic progress and development will and must be measured by the happiness and welfare of children. Where there is economic progress and development children must no longer be threatened with the scourge of hunger, destitution and hopelessness.
Children are the most vulnerable citizens in any society and the greatest of our treasures. But today, our children are increasingly being forced onto the streets by poverty, abuse, abandonment, or as result of being orphaned by AIDS. The warning to the nation made by Teddy Mulonga, the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Sport, Youth and Child Development, needs to be taken very seriously. Mulonga is not an alarmist on this score. He is simply and boldly putting the reality to us as it stands. Mulonga warns us “the problem of streetism is a time bomb which if allowed growing can explode and have a telling effect on the security and economy of our country”. Wherever we turn in our cities and towns today, you will not fail to see street children. They are stopping cars or people to beg or ask for money. If we look at them closely – their faces show strain and sadness, their clothes are rugged and dirty, others appear hungry and suffering from ill health and malnutrition. There is something mature beyond their years in their haunted expressions. At night, we can see them hurdled along street corners, in doorways, or in any dry and secluded corner. They are the representatives of a growing multitude of children who have become known as “street children”. The presence of large numbers of children as young as three on our streets was virtually unheard of prior to the introduction of the current neo-liberal economic policies by the MMD. This problem requires urgent attention as it threatens the very fabric of our society.
And a starting point would be to get an understanding of who these children are and the factors that turn them into street children. Street children face untold hardship and danger on the streets – the lack of food, clean water and adequate healthcare. Living on the streets exacts a terrible toll on street children. They are often prey to every physical and moral danger and as they grow older, they often become a danger to others. After such precarious childhoods most of them are condemned to spend their lives excluded from mainstream society. Tomorrow, if present trends continue, they could be blight on our urban civilization. For us, tomorrow is already here. Street children are not only blight on our urban civilizations; they pose a serious obstacle to overall socio-economic development in our country. What stands out is the sad fact that everywhere, children living on the street are ignored, scorned, mistreated and misunderstood by society and by the government. We tend to view these children as troublemakers, a nuisance or menace that needs to be taken off the streets. Few stop to ponder why these children are on the streets, where it is apparent they are not enjoying themselves. Clearly, identifying reasons for the existence of street children is crucial in finding a permanent solution to the problem. It is becoming increasingly clear that there is no single cause for street children.
While there are many substantive factors contributing to the existence of street children, increasing mass poverty stands out as a major factor. It is poverty that is breaking up homes and families. It is poverty that makes grown-ups turn children into sources of income or into articles for sale. It is poverty, particularly in rural areas, that is making young children move away from their homes. And it is poverty that is turning our society into a vicious and uncaring society. Clearly, street children are the victims of our short-sighted policies, or lack of policies.
They are victims of an uncaring community that is increasingly being characterized by poverty, breakdown of family life, violence and economic hardships. Of all the agents capable of doing something about the problem of street children, the state is perhaps best suited to tackle the issue.
However, part of the tragedy of street children is the way our government has abandoned them to their fate. With each passing day, it is becoming increasingly clear that our government is unable to give this problem the attention it deserves, and is unintentionally contributing to its continuation. While it is true that the government has taken some measures to try and deal with the problems of the youth like the scheme of training young people in life skills at Chiwoko Zambia National Service Camp, effective action to address the problem is yet to be taken, very little is being done to address the problem of street children.
We are ignoring the problem of street children at our own peril. The traditional response to street children by the government has been repression. Street children are arrested for minor thefts, or roaming around. Detention in harsh circumstances is the common lot of our street children. This tells us more about the real attitude of our government than any examination of its policies. Today, the government is increasingly taking ruthless steps to clear the streets of street children and other unscrupulous characters. They do not offer any valuable alternative to the streets. Our politicians seem to be helpless in their efforts to resolve the problem of street children, and have to date failed to prescribe plausible solutions which are realistic, down-to-earth, and concrete.
It appears that the government is paying lip-service to the idea of improving care for street children, but it is influenced by the commonly held opinion that since street children will inevitably wind up as criminals, there is little use in spending public funds for their support.
As a result of this, they have been a target of harassment by law enforcement organizations; there are many cases of street children being beaten and detained by police.
The little that is being done by the government appears too little to make a difference to the plight of street children. Like the government, the community also stands accused of failing to address the problem of street children. We as individuals and as a society have failed to live up to our responsibilities as parents and as custodians of the young. The community tends to hide its head in the sand, hoping that the problem will go away. Unfortunately the problem is not going away but increasing to alarming proportions. Traditionally, a child in an African society was normally a member of the community and could not be separated from it. This meant that even the entitlement that a child deserved was a community matter. A child in Africa used to be the responsibility of each individual member of society and, therefore, children had no need to fend for themselves. They were loved and cared for by society. Today’s children are the responsibility of individual parents and are ignored by the rest of the community. While the number of street children grows by the day, the community remains silent with the exception of a few individuals and organizations. There is no community outreach to the problem. The few soft-hearted or religious ones will throw a few kwachas to these miserable children and move on. There appears to be no community pressure that is being applied to force government action to find a lasting solution to the problem of street children. The community has also failed to organise itself into a dynamic force to address the problem. This is perhaps the saddest and most tragic part of the tragedy that is unfolding in our country. Children are our most valuable commodity, yet we appear to have abandoned them to their fate.
A question that we must increasingly ask ourselves is: how long must it take before the problem of street children attracts the proper attention that it deserves? How many more children must first take to the streets or die because of lack of care on our streets before we can acknowledge that the problem of street children is a very serious one that is likely to affect all of us?
The probable answer, given our present day conditions in Zambia, is that the problem of street children has to grow to enormous proportions before it gets the attention it deserves.This is a tragedy that cannot remain ignored any longer. There needs to be a firm commitment by all concerned parties to tackle the problem and not just ignore it, hoping that it will go away or that other people are going to come to solve the problem for us. We need to find ways to lessen the incidence of children winding up on the streets. In addition to other measures that may be taken by the government, there is need to strengthen the institution of the family.
Policies centred on family can counteract the unanticipated side effects of development, often caused by uncoordinated government policies. A sound policy for strengthening families would recognize the family as the basic unit for the human development and would seek to assist it to cope with change by allowing better access to services. But families cannot be strengthened in the midst of poverty, human degradation and destitution. Neither can families become pillars of strength in the face of increasing injustice, inequality and income disparity. The problem of street children will become less pronounced if families could overcome poverty.
Justice and equitable distribution of resources is likely to have a positive impact on the problem of street children. The task of helping street children seems Herculean. Clearly it cannot be achieved simply by injections of money, or by merely passing laws. Mere material improvement trickling down to the community level will not help either: all these efforts may even aggravate matters unless they are accompanied by programmes which will allow children to develop their potential and by a softening of a punitive attitude towards street children by authorities. There is no longer any reason for governmental complacency. Our children are our country’s future, and our country must invest in them in no uncertain terms. The presence in our cities and other urban areas of large numbers of disgruntled young people can be politically destabilizing. They are the prime targets of those prepared to use violence as a political weapon. Street youths – tough, ruthless, unattached, half-educated, intellectually vulnerable and familiar with secrecy, deception and the subversion of authority – can be perfect recruits. The problem can no longer be ignored.
What is clear is that if we are serious in our efforts to promote children welfare, we must pay urgent attention to the plight of street children.
There is at present no real alarm or outrage from the government or the general public on the increasing number of children on our streets. These children face starvation, are at the mercy of unscrupulous individuals or a brutal police force and often die from preventable diseases. We need government policies which will oversee the protection of children and other vulnerable members of society. And such policies, whether one calls them socialist or welfare states, cannot be sneezed at. Indeed, it is important to highlight that the pioneers and most capitalist of states have in place strong measures which protect children and other vulnerable members of society. The tragedy in our country is the introduction of crude and unhindered liberalization as a strategy of economic and social development. This trend must be reversed in the interest of our children and future generations. It is inconceivable that the welfare of children can be advanced in an environment of mass poverty. It is in this regard that efforts must be made to ensure sustainable development in our country. The government and the community in general need to put in place viable strategies that will ensure that the plight of children is addressed.
Our primary goal is to enable street children to return to life in a caring and stable family environment, either with their own family, foster family, or by living independently in the community. Preventative interventions addressing root causes are needed to stop children moving to the streets, but those already on the streets are at high risk, vulnerable and requiring special protection to enable them to develop. Retrak reaches out to street children, helping them thorough the difficulties and crises that they face everyday, caring and getting to know them as vulnerable individuals and as children and, as trust increases, working with them individually, helping them develop so they can make choices about their lives based on realistic possibilities and their own potential.
Sport brings people together regardless of age, race or background and is a key tool for engaging with street children. Football not only provides an opportunity for the children to have fun in a safe environment, but also improves health and wellbeing, builds confidence, self esteem and personal discipline and promotes teamwork. It enables the children to participate in a positive activity, build bridges with the community through participation in local football tournaments, and helps develop valuable relations with Retract staff who will support them in their transition away from street life.
Many street children survive by picking through rubbish left on the road-side or outside houses and restaurants. Providing street children with a regular meal not only helps their health and development but also provides another opportunity to strengthen the link between the children and our staff. Those street children who are especially weak or vulnerable on the streets may spend their nights at Retrak’s emergency refuge protected from the dangers of the street.
Street children live in poor conditions, rummaging through dustbins and rubbish dumps for anything they can eat. Such an existence leads to malnutrition, the spread of disease and susceptibility to other illnesses. When the children fall ill or are injured they have nowhere to turn and even minor ailments become more serious through neglect. Retrak run clinics which are open to any street child and provides basic medical care and promotes health awareness. Health and hygiene training sessions are also held to improve street children’s understanding around issues such as HIV/AIDS, STIs, and basic hygiene.
Generally, children who live on the streets have experienced trauma, neglect and abuse. They are in need of care, protection and counseling. Social workers build strong relationships with each child and work with them to overcome their past trauma and to explore their opportunities for the future.
Many children who find themselves on the streets are desperate to be educated. Retrak is able to offer basic but imaginative catch up education for the children, focussing on key subjects such as literacy, numeracy, health and HIV/AIDS. The access to education is vital in building up the self esteem of each child which in turn helps to improve their chances of a successful return back into the community.
Retrak works extensively with children who want to leave street life to prepare both the child, and the family, for the return home. We help provide the skills, education and emotional support needed for successful and sustainable integration, and also ease the economic shock of returning home by helping families develop income generating activities.
For some street children it is neither possible, nor in their best interest to return back to their biological family. In these cases, where it is appropriate, Retrak will try to place the child with suitable foster parents to provide a loving home environment.
Each child needs to be given the time and means to make the transition from the streets back to the community. To help this transition and to adjust from street life to family life, children may stay in a halfway home for a short period of time before returning home. Here children can rediscover a sense of community and family as they are prepared and equipped for reintegration into society. Each child shares a cottage with other children, and cared for by a house-parent. In this environment the children become familiar with family life and regain their understanding of family routine and responsibility.
Although we believe that a safe family is the preferred environment for a child to grow and develop, for many street children, the difficulties faced at home are key reasons for them coming to the streets. Retrak works with each family – whether biological or foster – to ensure that children return to a safe, strong and caring family environment. During visits to the family, before and after placement, Retrak’s staffs provide counseling and guidance to family members. This may occur during regular visits or, for foster careers, through regular workshops, and addresses key issues such as child development and behavior, discipline, education, health care and HIV/AIDS.
Retrak’s first priority in reintegration is to explore the possibility of children being reunited with their natural families. Retrak works extensively to prepare each individual child and family for the return home spending time with each family to ensure that they have the means to support their child, and that they understand the child’s past in order to avoid stigmatisation and discrimination. During the first year of resettlement Retrak social workers make follow-up visits and, if necessary, provide the family with an income generating grant to help build a small business ensuring that the family have enough income to support the child.
Foster care is a relatively new concept in Africa and Retrak is one of the few agencies pioneering this for street children. Many of the street children whom we seek to assist cannot be resettled with their families. While institutions can provide for a child’s basic needs, such as food, clothing, shelter and protection, foster care is an important and preferred alternative in providing for the emotional and social support which street children need to rebuild their lives.
Foster care ensures that the child is brought up in a stable and loving family environment and has the freedom to play, grow and enter adulthood better equipped, both practically and emotionally and Retrak is working to extend its foster care network.
Suffice it say that, for street children who are unable to return home and are too old to be fostered, Retrak provides an opportunity for them gain practical skills through vocational training. The knowledge and skills they gain assists them in integrating into community with employment skills or capable of living independently. Rather than just alleviating poverty in the short term this project enables vulnerable street children to gain confidence, expand their knowledge and skills base, and generate their own income – thus contributing to the micro-economy of the region. Building on their vocational training or using existing skills and aptitudes, Retrak will help older children set up their own small business, providing practical help and advice, tools and equipment and small amounts of start up capital.
It is evident that our mission is to encourage and enable children and young people to promote the holistic health, well-being and development of themselves, their families and their communities worldwide. We believe in children’s active participation and in respecting their freedom of expression and communication, which are advocated in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. We believe that child protection is crucial to ensuring that children under 18 years of age have the rights, confidence and environment in which they can make choices, express their views and communicate effectively with other children and adults. Children cannot become empowered change agents to improve their lives and that of their families and communities if they are not safeguarded from abuse, discrimination and harm of any kind, be it physical, sexual, emotional or neglect. While this document relates to the Child-to-Child Trust around the world, it will be necessary in the future for all of our international partners to develop a Child Protection Policy that is appropriate to their own culture and legal system (taking into account the universal human rights standards of the Convention on the Rights of the Child).