Street children are not social misfits. They are creative exiles from an oppressive state system, according to LAINE BERMAN and HARRIOTT BEAZLEY.
We believe poverty is not a ‘cultural problem’, as New Order politicians often say. It is the consequence of the politics of power relations. The state is responsible for creating a social order that accepts such extreme types of marginalisation to support their system of economic development.
We base these observations on many years of intimate cooperation with the children of Girli. Girli is an acronym for pingGIR kaLI, the river bank, where most of the poorest residents of Indonesian cities live. This is the name a highly creative group of street children gave to the cooperative they produced in 1984, when they first began to organise themselves into a family bent on survival within their own social borders.
Most street children in Indonesia have no identity cards, so officially they do not exist. They are branded invisibles and may not enjoy any of the benefits of state acceptance such as the right to an education, the right to a home, health care, or any of the other basic rights specified in the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and ratified by Indonesia.
Street children, as well as many others unable or unwilling to fulfil the requirements for state recognition, are forced to create their own street sub-culture in order to assure their existence. Why is there no place in Indonesian society for these individuals? The key lies in the widespread acceptance of social hierarchy as a means to guarantee social harmony.
The Indonesian social hierarchy, with its historic basis in feudalism, is translated into modern practice as the ‘family’ state. Notions of individuality contradict this positioning of Indonesia’s people as a ‘family’ who follow a family’s principles. Individual rights and possessions are considered ‘western’ and hence, out of place in Indonesia.
Social labels such as subversive, hoodlum (preman), obstructer of development, and anti-Pancasila stigmatise those who do not fit in with what the authority demands. These words have the power to make those so labeled dangerous in public perceptions. They construct the bearer as a criminal who can be subjected to legal action.
The Sanskrit loan word tuna, meaning without, has been adapted by the dominant forces specifically to stigmatise and marginalise the underclasses by evaluating them by means of what they lack. The tuna classes include tunawisma or homeless, tunasusila or immoral, and tunakarya or unemployed.
One type of exiled street society, whose members include many street children, are those called pemulung - scavengers, rubbish collectors or recyclers. Despite their long hours of hard work and wages above those in the civil service, pemulung are labeled by the authorities as tunakarya, unemployed. What makes them ‘unemployed’ is the fact that they work outside of state authority. So their work is branded socially offensive.
Mainstream society often calls pemulung thieves. Almost every village throughout Java has posted signs warning them not to enter. Yet members of the acceptable and controllable classes are never stigmatised with the term tunakarya. Students who have graduated from college, still unemployed and living off their parents, are labeled ‘currently looking for work’.
In this way dominant forces determine exactly which groups of people work in cooperation with official development policies, and which do not. Those free from state regulations are those who clearly do not cooperate.
Nationally sponsored ‘cleansing operations’ insure that those who do not conform, such as prostitutes, beggars, homeless, pemulung, street children, street peddlars, as well as thieves, drug dealers, activists and ’subversives’ etc., are all lumped together and removed from the public eye. Cleansing Operations are a method of social control, but in the eyes of the government they are carried out in an effort to ‘discipline’ social life on the streets for the good of ‘national stability’.
As a member of such an ‘outsider’ group, the Girli children all know what it feels like to be beaten by security officers at railway stations and kicked by the heavy boots of the police. They also know the smell of the prison cell where they are confined and beaten ‘for the good of national stability’. Experience has taught street groups to depend on no one but themselves. The marginalised can look only to their own for support.
As a street society, Girli identifies itself as a well-formed and special community. The proof of such exclusivity is evident in their creative use of language. Girli members have responded to their being rejected by the dominant classes by creating their own exclusive vocabularies. These terms have become internationally known since the publication of their own monthly newsletter called Jejal, an acronym for JErit JALanan, or screams from the street.
Jejal was initially intended to encourage and support literacy and community empowerment by allowing the children a means to express themselves creatively. The newsletter has assisted in strengthening ties between street children nationally. It is a means for them to share experiences, vocabularies, and information, and hence recreate their own community’s sets of norms.
Prior to Jejal the dominant term for street child in Java was gembel, which means discarded or used clothes. Now Girli and other street children avoid all stigma of garbage by proudly referring to themselves as tikyan, from sithik ning lumayan, which means ‘just a little, but enough’.
Jejal has also become a model for groups of street children in other cities to create similar organisations and publications for themselves, and there is now a network of street children organisations that extends country-wide.
According to the UN Convention, every child has the right to an education. Yet for most tikyan formal education is only a dream. The majority of street kids dropped out of school before they finished primary school and are now unable to attend as they have no identity card or qualifications.
As a response to being rejected and marginalised by the dominant culture in this way, a new and exciting method to strengthen solidarity within the street kid sub-culture has been developed. Currently at the experimental stage, the Universitas Jalanan, Street University, was started last September in a house owned by Girli on the outskirts of Yogyakarta. This educational institute for street children is the first street university in the world. It is one form of ‘higher education’ that the tikyan community do have access to, despite their lack of formal papers.
It is called ‘higher’ education as only those children who have succeeded, or who have graduated from living on the street, have the right to enter the university. Other entry requirements include the ability to look after themselves by having a bath every morning, not to get drunk, and to stay on campus from Monday to Friday. Weekends are free for going to Malioboro, the main street in Yogya, to earn money by busking or shoe-shining, and to hang out with friends still on the street.
There are currently 17 boys, aged between 12-19 years who have been sent by non-government organisations from various cities (Bandung, Medan, Malang, Jakarta, Yogyakarta and Surabaya) to attend the university. The 13 teachers, including the ‘rector’, are all volunteers. Since the start of the programme a few boys have already dropped out as they missed the freedom of life on the streets. Others, however, are happy with the set-up of being busy all day learning new skills, having a safe place to sleep and eat for free three times a day.
The university’s main aim is to strengthen self esteem, learn skills for the future and build a stronger community of street children. It is the brain child of Girli and the Consortium for Street Children, of which Girli is a member. The consortium brings together non-government organisations working with street children in several cities. The academic year is nine months long and classes are geared to vocational skills, such as batik making, silk screening, ceramics and handicrafts. They also learn English from foreign volunteers.
The university does not wish to reproduce the dominant culture and social imbalance which exists outside the campus. The aim, therefore, is to avoid creating competition between the students with discriminating marking systems. It does this by developing a climate of solidarity between the students and their friends still on the street.
Hopefully, once street kids graduate from the university they will return to the streets in their respective cities and educate their friends in the skills they have learnt. What is most important is that the children are given hope and self esteem, so that they are able to face the future with optimism in a hostile society.
The Indonesian national slogan is Unity in Diversity, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika. Yet the brilliance of these children’s relative freedom from state dominance is demonstrated by their ability to reconstruct their own identities as something other than ‘tuna‘. This must be celebrated as acts of ‘diversity’.
As long as the authority maintains a system of separating and constructing social classes according to what they possess and how they act, as long as unity is celebrated and diversity rejected, and as long as an identity card is the sole defining element for inclusion and identity, street children and other creative exiles like them will continue to multiply in Indonesia.
Dr Laine Berman coordinates Indonesian Studies at Deakin University in Melbourne. Harriott Beazley is a postgraduate student in geography at the Australian National University, Canberra. Laine Berman also wrote on Girli in Inside Indonesia, March 1994.