In 1993, there were an estimated 25,000 street children in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city, up from 16,000 four years before (UNDP, 1993). The figure today is close to 60,000 (GTZ,1998). The rapid increase in the number of street children in Kenya can be attributed to economic depression, wide-spread poverty, natural and human-made disasters and diseases such as AIDS. Orphans who lost their parents to AIDS or natural disasters and runaway children escaping violence or abuse in their homes, as well as abandoned children constitute a large percentage of street children in Nairobi. Many are children of single mothers who were once street children themselves.
Those who do have a home somewhere avoid it for good reasons. Being "at home" for them often means being beaten or sexually abused by family members. It can also mean being neglected or living with alcoholism or some other traumatizing experience –- on a daily basis. Some girls are sold into prostitution by their mothers at an early age. So, street life, rough and harsh as it may be, often seems a better choice to the children. But is it really?
The Many Facets of Violence on the Streets
The increasing violence towards street children has only recently been documented. Although there are now more statistics and reports on the issue, the extent of the problem can never be under-estimated. Sleeping on the pavement unprotected and forced to beg or steal for survival, street children are constantly exposed to the risk of violence and exploitation. Not only do they have to protect themselves from other street children and youth, but also from adults, including the police, security guards and ordinary citizens, who regularly beat them up. In cities such as Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, killing squads have been known to "clean up" the streets by shooting sleeping children. (See box)
Needless to say, girls are even more at risk of violence and exploitation. They not only get beaten, they also get sexually assaulted by adults, as well as street boys. Many take to drugs or sniffing glue to help them cope with the brutality of their lives.
Once on the streets, children form gangs and groups which are strictly hierarchical. Girls and boys hang out in separate gangs, except at night. The girls tend to have a "boyfriend" who protects them from other boys. In the boys’ gang, smaller boys may be sexually abused by the older ones. In spite of all this, the children prefer to stick to their chosen "families" as the affection and care they receive from each other is often more than what they ever received from their own parents. This makes rehabilitation very difficult.
"There is an urge to go back to this kind of life," says Clarisse Odhiambo, a social worker at the Rescue Dada Centre in Nairobi, a shelter which provides refuge to street girls. "They have boyfriends, even though the relationships are not very strong. They are addicted to drugs, and drugs and sexual abuse are highly connected. A lot of these girls and boys do not know any other kind of life. Some of them mistake sexual abuse for love or affection."
Hope, Not Handouts
In a city like Nairobi, where an estimated 50,000 children do not attend school, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as Rescue Dada have mushroomed over the past ten years. Many of these organizations try to help the children with their immediate needs and problems, mainly food and medical care. Street workers seek out the children and find out who is sick or has been assaulted. In serious cases, they will try to refer the children to a hospital.
The next step is to talk to the children and find out how ready and willing they are for rehabilitation. The street workers get to know the children, and a relationship is established. This can lead to the children accepting help beyond the basic needs.
Eventually, if the children are ready for it, they will be taken into the refuge homes where they receive care, food and primary education. Even so, many of them run away, and the rehabilitation success rate is low: only about 10 per cent of all street children in Nairobi get rehabilitated. Of course, there is also not enough space available in the centres –- the sheer number of children in need of help is overwhelming.
"We try to do the best we can but sometimes the problems and workload are more than we can handle," says a social worker dealing with street children. "There is a feeling of futility, of being merely a drop in the ocean. So we concentrate on a few children and are happy if we can get them through a term, and to a better life. But there are so many more children out there who will never benefit from our efforts."
This dilemma has led to different approaches when it comes to working with street children. "Traditionally, many NGOs tried to help with food, handouts and maybe shelter," says Henk van Beers of the Netherlands Development Service, "but we know today that this is a counterproductive approach to reintegration into society. The children will come, take the food that is offered to them, and then disappear onto the streets again. This kind of well-wishing only teaches the children that they can get by with taking handouts and begging."
Mr. van Beers is also critical of those religious organizations which lure children into their shelters by offering food, only to impose fundamentalist religious views on them without giving them the tools they need for surviving in this society. He feels that these organizations breed dependency in children. However, many NGOs are run by priests and nuns who do a genuinely good job. In addition to school, most refuge or drop-in centres, such as the St. Charles Langwa Centre, offer practical education and training in mechanics, electronics, crafts, carpentry, sewing etc. These vocational skills are extremely important and give authority and confidence to the older children and youth. Practical skills are a direct step out of a life of begging, stealing or prostitution. Again, however, these only help those who are lucky enough to get enrolled in one of these programmes.
To be more effective, many organizations have started to cooperate and coordinate their activities, instead of competing with each other. Many NGOs now meet on a regular basis to exchange views, experience and expertise. The Kenya Alliance for Advancement of Children (KAAC) played a key-role in organizing these meetings and bringing different NGOs together. Says Joyce Umbima, Director of KAAC: "We have been able to open up new avenues by cooperating. Some of us know more about street work, others are experts in other issues such as income-generation, legal matters or shelter. We have become much more effective by putting our expertise together and also by learning from each other."
Many NGOs have also realized that they have to involve the community from which the children came in order to rehabilitate them more successfully. In many slum areas, women’s groups have organized themselves and support each other. Self-help as well as formally-organized programmes involve mothers and support them through income-generating projects. These businesses have come to replace activities such prostitution, hawking or brewing illicit liquor, leading to a more stable family life, and helping mothers to pay for basic supplies and to send their children to school.
Apart from NGOs, the church and community groups, the private sector can also play an important role in addressing poor children’s needs. The Child Life Trust is a group of Nairobi business people who got together to promote the cause of street children. Initially, the group made the mistake of feeding the children but quickly realized that this was unsustainable. Instead, they support refuge centres with material goods. "We approach different firms and companies and ask them to help with goods such as school material, furniture, soap, food," says Anoup Shah, Director of Child Life Trust. "We coordinate the distribution to the different organizations according to their needs and we keep a close eye on their financial respectability."
Other programmes aim at working with street gangs by involving them in street-oriented income-generating activities such as recycling of scrap paper. Theirs is a more open approach to working with street children. "If they come to our drop-in centre, they have to leave their glue bottles at the gate and can pick them up again when they are leaving. We offer them various types of work and encourage them to organize themselves in work-plans and schedules. If the kids want to stay at our centre for the night, they can do so, but they have to pay a small fee," explains a social worker at a drop-in centre in Nairobi. Many street children have come to accept the system of mutual giving and taking, which helps them in the long-run and prepares them for real life better than the charitable approach.