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date: 26 February 2017

Street-Connected Children

Abstract and Keywords

This article focuses on the long-standing global concern of children who live or work on the street, with developing countries having a larger share of the problem. It reviews the paradigm shift in the way we look at the “street children” phenomenon and the appropriateness of the new terminology, street-connected children. The article maintains that with an increased understanding of different aspects of the life experiences of these children, through research and practice, it is possible to move toward a more precise definition and estimation of the phenomenon. It also elaborates how social work interventions in different parts of the world have demonstrated effective strategies to work with street-connected children and include them in the larger agenda of child protection at the local, national, and global levels.

Keywords: Street children, paradigm shift, street connected, right based approach, child protection, interventions

  • They call me Street Child.
  • It means “anonymous.” That’s not my name.
  • My name is Adeline. It means “beloved.”
  • They call me Urchin. That’s not my name.
  • My name is Ilario. It means “cheerful.”
  • They call me Spinning Top. That’s not my name.
  • My name is Cara. It means “precious jewel.”
  • They call me Dust of Life. That’s not my name.
  • My name is Mateo. It means “gift of God.”
  • They call me Street Child.
  • It means “anonymous.” That’s not my name.

This poem by a former street-connected child expresses what it feels like to be stripped of one’s name and given another. The poem was reproduced by Martin Thomas (2012) in a blog article for the Christian nonprofit group Viva, a global church network organized to address the needs of street-connected children around the world. Historically, street-connected children have not been primarily identified for what they truly are: children. Instead, in countries across the world, they have been assigned informal names that demonstrate the way in which society, including authorities from government and juvenile justice system, continues to see them—often, as being something less than human.

The term street children was probably first used by Henry Mayhew in 1851 in his book London Labour and the London Poor. Earlier, street-connected children were referred to as homeless children, abandoned children, or runaways (Scanlon, Tomkins, Lynch, & Scanlon, 1998). In countries across the world, street-connected children continue to be labeled with derogatory terms referring to their daily activities. In the modern-day Democratic Republic of Congo, groups of children who live on the streets and hang around schools looking for piecemeal work are collectively called moineax (“sparrows”) or balados (“ones who walk around”); they are also called phaseur, which refers to their habit of taking naps during the day (Human Rights Watch, 2006). They are called “parking boys” in Kenya, “Peggy boys” in the Philippines, pivetes (slang for “street kids” or “juvenile thieves”) in Brazil, and pajaros fruteros (meaning “fruit birds”) in Peru (Agrawal, 1999). Lan pyaw kalay is the traditional term for street children in Myanmar, which literally means “children who are happy on the streets” (CSF, 2004). In North American countries, street-connected children are usually included in the population of homeless children or youth (Flowers, 2010): in the United States, they may be known as “throwaway kids,” most of whom end up on the streets after a failure of the foster care system. Street-connected children in the former Soviet Union countries are referred to as bezeprizorniki, which means “those who are uncared for.” In Costa Rica, they are called chapulines, meaning “grasshoppers,” “parasites,” or “pests.” In Vietnam, they are known as buidoi, “children of the dust” (literally, “the dust of life”), and in Bangladesh, they are called tokai, meaning “rag pickers.” In Guatemala, they are called huelepegas, or “glue sniffers” (Pemberton, 2007). Nairobi’s street-connected children are branded as chokora (“scavengers”), and in Mongolia, they are known as “manhole children” (Kurihara, 2005). These terms, describing the behavior or living styles or occupations of street-connected children, all have negative connotations. On a global basis, however, researchers and practitioners in the field are increasingly trying to change such stereotypes or labels, in order to avoid the adverse impact they have on the self-image of these children and society’s attitude toward them.

Global Initiatives for Change

The status of street-connected children and society’s attitudes toward this group of children vary from country to country. In Latin America, they are regarded with a mix of fear and pity and are victims of violence and murder. In former Soviet Socialist countries, street-connected children are perceived as a new phenomenon and as a fallout of the economic crisis precipitated by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Poverty, along with the HIV/AIDS epidemic, is the root cause for a surge in the number of street-connected children in Africa. With the growing numbers of such children in developing countries, the street-children phenomenon has assumed global proportions.

Since the 1980's, street-connected children, along with other groups of vulnerable children, have become an integral part of the global agenda for academic research, policy debates, and intervention programs. The inaugural Street Child World Cup, a conference and sports tournament bringing together street-connected children from several continents, held in South Africa in 2010, resulted in the “Durban Declaration on Children’s Rights,” which was subsequently presented to the UN Committee for Human Rights. Girls taking part in the gathering produced a “street girl’s manifesto,” which was published as part of Plan International’s 2010 “Because I Am a Girl,” report on the state of the world’s girls (Griffin, 2013). Plan International is one of the oldest and largest children's development organisations in the world.

As a result of continuous efforts from the street children's advocacy groups across the globe, in a separate but subsequent event, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) dedicated a full-day session on March 9, 2011, to discuss issues and concerns related to street-connected children, and on April 12, 2011, the council adopted Resolution 16/12: “Rights of the Child: A Holistic Approach to the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Children Working and/or Living on the Street” (the UN Resolution on Street Children). The UNHRC resolution reaffirmed that “it is essential for States to take all appropriate measures to ensure the meaningful participation of children, including children working and/or living on the street, in all matters and decisions affecting their lives through the expression of their views, and that those views be given due weight in accordance with their age and maturity.”

This resolution can be considered the most significant global initiative for this category of children since the late 1980's when the category of street children was recognized as a separate group of vulnerable children in most countries and UNICEF defined them in 1988. The global advocacy network, Consortium for Street Children Consortium for street children had a significant role in framing of the resolution. They launched the International Day for Street Children on April 12, 2011, and the African Union and the African Committee of Experts on the Rights of the Child dedicated June 16, 2011, the Day of the African Child, to street-connected children in particular. Child-rights experts and grassroots professionals from twenty countries gathered in Cambridge, England, in September 2013 for a conference titled “Changing the Game Summit,” which aimed to break new ground in thinking, practice, and advocacy work with street-connected children. One day of the conference was dedicated to street-connected girls, who are typically less visible on the streets than boys but face particular issues because of their gender, including domestic servitude, prostitution, and sex trafficking. Interventions with girls and engaging them in projects has proved to be more difficult as compared to street connected boys, and often the situations that have led them to leave home make it harder to reintegrate them with their families. Events set in motion by the 2010 event in Durban led to the organization of a second Street Child World Cup, which was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in spring 2014.

Over time, the understanding and conceptualization of the street-child phenomenon has changed considerably because of the increased availability of evidence-based literature published by researchers and child-rights professionals across the globe. Sarah Thomas de Benitez and Trish Hiddleston (2011) identified some of the important changes that happened during the period 1994–2011—that is, from the 1994 UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) resolution on “street children” to the 2011 UNHRC resolution on “children living and/or working on the streets”:

  • A shift in terminology from street children to children working and/or living on the street

  • A pronounced move toward a holistic, child-centered, gender-sensitive approach

  • Increased awareness of the diversity of children’s characteristics and experiences

  • More emphasis on prevention, with detailed guidance on priority actions

  • Increased emphasis on multiple stakeholders working together to improve support for children in street situations

  • Increased emphasis on addressing discrimination, encouraging social inclusion, and assuring enjoyment of all rights

  • Stronger legal instruments and more guidance on legal support for children in the streets

  • Emphasis on research for planning, monitoring, and evaluation of policies and programs, and importance of children’s views and robust data to inform these processes.

The Debate over Definition

One of the great debates in the social work sector that engages with street-connected children has been over the terminology and typology used to describe and classify this particular set of vulnerable and displaced youth. Who, exactly, constitute the distinct groups of homeless, runaway, street-living and street-working children? The wide-ranging answers offered in response to this question have posed challenges that are both conceptual and operational. The meaning and definition of street children remains contested among academics, researchers, policy analysts, policymakers, program designers, politicians, helping professionals, practitioners, and the general public (West, 2003). It is difficult to frame a precise definition because of the multiple identities as well as the multiple life situations of children on the street.

The use of the term street children has come under increasing criticism; it is accused of being labeling and stigmatizing because of its connotations of delinquency in many societies, and for this reason it is disliked by the children themselves (Ray, Davey, & Nolan, 2011) Most definitions of street children concentrate on just two characteristics: presence on the street and contact with the family. Therefore, definitions of street children are seen to be incorporating the two groups of children: home based, which refers to children who usually return home at night; and street based, which is used to signify children who remain on the street and have no family support (Dabir & Athale, 2011). The most widely used definition is the one given by UNICEF: children on the street, children of the street, and children from street-living families.

In the last two decades, the issues facing excluded and marginalized children have been reconceptualized under broader umbrellas. Organizations such as UNICEF, Save the Children, and Every Child are now working with concepts such as “children on the move” (rather than the narrow lens of child trafficking); “children without parental care” (rather than orphans); and “children affected by conflict” (rather than a focus just on child soldiers). Responses are organized into larger frameworks of prevention and response, such as safe migration programs, child protection and welfare systems, and disaster risk management. Street-connected children fall within many of these broader umbrellas. For example, children who have migrated in an unsafe manner for work far from home may end up on the streets at their destination; children without parental care include homeless street-living children; and conflict in various regions swells the numbers of children who are forced to live on the streets. Some researchers now refer to these children as “street-involved children,” which means children for whom the street is a reference point and has a central role in their lives (Ray et al., 2011).

The UNHRC resolution of 2011 sidestepped the definitional dilemma to some extent by using the phrase “children working and/or living on the street” without defining who or what is included or excluded. However, Thomas de Benitez and Hiddleston (2011) argues that this more careful phrasing also presents difficulties, excluding by implication some of the children who may not be physically present on the street because of their work or because of shifting between home and street. The phrasing “children working and/or living on the street” also draws attention to children’s physical presence on the street, ignoring their emotional attachments to public places. Anne Louise Meincke (2011) has used a slight variation, identifying them as street connected children, who can be understood as “children for whom the street has become a central reference point, playing a significant role in their everyday lives and identities.”

Thomas de Benitez and Hiddleston (2011) explain how this definition is more inclusive by emphasizing “connections” in the terms street-connected child or child with street connections. This definition

  • Recognizes each child as a social actor capable of developing relationships with people and places, and whose activities contribute to his or her identity construction

  • Encourages a focus on children’s emotional associations with public spaces, rather than their current physical presence on the street

  • Recognizes that children who have spent time working, hanging out, or living on the street form attachments there—just as they have varying connections to family, community, and wider society

  • Recognizes that street-based experiences make particular contributions to identity development that may differ to those experienced by other urban and even other mobile or socially excluded children

A 2012 brochure from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights uses the term street-connected children, a clear indication of change in the terminology at the UN level. That this interrelationship between street life and other areas of vulnerability (and difficulties) is gaining consensus over older definitions indicates that this is a group of children who can easily fall through the cracks of policy initiatives. The circumstances in which the street-connected children survive sometimes form multiple barriers that confront them as they try to move out of social exclusion, vulnerability, and extreme poverty. The new terminology may help in getting a correct estimate of numbers as well as a better needs assessment of these children.

“Guesstimates” and Reality: Determining the Number of Street-Connected Children in the World

Street-connected children, for all their visibility on urban street corners, have proved elusive to statisticians. The two main obstacles to counting street-connected children are (1) definitional difficulties and (2) children’s fluid circumstances. These difficulties in distinguishing street-connected children from other inhabitants of public spaces are compounded by the need for relying on nonstandardized data-collection methods (Thomas de Benitez, 2007). The data is therefore unreliable. At best, there are close estimates, and these figures are mostly available for the developed countries. In some countries, including Papua New Guinea, Chile, Paraguay, Myanmar, and Moldova, there are no estimates available despite the obvious presence of children living on the streets. Where estimates do exist—for example regarding countries including Iran, Iraq, India, Nepal, and Pakistan—the numbers can vary widely and often could best be described as unconfirmed speculations (Dabir & Athale, 2011). In 1999, for instance, the Egyptian government reported that the official number of street-connected children was 17,228; twelve years later, according to government estimates, the number of street-connected children was said to exceed 3 million. National and international NGOs disagree on the number of street-connected children, and some organizations refuse to even give an estimate. In sum, no one really knows exactly how many street-connected children there are, globally (El Feky, 2013).

The children who grow up are replaced by others, which suggests that in addition to circumstances that bring children to the streets, there also are formal and informal social structures and enterprises that need children, for example, as cheap or compliant labor. Again, because of necessity or lack of other opportunities, children also need the jobs and escape routes provided by life on the street. Street-connected children themselves form relationships, or may have babies—children born on the street to children (West, 2003).

Various other reasons contribute to the lack of accurate statistics on street-connected children (Dabir & Athale, 2011; West, 2003):

  • A lack of childbirth records, especially in the case of children from impoverished or marginalized families, results in many children being excluded from the official statistics in some developing countries.

  • Children from poor families are the most vulnerable in situations of political instability, war, displacement, or internal conflict, and a large number of children are pushed onto the streets. During periods of political instability estimation of street-connected children is difficult, and such estimates may not be a priority for strained governments and international missions. Iraq, Sierra Leone, and Somalia, with their ongoing political crises running over several years, are countries that fall into this category.

  • Children may be trafficked illegally (and thus invisibly) over international borders, or they may cross and recross borders to escape their situations in their home countries. For many countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and South America that are facing civil conflict, the street-child phenomenon is also part of the refugee crisis. In all of these instances, a child’s status of statelessness often leads to their exclusion from official statistics and also exclusion from services by the state.

  • Natural calamities and disasters leading to loss of life and livelihoods are major unpredictable factors pushing a large number of children on to the streets. Many of these children go back to their homes once the intensity of the disaster ends and, therefore, the number of children on the streets may be frequently fluctuating.

  • The difficulties of definition also lead to debates over numbers. Several categories of vulnerable children may overlap when it comes to numbers.

Frequently cited global estimates of more than 100 million street-connected children (and growing) have no basis in research. “Guesstimates” made without reference to well-constructed surveys are best ignored. City level counts, occasionally extending to two or three cities, have often been found to be smaller than earlier guesstimates. In Mexico City, a 1970s guesstimate by the authorities suggested that 200,000 children were “roaming the streets of the capital,” but surveys between 1992 and 2000 found the number of street-connected children (street-living and street-working children) to be only 15% to 20% of the suggested number (Thomas de Benitez & Hiddleston, 2011). One rough estimate proposed that there were more than 100,000 street-connected children in the Indian cities of Delhi and Mumbai (YouthXchange, 2013). In the case of Delhi, however, a census survey by Institute for Human Development and Save the Children (Bhaskaran & Mehta, 2011) indicated the actual number to be 51,000, and a similar census survey of street-connected children in Mumbai by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences indicated the number to be even lower, at 37,059 (Raghavan & Nair, 2013). Even after allowing that a census of a moving population of children on the street cannot have accurate counting, these reality-based numbers are far smaller than the earlier guesstimates. Another significant finding of more-recent studies in India and other countries has been the fact that a large number of street-involved children come from street-living families: for example, 65% in Mumbai, 36% in Delhi, and 65% in Georgia. (The research included four large urban centers in Georgia: Tbilisi, Kutaisi, Rustavi, and Batumi). Further the children in Georgia for whom the street is also home to their family spend only a part of the year on the streets, usually during the warm months (Bhaskaran & Mehta, 2011; Raghavan & Nair, 2013; Wargan & Dershem, 2009).

Neela Dabir and Naina Athale (2011) attempted to compile data related to the number of street-connected children in 195 countries across the world from different websites, including a site created by the University of Massachusetts professor Martin Patt (2014c), which gives country reports on the prevalence, abuse, and exploitation of street children, as well as sites hosted by World Street Children News and the Consortium for Street Children. However, the available data online has been collected at different periods of time using different methodologies for counting or estimation, and so the only reliable conclusion that can be drawn from such information is the fact that developed countries have a much lower number of street-connected children than do developing countries. In most developed countries, there is a presence of a social security system that covers every child from birth, and it is possible to trace that child at any given time. In developed countries, the unaccounted population of children migrating or trafficked from neighboring countries is often found to be living on the streets, but it is relatively small in number. Therefore, one can say that the majority of the street-connected children in the world come from developing countries and from countries affected by war, unrest, and natural disasters. What is also known is that children with street connections form a relatively small proportion of the global population of children, and international concern should be less about numbers and more about the persistence of appalling conditions that force children to choose to move onto urban streets (UNCHR, 2012). Since the majority of these children belong to street-living families, it is also pertinent to look into the issue of the meager social security network available for such families.

Reasons for Adopting Street Life

Street-connected children do not consist of a homogeneous group; they come onto the street with different socioeconomic backgrounds and for a variety of reasons, and in response to varied and changing social conditions each one of them may face different sets of circumstances. Referring to a 1922 essay by Sara Brown titled “Rural Child Dependency, Neglect, and Delinquency,” Peggy Shifflett (2004) says that the author “lists reasons for children running away from home during the early twentieth century: death of parents, abusive home life, broken homes, feeblemindedness, delinquency, and poverty.” Shifflett continues, “The major difference between runaway children and homeless children is that runaways chose to leave their home for the reasons above while homeless children were victims of social and economic factors that leave them without shelter for varying lengths of time.”

The literature on street-connected children indicates that street migration is a process in which a variety of push factors (for example, poverty, abuse, abandonment) and pull factors (for example, freedom, monetary remuneration, addiction) interact to expel children from families and communities into the streets (Arriagada, 1995; Connolly, 1990; De la Barra, 1998; Kefyalew, 1998). Lewis Aptekar (1994) notes that in 1990, UNICEF estimated that there were 369 million poor children under the age of 15 in the cities of the developing world (UNICEF, 1990). The majority of them were not street-connected children. Why is it that certain children leave their homes, while their siblings, who are as poor and presumably as abused or neglected, stay at home? Also, there is substantial disagreement among authors, and conflicting empirical evidence across countries and regions, regarding which factors, or what precise combination of factors, are responsible for the movement of children into the streets (Ferguson et al., 2005). Several hypotheses have been advanced to explain the origins of street-connected children. One relates to urban poverty, a second relates to aberrant families (for example, abandonment, abuse or neglect), and a third is associated with modernization.

A variety of interdependent factors are responsible for pushing children onto the street. The most common reasons seem to be poverty, family disorganization, sociocultural reasons, natural disasters, widespread prevalence of HIV/AIDS, war, internal and cross-border displacements, internal conflicts in the country, climate change, lack of access to quality education, violence against children, and exploitative and hazardous child work. (Dabir & Athale, 2011, Ray et al., 2011). Poverty can be seen as both a cause and an effect of different situations in a country. On the one hand, economic and political crises, natural disasters, war, and internal conflict can lead to widespread poverty and widen the gap between the rich and the poor. On the other hand, poverty can be a cause of family violence, neglect, and physical abuse of children and women. Most of these reasons are relevant for street-connected children in the developing world.

Dabir and Athale (2011) have found that for countries from the developing world, poverty and the impact of family violence, neglect, and abuse are the most common factors associated with the street-connected child phenomenon. African countries however, are riddled with almost all the problems mentioned above, and the street-connected children phenomenon in African countries is a result of a combination of these events and factors.

Occupations of Street-Connected Children

Most of the world’s street-connected children are engaged in some kind of income-generating work, mostly in the informal sector, and they do not necessarily have work on a daily basis. Some fend for themselves; others support the family in its struggle for survival. Across the world, the occupations in which they are engaged are similar to some extent, but there are region-specific variations as well. In most countries, street-connected children are engaged in trash recycling, street vending, car washing, assisting transport operators, domestic work, and begging. These children also may be involved in dangerous or illegal occupations like theft (from pickpocketing to robbery), gambling, sex work (prostitution, sex tourism, pornography), dealing in contraband (including selling alcohol, drug trafficking, smuggling, and participating in illegal currency exchange), and working in bars and nightclubs; they may be involved in illicit activities on their own or as members of gangs. Wealthier countries are often the destinations for trafficking, and child prostitution among street-connected children is common in these countries. Almost all of these street occupations are included in the International Labour Organization Convention No. 182, under “The Worst Forms of Child Labor.”

In South America, street-connected children work in the informal sector at occupations including garment production, the food industry, mineral and gold mining, and the harvesting of sugar cane and Brazil nuts (Patt, 2014b). In the Middle East, street-connected children are more likely to be engaged in criminal activities, working with gangs, selling alcohol and illegal drugs, and working as slave laborers in small shops and factories. From poor countries like Yemen, street-connected children are also trafficked to Saudi Arabia for begging, theft, or prostitution. Some children are trafficked for working as camel jockeys, laborers, or domestic help. Many are in potentially dangerous occupations such as selling fuel on the streets, working in brick factories, helping on construction sites, or participating in the fishing and leather industries (Hakeem, 2007; Murphy, 2007; Patt, 2014a).

In addition to the common occupations mentioned above, African street-connected children are often involved in smuggling and illegal money changing. Some of them undertake dangerous and exploitative work such as carrying heavy loads for traders, cleaning drainage channels, selling alcohol, and working in risky settings such as bars, quarries, mines, and slaughterhouses. Some countries (such as the Democratic Republic of Congo) have recent histories of armed conflict involving large number of child soldiers. After disarmament of militia groups, children belonging to these groups may have found it difficult to adjust to civilian life on the streets and thus been reconscripted into other armed groups (Clover, 2002; CSF, 2004; Patt, 2014c; U.S. Department of Labor, 2008; Waddington, 2006; Wilkinson, 1998).

Asian street-connected children may be employed in butcher’s shops, be hired for informal and illegal coal and gold mining, or work as gravediggers, runners, currency-exchange traders, and drug peddlers. They are seen working on the streets even in the bone-chilling winters of Afghanistan and Mongolia. In countries including Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and East Timor, they are forced to work for militant groups, and are sometimes recruited as child soldiers. Each of these occupations is dangerous for their health and safety (CSF, 2008; UNCHR, 2006; Weber, 1997; West, 2003; Xinhua News Agency, 2005).

Problems Faced by Street-Connected Children

The problems and risks faced by children on the street are well recognized and documented. In the 2011 resolution, the UN Human Rights Council strongly condemned

the violations and abuses of the rights of children living and/or working on the street, including discrimination and stigmatization and lack of access to basic services, including education and basic health care, and all forms of violence, abuse, maltreatment, neglect or negligent treatment experienced by them, such as exploitation, gender-based violence, trafficking, forced begging and hazardous work, forced recruitment by armed forces and armed groups, forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. (UNHRC, 2011)

The presence of a large number of street-connected children creates ever increasing ripples in the communities at large and at the national level as well. In some countries, the problem becomes chronic and is not addressed for years, leading to a second generation of street-connected children. Further, complexities often result when one problem leads to another. For example, a sexually exploited street-connected child more often than not ends up with sexually transmitting diseases (perhaps including HIV/AIDS), and girls may have unwanted pregnancies.

Some street-connected children are victims of multiple problems that place their lives at risk. In Iran, for example, the death rate of street-connected children is as high as 100 to 150 a month (Gorgin and Recknagel, 2003; Murphy, 2007). When children anywhere in the world leave their difficult circumstances and reach the streets, the transition creates its own complex web of problems for them. Many of these millions of children end up dying on the pavements as victims of drug abuse, gang rivalry, rape, and disease (Youth Exchange, 2013). Again, there is an increasing interconnectedness of various street-connected child problems across regions, through intercountry trafficking of humans and drugs, civil conflict and war, the movement of refugees, and economic or other migration (West, 2003).

The boundaries among categories of vulnerable children are often blurred, as the same children may be classified as child workers and street-connected children. Their mobility across occupations and geographical locations is high, and so they move on and off the streets depending upon the job situation and opportunities for survival or weather conditions (Dabir & Athale, 2011).

Change in Attitudes and Approaches to Working with Street-Connected Children

Our understanding of the characteristics of street-connected children—and their needs as well as their strengths—has been changing as a result of increasing awareness and advocacy by child-rights organizations and activists. Children perceived as “victims” are more likely to be treated as passive objects of welfare rather than as possessors of rights (Ennew & Swart-Kruger, 2003). Children perceived as “delinquents” are invariably feared, excluded, and subjected to random and state-led violence, and they are more likely to end up in the penal system (Wernham, 2001). Paradigms have shifted from “considering individual children as the site of problems—either as victims or as delinquents—to the conception of children interacting with a variety of environments,” and the focus has changed from “dysfunction, pathology and psychological breakdown” to understanding characteristics of children’s street lives as embedded in multidimensional contexts.

Children and their lives have characteristics that vary by location, time, and context, but stereotypes about street-involved children can simplify their situation, failing to reflect (and thereby misrepresenting) the diverse realities of these children’s lives (Thomas de Benitez & Hiddleston, 2011). In a paper created by the U.K.-based Consortium for Street Children for presentation to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights—a study on “the promotion and protection of the rights of children working and/or living on the street” titled “Children’s Voices Paper: ‘Nothing About Us, Without Us’”—the researchers highlight a paradigm shift in understanding street-connected children: a shift from viewing them as needy, victims, or vagrants to viewing them as active agents and key informants of their own lives—a shift that has taken place under the developments of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that went into effect in 1989 (Meincke, 2011).

This shift from a welfare approach to a rights-based perspective has changed the ways in which we work with vulnerable children in general, and it also applies to street-involved children. The new standard is to treat them as active participants in every action associated with their lives, such as designing policies, implementing programs, and conducting research related to them. Social work involving street-connected children places increased emphasis on listening to their perspectives, understanding their real-life experiences, and focusing on the realization of their rights. Researchers have observed that street-connected children often express many positive reflections about meaningful or enjoyable activities, spatial freedom, and friendships in their life on the streets. Therefore, not every child on the street needs to be rescued. At the same time, it is equally important to protect them from the risks of abuse and exploitation.

Developing Child-Protection Mechanisms for Street-Connected Children

Street-connected children face significant developmental needs: they could often benefit from gaining access to key rights that would facilitate active learning in a formal-education environment, improving family relationships, fostering employment in the formal sector, and enabling participation in their communities as responsible adults. To meet these needs, organizations and individuals working with street-connected children have shifted from a “welfare and rescue” approach to a rights-based participatory one. The problems with the welfare and rescue approach, as identified by Thomas de Benitez & Hiddleston (2011), are that this approach

  • Encourages a widespread but usually mistaken belief that children who work or live on the street have no families or have relentlessly “bad” families that forced their children out.

  • Focuses on satisfying children’s “needs” as perceived by adults, rather than on fulfilling children’s rights.

  • Reinforces an understanding of the street as the “worst” option—rather than as a logical response by children to other possibly “worse” options—and therefore an environment from which children must be “saved.”

A rights-based approach starts from the premise that all children are rights holders. In reality, children in street situations are deprived of many of their rights—both before and during their time on the streets—and while on the street, they are more likely to be seen as victims or delinquents than as rights holders. From a rights-based perspective, the greatest challenge faced by a child in a street situation is being recognized and treated as a rights holder. Both the welfare and repressive approaches fail to take into account the child as a rights holder or put the best interests of the child first.

The 2012 report by UNHR (2012) on “Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Street Living and/or Working Children,” includes a range of measures to be taken by national governments as well as other agencies and professionals to achieve this goal. The report acknowledges that developing a comprehensive child protection system is a long process and depends on multiple factors such as political will, availability of resources, and legislative and policy changes. Therefore, it is suggested that emerging child protection systems focus on core areas of child protection, social well-being, justice, and security.

Some of the key recommendations from the UNHR (2012) report are as follows:

  1. 1. Children in street situations have experienced great deprivation and rights violations. To support them in fulfilling their rights, investments in strengthening children’s connections with family, the community, and wider society is required.

  2. 2. States to develop comprehensive Child Protection Systems, comprising relevant laws, policies, regulations and services across all social sectors, especially social welfare, education, health, security and justice, as an overarching strategy to safeguard all children, and which promotes a holistic, rights-based approach.

  3. 3. The High Commissioner recommends specialized support for children in street situations. To this end, States should promote and support child-centered, tailor-made interventions for children whose connections to family, community and wider society have been weakened and who have developed their own street-based coping mechanisms. In line with a rights-based, holistic approach, specialized interventions should help children to reconnect with family, local community services and wider society. This does not imply that the child should renounce his or her street connections, but rather, such intervention should guarantee that his or her rights are fulfilled.

  4. 4. Introduce laws requiring the design and implementation of municipal policies, with adequate budgets, that are aimed at ensuring positive law enforcement, coordinating referrals and providing support for specialized interventions for children with street connections.

  5. 5. Encourage and support city-level partnership-based specialized interventions for this group of children to promote rights based policies, services and research involving street-connected children

  6. 6. Guarantee operational budgets for specialized interventions and funding for research to assess their cost-effectiveness.

  7. 7. Commit to fulfilling human rights beyond childhood, if damaging effects of rights violations are not fully addressed by the age of 18, even though legal commitments specific to children may end.

  8. 8. As a minimum, States should address stigmatization and discrimination of children in the streets, including through public sensitization to the experiences and rights of street-connected children.

  9. 9. Ensure full training on non-violent engagement and respect for the right of children in street situations to freedom from violence for, inter alia, law enforcement officers; judges and all staff in the justice and penal systems; teaching and administrative staff in schools; medical staff in health centres; social workers in welfare centers and specialized interventions.

  10. 10. Introduce and enforce sanctions against all perpetrators of violence against children in the streets.

  11. 11. Ensure that child- sensitive counseling, complaint and reporting mechanisms are easily accessible to street-connected children.

Role of Social Work Interventions

Social work professionals and agencies have been playing a crucial role in working with street-connected children through their engagement in service delivery, research, and advocacy for this vulnerable group. In most cases they are part of a multidisciplinary team that works for the cause of street-connected children. Many agencies offer specialized interventions through personalized support and counseling to ensure that these children have full access to basic services. They also try to minimize the negative effects of deprivations by making available specialized services such as psychosocial counseling, support for drug abuse, trauma therapies, empowerment through sports, complaint and reporting mechanisms, and support services that can help the child to (re)connect positively with family and local community services. The tailor-made and personalized interventions by social workers can go a long way in improving access to basic services and in ensuring the best interests of the street-connected children.

The scope of social work interventions is very wide, and a large number of projects involving street-connected children in developing countries are innovative, based on local needs, and cost effective. Most of these interventions include inputs by multidisciplinary teams, with social workers playing important roles at different levels. Their people skills are of great use not only in planning and implementation of the projects at the grassroots but also for advocacy and policy-level work. The social workers have the skills and training to build a relationship of trust with children and others with a nonjudgmental attitude. They can also be effective counselors to motivate street-involved children toward positive behavior and set realistic goals for social reintegration. Their skills for networking can be of great help in connecting children with different agencies and persons who can support the children in their journey toward development as self-reliant, responsible adults.

The cross-cutting criteria for good practices identified by the UNHRC (2012) are (1) best interest, (2) nondiscrimination, (3) participation, and (4) accountability. The most common services and facilities provided by government and nongovernment organizations for street-connected children include

  1. 1. Drop-in centers with facilities for bathing, midday meals, money management, nonformal education, medical help, psychosocial counseling, and other services.

  2. 2. Outreach programs on railway stations and other public spaces to connect with the children and then plan personalized interventions.

  3. 3. Home placement programs for reunion with the family.

  4. 4. Open shelters for those who are willing to live in the shelter and get back to formal education or vocational training.

  5. 5. Engagement with the state for designing a child-friendly policy and then helping to forward its implementation, including the training of different functionaries in the child protection system.

  6. 6. Group homes or transition houses for street-connected children above eighteen years of age and support for seeking employment, housing, and the like.

  7. 7. Training of street outreach workers.

  8. 8. Child helplines for crisis intervention and timely help to youth in need of immediate help.

  9. 9. Rescue, treatment, and counseling for victims of sex abuse and exploitation.

All of these programs respect the right of children to make decisions related to their lives, and action may be taken without the consent of the child only for crisis prevention or when it is necessary to do so in the best interest of the child.

Some Innovative Practices

The Street Child World Cup

The Street Child World Cup is a global movement aiming to provide street-connected children with the protection and opportunities that all children are entitled to. Street Child World Cup partners include the Amos Trust (which founded the Street Child World Cup in 2010), Momentum Arts (which led the arts program in Durban in 2010), and Action for Brazil’s Children (who helped with the Brazilian teams in 2014). The Street Child World Cup is an initiative of the UK-registered charity Street Child United. The event is a platform for street-connected children to be heard, to challenge negative stereotypes of street-connected children, and to promote the rights of street-connected children. Scheduled in the host city of the FIFA World Cup, and happening just ahead of that international football (soccer) championship, Street Child World Cup unites street-connected children from across five continents to play football and participate in a unique international conference that also includes art and campaigning.

As a result of the first Street Child World Cup, in 2010, street-connected children are no longer forcibly removed from the streets of Durban and a new set of responses has been put in place. This has been mirrored in other participating countries, where new ways of working have been developed with central and regional governments.


Founded in 2003, the free newspaper Balaknama (“Children’s Voice”) is an initiative of Badhte Kadam, a federation of street-connected and working children in northern India, in association with a Delhi-based NGO, Childhood Enhancement Through Training and Action (CHETNA). The quarterly Hindi-language paper aims to give voice to the most underprivileged and marginalized sections of India’s society, and in its pages “slumkids” write about the afflictions and suffering they witness on a daily basis. The chief reporter of the newspaper in 2013 was Vijay Kumar, an eighteen-year-old former street child. Kumar told a reporter from the London Independent newspaper, “Street children are like ghosts . . . no-one notices and no-one cares. Our newspaper, Balaknama, means “Children’s Voice” . . . that’s what it gives us. People need to listen” (Ochota, 2013).

Every contributor to the paper has a compelling story. Eleven years ago, Subhash a school dropout, was forced to move to Delhi to make a living on the streets. He sold magazines at busy traffic intersections, earning the equivalent of barely two or three U.S. dollars a day. When Subhash became involved with the newspaper, his daily existence took on direction, while his self-confidence was restored. He is now pursuing a master’s degree in sociology and plans to earn a doctorate. Chandni, fourteen, a street-connected child is now reporting for Balaknama. According to Chandni, “it is the power of the pen. She is not just any teen from Delhi’s slums; she’s a journalist. To be precise, she’s a crime reporter who documents life on the streets for the neighborhood children through her articles in Balaknama. To her friends and family, Chandni is no less than a star. Anybody who faces a problem in the area approaches her” (Sharma, 2013).

Most of the young journalists in the newspaper are street-connected and working children. The articles and editorials, which focus on issues like child marriage, police brutality, and abuse, are decided, written, and edited by the group of young people. Having started with just 35 children, by its tenth year it had over 10,000 members (Ochota, 2013).

Reclaiming Language for Survivors of the Street

Tom Hewitt (2013), the founder of Umthombo Street Children and the international director of Street Action, believes that when street-involved youth internalize the idea that street child equals “rubbish,” “lesser than,” or “the architects of their own misery,” then that status becomes be a loaded term for them that triggers shame. By contrast, if street child as a term reflects the fact that they are “survivors” in circumstances where it is not easy to survive, then it becomes a badge of honor. These youngsters have often been robbed of the positives that other youngsters might claim to have, such as an education and other skills, but they have survived street life, which is a real achievement. Former street-connected children therefore are liberating the term street child from false meaning: surviving as a street child is now not seen as shameful but rather as something that they have achieved against all odds after being dealt a bad hand of cards. This is achieved by ensuring that street-connected children have access, from an early stage, to a process of gaining conscious awareness whereby they are empowered to see themselves as full human beings and appreciate the full reality of their scenario.

Family-Strengthening Programs by SOS Children’s Villages

SOS Children, an organization operating in 133 countries across the world, is based on the idea that every child should have the chance of a family-based childhood. The organization cares for and supports children who have lost, or who are at the risk of losing, the care of their biological family, and it also sponsors family-strengthening programs to help prevent children from losing the care of their family. The programs aim to strengthen the ability of families to protect and care for their children and also to strengthen community safety nets for vulnerable children and their families. Where children have lost the care of their biological family, they can receive family-based care within the SOS Children’s Villages. This is a preventive or early intervention program that reaches out to at-risk children who are likely to be pushed on to the street.

Railway Children

The U.K.-based charity Railway Children works on behalf of street-connected children in the United Kingdom, India, and East Africa. The organization’s emphasis is on early intervention in the case of children who have used trains to take them away from home and who live on railway station platforms and in trains. Intervention by an outreach worker can be useful in preventing the entry of many of those children into street life and can also lead to the rescue of those who are habituated to surviving on the streets. Railway Children uses three main strategies: meeting the immediate needs of children in the streets, changing perceptions toward children on the streets, and influencing governments to provide protection and opportunities for those children. Reintegration with family, providing safe spaces for the children on railway stations and in drop-in centers, counseling, sensitizing other players on the platform toward the needs of the children and persuading them to make platforms a child-friendly place, and working in the source areas from where large number of children land up on the platform are some of the organization’s activities.

Through its work on the railway platform, the organization has reached and assisted impressive numbers of children. For instance, SATHI (Society for Assistance to Children in Difficult Situation), one of Railway Children’s partner organizations in India, has helped 35,000 children to go back home since the mid-1990s. More than 90% of these children stay home and do not run away again.

Rainbow Homes for Girls

Rainbow Homes is another preventive intervention directed toward helping vulnerable girls, most of whom come from poor street-living families in different cities in India. The initial project was developed by Sister Cyril from Loreto Convent in Kolkata, and it was subsequently funded and expanded by Partnership Foundation, Netherlands. As of 2014 it housed 2,500 girls in 30 homes across India, and the aim was to establish 100 homes across 15 cities in that country by 2018, with the potential to assist 10,000 girls.

This innovative project ensures each girl’s right to education and overall development. The Rainbow Homes program is a simple cost-effective solution that provides street-connected girls in India an opportunity to live and study in safe, noncustodial, residential environment by accommodating them in existing government and private schools. The Rainbow Home program secures the basic rights of the girl child through guaranteed education, nutrition, clothing, health care, recreation, love, and support to ensure reintegration into mainstream Indian society. The girls are enrolled in regular school programs and age-appropriate classes, usually after a short period of remedial teaching as well as by a wide volunteer base and buddy programs with other children who are students in more privileged schools.

The JUCONI Model

In 1989 Sarah Thomas, Joanna Wright de Serra, and Gabriel Benitez teamed up to create a professional program for street-connected children in the city of Puebla, Mexico, called the JUCONI (Junto con los Niños) Foundation. JUCONI quickly evolved to respond to the distinct needs of each child it supported. It was one of the first organizations in Mexico to expand its work to include the families of street-connected children as well as other important people in the life of the children it served, including teachers, employers, neighbors, and the wider community. As of 2014 JUCONI had programs in both Mexico and Ecuador, each supporting 350 children and their families per year.

The JUCONI model works at two levels—prevention and intervention. The prevention strategy seeks to stop children at high risk of violence in the home from dropping out of community services such as schools and health care. This strategy includes educational and training work with different groups within the community to help them improve how they interact with and support children and their families. The work seeks to improve outcomes for all children, but especially for children at high risk of violence in the home.

For some children and families, however, extreme circumstances require a more intensive level of intervention. JUCONI has developed a time-intensive model that can work in the developing-country context using limited resources and paraprofessional workers. It aims at working with children and their parents and other family members to build a positive relationship and sustainable change. JUCONI methodology is informed and supported by attachment theory, which focuses on helping children and families form relationships that help them develop personal resilience and achieve positive goals (Thomas de Benitez, 2001).

Changed Lens and Its Contribution: A New Future Beckons

Viewing the street-connected child phenomenon through the lens of children’s rights increases our understanding of these children and has been instrumental in bringing about a paradigm shift in the definitions, attitudes, and approaches we use in working with them. The newer terminology, street-connected children, is more inclusive and helps to minimize negative connotations to some extent. The recent resolution by UNCHR (2012) and related publications recommend actions to be taken by state and nonstate players and provide concrete guidelines for policy and practice. Social work professionals can play a vital role in designing local and national policies, in demonstrating innovative strategies for service delivery, and participating in advocacy to change societal attitudes toward these children; the goal ultimately is to make progress in reaching out to all street-connected children, wherever they may be, to ensure protection of every child’s rights.


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Further Reading

Railway Children: http://www.railwaychildren.org.uk/our-solution/3-steps-to-change/

Rainbow Homes: http://www.partnershipfoundation.nl/

SOS Children’s Villages: http://www.sos-usa.org/About-SOS/what-wedo/family-strengthening/Pages/default.aspx

Street Child World Cup: http://streetchildworldcup.org/about-us/

UNICEF. (2006). The state of the world’s children 2006, excluded and invisible. Retrieved May 4, 2014, from http://www.unicef.org/sowc06/fullreport/full_report.php