Chapter 1: Mute Victims

Life’s aspirations come
in the guise of children

Rabindranath Tagore
(Fireflies, 1928)

Victor had never been so garrulous. As he recounted the incident of the foreigner and the coins to his surprised colleagues, he enriched it with imaginary details of danger, excitement and exotic drama. Proudly showing off his money, he realized his mistake the next instant. But it was too late. The others began to advance towards him, encircling him, their words flung at him like stones:

  • Why aren’t you like us?
  • Why don’t you smoke?
  • Why don’t you curse?

Victor drew back, frightened. With a great shout, the others fell on him. Newsboys sleeping on the ground woke up in alarm, the night circulation people looked around, and the stall owners screamed. The melee continued until a shouting security guard rushed in and broke it up. He led Victor away, and was about to interrogate him when the boy broke free of his grasp and fled into the night.

He roamed the streets, the byways and darkened alleys of the teeming district. He passed by children his age scrounging around trashcans, and dingy motels where couples went in and out. His face and body ached from the blows he had received, and a trickle of blood streamed from his nostrils. He wiped it off with his shirt cuff. He seemed to be in good shape otherwise, and he felt relieved that the fight had been stopped in time. His thoughts flew back and forth. He promised himself that he would never go back to the newspaper plant, but his resolve soon began to weaken. He was at a loss about what to do.

He reported for work the following evening, prepared for anything. But nothing untoward happened. Last night’s inci­dent seemed to have been forgotten, and the others made no reference to it. Then one of the boys, whom Victor recognized as a ringleader, went over to him and, apparently as a kind of peace offering, held out a cigarette. Victor hesitated, then said he didn’t smoke.

The others began to form around him anew, but this time their attitude was of curiosity rather than of menace.

‘Sige na, take it. It’s very nice to smoke, and it’s easy. All you have to do is take a deep breath, then exhale slowly.’

And Victor, his last defences down, leaned forward and wearily accepted the cigarette, while around them swirled the life of Manila: this city flushed with triumphant charity cam­paigns, where workers were made to sign statements certifying they received the minimum wage, where millionaire politicians received Holy Communion every Sunday, where mothers taught their sons and daughters the art of begging, where broken homes slept on pavements and under darkened bridges, and where best friends fell out and betrayed one another.

(From Children of the City by Amadis Guerrero)


Grimy but grinning, waiting – bucket and sponge in hand – for your car to stop: there they are already, at the traffic lights, in Cairo or Calcutta, in Sao Paulo or Lagos, in any big city. Stroll towards a market or the cafes downtown, and you can scarcely fail to spot some of their fellows, shining shoes, selling sundry articles of uncertain origin, or just hanging around passively. Look at  them closely: their clothes  are ragged and their skin unhealthy, with sores and scars. There is something mature beyond their years in their furtive, hunted expressions.

Later in the evening, you can find them by peering into bus shelters and behind the piles of cardboard boxes left in doorways. They hide in the darker corners of the railway station or the building sites at the edge of the business district. Although most would have found a place to sleep on the outskirts of the city, you may find a group huddled together under a makeshift shelter, in any dry and secluded corner.

They are representatives of a mute and nameless multitude: the street children who live, work, sleep and sometimes die, uncared for and unprotected, in urban areas of the developing world, ragamuffins who struggle to survive, by fair means or foul, in a hostile adult world which rejects them. Every day, their silent drama is played out, tens of millions of times.

And not only in the developing world. Tenements in New York or cellars in parts of Paris, Rome, or Lisbon could tell a similar story. Condemned by the indifference of others, these children must also struggle to survive, knowing that whatever happens to them, there will be no one to care.



The next time you are in Acapulco, speak to Raul one evening; he does not mind talking to casual acquaintances about his life history and day-to-day existence. He is twelve. You will find him sheltering with his companions under a bridge over a dried-up riverbed,  not far from the beach. His eyes are glazed from the effects of shoemaker’s glue, but he speaks coherently enough. Family circumstances threw Raul into the street in Mexico City. There he got into trouble, and found himself placed in a closed institution. After three years he was released for good behaviour:

I decided to go to Acapulco where life was supposed to be much easier. Nobody knew me there, and I hoped I would be left alone.

 But it’s cold at night here and I’m starving, so I’m having to steal again to survive. I used to work for the street vendors on the beach, selling things to the tourists. Now I spend my time at the market­ place looking for food in dustbins. I’ve been on marijuana for a year now. It makes the hunger disappear and you don’t feel the cold. It’s a miserable life, and all because my mother sent me to that reformatory. I think about her all the time. I’m her son and yet she doesn’t even like me a little. I’ll never see her again, probably. And I can’t work either. I never finished primary school although I wanted to, but then I would have had to leave  this place, get out of the gang, get off the streets and I just couldn’t.

Especially not since my accident. We were all stoned and fooling around; I was asleep when someone emptied a bottle of spirits over my clothes and put a match to it. I screamed. I ran up the street and fortunately a policeman put the flames out and took me to hospital. That was three months ago, and you can still see the scars. If only the pain would go away, maybe I could work again. But my legs don’t move right anymore.

Raul’s pitiful yet lucid story contains many features characteristic of the street child’s experience everywhere: parental rejection, school failure, delinquency, a repressive institution, migration, drug abuse, the gang, physical hardships, and resignation. Disability is also common. He does not refer to his father. Raul may never have known him. He may have pushed off one day never to return.

Short of returning behind bars, Raul can sink no lower. He has reached a dead-end, and unless he finds help his prospects for the future are bleak. The question is not whether he will survive but for how long. Others facing similar circumstances, in the same town or in other parts of the world, have had somewhat better luck, and have been able to cope better with their traumatic plight. Take the case of Raul’s counterpart, in Bombay, a boy of 15 called Krishna:

I come from Nagpur. My mother lives there with my two little sisters and my older brother. My brother got angry with me once and burnt my back with red hot irons. I’ve still got the marks.

When I first came here I was just a kid. I was frightened when I got off the train on my own, and just wandered around for a while. Then I met Barbat. He was on his own too. He was older than me, and he showed me a few things. He always knew what to do. He made one mistake though. He had a good business, a shoeshine box at the station. But then he threw it in: he said he could get twice as much bootlegging, being a lookout, running messages, delivering drink. The cops caught him. Took him away. I never saw him again.

One time, it happened to me too. I was sent to Dongri. It’s the worst place you can ever go. (Dongri is the children s jail in Bombay; originally built for 80, it now houses 400 children.) The wardens are bastards. They hit me with bars. From Dongri, you go to court. The magistrate sent me to a home. I hated it, so I ran away. They never found me. There are too many boys for them to find one, so they don’t bother.

I’m still shoeshining. There are eight of us with spots  at the station. If the cops come out, we run away quick. They dont need  any reason to arrest you. If they have had  a  bad day, if they have not had enough people in their book,  they  pick  up  a few of us to fill it up.

I also clean taxis. Mud gets all over you but I wash at the street taps. Shoeshining is better but sometimes no one wants shoes shined. It’s hard, especially when it’s cold. Sometimes I can’t buy anything to eat, but you can always find scraps in garbage cans. Just now I am sleeping on a landing of a building at the station. I sleep anywhere sheltered, under a bridge or a bus stand. I send some money home, when I can. When I’m older I’m going into business. I’ll sell fruit and vegetables. I’ll be a good businessman because I have learnt to look after myself.

Like Raul, Krishna has known violence at home and on  the street, and has learned about State institutions from the inside. Although he has no one to turn to, he does have other assets which can keep hope alive: he is plucky, street-wise, resourceful, and ambitious. Above all, he wants to make his way in the world on the right side of the law.

For both of them, in Mexico or India, the street is their workplace and their only ‘home’. Uprooted, having hardly any contact with sympathetic adults, they survive on their wits, from day to day, as best they can. They represent two points on the street continuum: the child in utter destitution and abandonment; and the self-employed youngster in occasional touch with his family, working more or less regularly.

To say that for Raul and Krishna, as for their fellow-sufferers on the street in other countries, life is precarious, is an understatement. Society is prepared to use the labour of the more docile among them, but otherwise prefers to look the other way. Despite their huge numbers, their tribulations scarcely raise an eyebrow. Their nature, numbers, distribution, and way of life bear examination nonetheless.


The concept 

As a way of describing these children, ‘the street’ is perhaps as woolly as its stones are hard. A recent definition reads: ‘A street child or street youth is any minor for whom the street (in the widest sense of the word, including unoccupied dwellings, wasteland, etc.) has become his or her habitual abode, and who is without adequate protection’. Unlike orphans or the handicapped, nobody can identify a ‘street child’ by any precise scientific criterion. Indeed, the expression is hardly a part of current vocabulary. It covers a number of those previously referred to under different headings: juvenile delinquents, latchkey children, child labourers, drop-outs, maladjusted children. Many of them, at various times, spend a significant part of their day in the street, without necessarily sharing any other common characteristics. ‘Children without families’, ‘high risk children’, ‘unat­tached children’, ‘children in need of care and protection’, ‘abandoned children’ all overlap.

So little is understood about these youngsters, and so mute is their case, that for many the term ‘street children’ only conjures up images of carefree youth. For others, they are, at best, a nuisance; kids who should be locked up for their own good when they ‘get into trouble’. In popular perceptions, they have a clearly-defined image reflecting

the degree of tolerance with which they are viewed. In Naples, scug­nizzo derives from the word for a spinning-top, always on the move; in Peru, the pajaro frutero (fruit bird) earns his name looking out for the police in the market-place; in Colombia, gamin (kid) is borrowed from the French, but has strongly negative connotations. The  same word appears in Rwanda in the form saligoman (sale gamin, nasty kid). In Zaire, street children are moineaux (sparrows); in Cameroons, poussins (chicks) to fieldworkers, moustiques (mosquitoes) to the police. Others have proposed the term ‘twilight children’, to suggest their fragile and indefinite status. Officialdom, in  contrast, tends to be more circumspect, and to refer to street children euphemistically, for example as ‘children in an irregular situation .

Unlike children working in brothels, sweatshops and small factories, they are a special category unto themselves. They have their own specific problems and their own way of being. They are indeed dis­concertingly visible. Recognition of the problem, however, as a first step in tackling it, cannot be taken for granted. Some governments do not distinguish it from delinquency. Terminology is partly to blame. Expressions used to discuss identical problems vary between countries, organizations, and languages, and provoke different reac­tions. In Africa, for example, where the extended family is a matter of pride, the term ‘street children’ has sometimes been met with incomprehension or indignation. ‘The street’ may be seen simply as the place where everyone lives. Mention of ‘parking boys’, on the other hand, brings immediate recognition.


Increasing numbers 

How many youngsters share ‘the brotherhood of the streets’ in all is the first question journalists ask. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) puts the global figure at over 30 million. This might be on the conservative side.

Numbers tend to be controversial, and paralysing in their effect: efforts to help appear so puny when set against the scale of the problem as to be hardly worth making. Street children are not easy to count; the answers depend on the criteria chosen, on which there is little agreement. They can be divided generally into the two co-existing categories referred to by UNICEF as those ‘on the street’, who keep some links with their families, and those ‘of the street’, who are totally on their own. Their relative proportions are a matter of some debate: numbers of the latter, who are the most authentic street children, may be under 30% of the total.

Estimates depend also on age brackets which are equally elastic. The youngest at which a child can contribute to family income or survive in a street gang appears to be about five; if alone, a year or two older. More commonly, boys start their street existence towards the age of eight, at least in Latin America, and numbers often reach a peak around 15. In the industrial world, several cities report cases of adolescents reduced to the street condition younger and younger. Street children everywhere are overwhelmingly boys because girls are normally more precious to households in looking after infants and helping with chores. Some recent reports, however, tell of an increas­ing number of street girls, but attached to mixed gangs.

Given the approximate nature of the definition, no objective basis for a proper statistical calculation of the total exists. No accurate information can in any case be expected from the run of governments. They normally keep statistics of those who are in prison or in school, more rarely, in industrial countries, of those who are in employment, but hardly ever of those who are not in these categories. The nature of the street child is precisely to be outside official records or classi­fications, or concealed in data relative to other populations. While child labour, for example, has often been the subject of academic attention in many countries, street children tend  to drift in and out of different occupations seasonally, or return home for a time, and so escape attempts at systematic survey. An overview of the problem must rely largely on ‘guesstimates’.

In 1981, officials in Mexico City, whose population is increasing by over 1,000 immigrants from rural areas every day, suggested that 200,000 children were roaming the streets of the capital. In 1982, an Argentinian child welfare agency estimated the number of completely abandoned children in the country at 300,000. In Brazil, the national child welfare organization reckoned in 1984 that the number of youngsters living in ‘extreme deprivation’, though not necessarily ‘in the street’, was 32 million, half the 63 million Brazilians aged 19 or less.

In industrial societies, a figure of 10 million youngsters ‘morally abandoned’ has gained currency, but seems to have no better sta­tistical basis. The number of those genuinely on the street for more than a short period, while growing, is probably not more than 10% of the total. Immediate candidates for that condition, however,  are far more numerous. Almost everywhere, observation by field workers confirms two things: the increase, and its exclusively urban nature. There are no ‘rural street children’.


Geographical distribution 

The world map of the phenomenon shows an apparent concentration in Latin America, where in many cities they are a traditional sight. This may be partly because data are more readily available there than elsewhere. The countries most affected are neither the poorest, like Paraguay, nor the richest, like Venezuela, but those with middle­ income societies such as Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico.

In Africa, long the most rural continent, street children have appeared more recently. Their numbers are now undeniably increas­ing due to massive population displacements and rapid urbanization. Evidence suggests that recognition of their emergence may have been delayed by a different perception of children, often considered col­lectively with women, as an undifferentiated part of the African family unit. In parts of the Sahel, however, where drought, famine, and armed violence have had an overwhelming impact on the social structure, street children are on the increase. In Khartoum, for instance, where the phenomenon was virtually unknown, there are now an estimated 20,000 street children.

Information  from  Asia is equally scarce. India  alone  has a popu­lation larger by over 300 million than the combined total for  the whole of Latin America and the Caribbean, albeit still more rural. Given its lower economic base and rapid urbanization, it seems likely that the number of street children is comparable and will continue to rise, although the issue is confused by the incidence of entire families living permanently in the street.

Industrial countries, for their part, have no cause for complacency. Where social services are theoretically universal, genuine street chil­dren are a rarity, but street youngsters, or runaway youths, aged 15 and over, are far from rare. On any given night, there are said to be 20,000 of them on the streets of New York City, some of them sleeping in subway tunnels. In Paris, the exceptionally cold winter in 1985 brought many cases to light.

The majority of street children in industrial countries are victims of inner-city decay, inherited deprivation, chronic unemployment, impossible housing markets, extraordinarily high divorce rates and claustrophobic stress. No industrial country has yet devised a satis­ factory strategy for integrating these children into the mainstream of urban life. Some cities report minorities of street youngsters from more educated families who are not always short of money, but have a similarly aimless life-style. In certain European cities, there are known cases of thousands of gypsy children sold into virtual slavery, exploited by gangsters as professional beggars.

Though the origins of these cases are very different from their counterparts in developing countries, many other differences are only of degree. Both their day-to-day lives and the solutions tried have many features in common. All those on the street, everywhere, can be described as victims of the crisis of the family. The breakdown of family structure and traditional values, massive emigration, the economic decline of neighbourhoods in the North, and growing sophis­tication in the cities of the South narrow the difference between streets in different continents.



Survival means work, and even those street children who live mostly by theft consider themselves as legitimate ‘workers’. For most of them, life is a hard, unending grind for a pathetically meagre return. In various ways, they all stay alive by scrounging, foraging, and bartering, by ‘contributing’, as economists blandly put it, ‘to the informal sector’. The occupations which comprise this sub-world are as old as the street itself. With their sure eye for places where gleanings are to be found, street youngsters everywhere tend to congregate in the day in prosperous shopping areas. Apart from shining shoes and washing taxis, they find parking spaces and ‘guard’ cars, with an implied threat of damage to the paintwork; push handcarts; carry shopping bags outside department stores; sell postcards or chewing-gum; rent out mats in parks for people to lie on; sing or play instruments in buses and subways; clean gutters; or, in abject squalor, sort through rubbish dumps for metal or plastic objects to sell.

Most of these activities are controlled by ‘territory’. Each is jealously guarded under the survey of an unspoken hierarchy. From the child’s point of view, whatever the job, the name of the game is survival, from day to day and from hour to hour. Competition is ruthless. Stealing or fighting are scarcely considered different from any other activity, only slightly more risky. The street for them is a jungle where, in the struggle for life, only the fittest survive. In existential terms, it is usually perceived as a place of hunger, suffering, exclusion, trauma, and loneliness. Having been let down at every turn and written off by society, many street youngsters hold its standards in contempt, and, understandably, consider its concern for property hypocritical.


Street existence

The street offers its children the spectacle of society without integration into its values: proximity, but not participation. It becomes symbolic of their distress. It replaces school, and has a very different syllabus. It belongs to everybody and nobody, and puts everyone on the same footing. It cancels out the past and makes the future uncertain: only the present moment counts.

Above all, street life is unstructured and destabilizing. When they wake up in the morning, street youngsters cannot be sure where the next meal is coming from, or indeed if there will be one. They have to take everything, however ghastly, in their stride. They cannot make any plans, or defer gratification. They are like weathercocks, playthings of circumstances at the mercy of the first suggestion made, and sometimes scarcely seem to know whether they are coming or going.

In the long run, this existence where nothing is stable can produce certain distortions of the mind. Many younger street children lose track of time and do not know for how long they have been wandering around. With no structure or specific purpose to make time pass, they may be unable to describe clearly their activities on a given day. Distance, too, may be a vague concept. A motorist who often gave street children lifts said: ‘If you let them, they would stay in the car until it stopped.’

These children perceive streets differently from adults. For them, streets are productive or barren, friendly or unfriendly, at different times of the day. Streets outside the child’s immediate experience are simply unknown territory where other authorities hold sway: they represent the Beyond, with its fascination and its dangers. In human terms, moving about makes it difficult for them to form lasting human relationships. Consequently, many are emotionally immature, and have a desperate need for affection.

In their anonymous, amorphous world, physical danger is all too real. Visibility means not protection but vulnerability. The possibility of violence, in the form of stabbings and beatings, even summary execution, is ever present. Street youngsters know the fear of brutality at the hands of others, fear of disease and disablement, fear of the police, fear of prison or being ‘put away’. They must give as good as they get and may terrorize innocent passers-by. The street youngster’s violence is part of the language of deprivation and perhaps no more than a logical consequence of the violence of which he was victim in his family.

Harsh though his sufferings are, it would be wrong to think of the street child as invariably miserable. On the contrary, just as visitors to shantytowns are often surprised by the apparent cheerfulness and generosity of the inhabitants, street children who have known sys­tematic neglect or rough treatment at home may seem to make light of their afflictions and turn a bright face to the world. Alongside their more twisted and alienated colleagues, one can often find many working street children who, far from rejecting the values of society, are astonishingly conventional in their outlook and ambitions. Despite conditions which outsiders would consider intolerable, they accept their street existence as no more than normal. Even those who live entirely alone can think of it as one step up from their previous sufferings within the family. With its dizzying thrills, spills, and variety, street life can exert an undeniable fascination. Those who learn to ride its unpredictable changes of fortune can need a lot of convincing before they try any alternative which may be offered.

Like the media, which sometimes tend to view the street as an interesting arena, some writers have been tempted to romanticize the street, and see street youngsters as so many Huck Finns. In the North American tradition, the hobos and tramps of the 1880s were well described by Jack London and perceived as heroes by the succeeding generations.

The defence mechanism to ensure survival in such an environment is the street gang. It provides the protection and comradeship of a substitute family, status, excitement, and a code of ‘honour’ – rules to which, unlike those of conventional society, the youngster can conform. It also meets the need, in particular, for a sense of identity, which is sometimes reinforced by esoteric slang: just as Eskimos have many words for snow, and Arabs for camels, so do street children for the police.

In some cities, the rules and organization of gangs reach a remark­ ably sophisticated level, epitomized by the gallada of Bogota. This is  a close-knit and formidably efficient platoon of 5 to 10 boys, structured into a complicated pattern in which each member has some kind of obligation to every other. The leader of a gallada is normally armed. As in the animal kingdom, he is the oldest and strongest, and must periodically take on challengers waiting to dethrone him. He defends the gang, finds lucrative places to ‘work’, and knows safe hideways to sleep. The gallada has its own rites and customs to inculcate the habits of obedience necessary for survival; its laws are brutally enforced. To achieve its objectives, it often splits into tactical units of two or three, to observe the intended victim and decide on get-away techniques.

Like partners in a firm, its members specialize in particular roles, such as snatching bags or jewellery, stealing bicycles, faking tears when begging, guarding territory, or the resale of merchandise. The spoils are distributed with the same scrupulous equity displayed by the brigands who waylaid and astonished Don Quixote. Galladas in Bogota were first described in their present-day form in 1860 and have withstood every attempt to reform or suppress them since. Educating such children is not for the fainthearted.

Like violence, drugs are rarely far below the surface in many neighbourhoods and represent an enormously intricate, murderous underworld of their own, which uses the street as its stock exchange and point of sale. The  consumption of drugs by street youngsters, as a temporary escape from an unbearable reality, is almost universal. At the bottom of the scale, sniffing glue, shoepolish, paint-thinner or cleaning fluid is good for a cheap ‘trip’, and if all else fails there is always petrol.

In some countries, marijuana is treated as a parallel currency. Since cocaine and heroin are increasingly addictive, they tend to drive their victims to ever more daring and dangerous theft. Consumers often become pushers, for selling drugs is one of only three ways, with stealing and prostitution, of ‘earning’ enough to buy the daily dose. In Latin America, street children start as couriers, agents, and perhaps fall-guys. If they survive, they turn into fully-fledged criminals. They are the lowest pawns of a baleful power which, in return for immunity, has offered – allegedly – to repay the external debts of Bolivia  and Peru.

Living where they do, they are also prime candidates for sexual exploitation. The sex industry as a whole, often thriving on the ambiguous attitude of society, is an integral part of the problem of street children. The prostitution of boys is now no more unusual than that of girls. The archetypal street profession may seem a far cry from selling newspapers, but in the eyes of its younger practitioners, it is probably little more than one means of survival among others. For those on the street who are desperate, with no families or prospects, as much in industrial as in developing countries, prostitution rep­resents the chance of an immediate income.


From street children to street youth 

Street child becomes street youth-very quickly. The two are virtually indistinguishable. In practice, as soon as the youngster  has to fend for himself, or herself, alone, the street eliminates childhood. Many working street children help their families cope with problems that are part of the adult world. They are thrown into the deep end of life prematurely.

In normal family life, the shock of adolescence is cushioned, allowing a gradual emergence into society. When this function is lacking, youngsters cannot get their bearings and are vulnerable to the first influence they meet outside. While perhaps making survival somewhat easier, the teenage years bring their own emotional and social prob­lems, including a harder attitude on the part of public opinion. The youth may grope towards some kind of resolution of his predicament but, short of a lucky break, he will tend to remain a misfit in one way or other, barely literate and more or less alienated. With no technical qualifications, and with youth unemployment everywhere at record levels, the street youngster of today can look forward only to menial tasks.

Children left uncared for on the streets at the age of ten, if still around at 18, will be claiming their rightful cut,  in shriller and more radical terms. The prospect of an increasing, and increasingly embittered, generation on the streets, with nothing to lose, is a dis­tinctly threatening one. The fast degenerating situation lends urgency to the search for solutions. These must start from some understanding of how and why street children come to be where they are.