Chapter 6: From Concern to Concrete Action

‘We cannot always build the future for our children, but we can build our youth for the future.

Franklin D. Roosevelt (Speech in Philadelphia, September 20, 1940)

Outside the kitchen window, young girls stroll slowly or stand on the street corner, their eyes following the traffic which starts cruising round these pleasant residential streets by 11 a.m. Inside, Beth is in the kitchen, banging a spoon against the side of a bowl as she dribbles vanilla into a cake mixture. She is trying to concentrate on the recipe. ‘I don’t know, she snaps, ‘I don’t know what I’ll do.’

She hasn’t celebrated her 16th birthday yet. Until last night Beth was one of the regulars among the young girls in this city who sell themselves in broad daylight. Last night police picked her up.

When she was brought here at 2 a.m., she met Sharon, a counselor who works with the Juvenile Prostitution Project. Beth will receive round-the-clock attention from Sharon and other staff who participate in the project…To help them make choices for a real future, staff work hard to give the girls some of the intensive ‘good parenting’ they never got at home.

That’s where Beth’s problems began. ‘My father got me  stoned for my 12th birthday, and I’ve been into drugs and alcohol since then,’ she begins. ‘After that, he left home. My mother and I,’ she says, shrugging her shoulders, ‘we didn’t get along. I mean, I didn’t get along with her  boyfriends. I had to get out of there. I started skipping school. I learned to live by the five-finger discount….You don’t know what that is?’ she jokes, wiggling her fingers: ‘stealing’.

The state placed her in one foster home after another. ‘Those people didn’t want me,’ she says quietly. ‘Why should I stick around? She’s been in and out of seven of them. ‘The streets gave me a lot of freedom, you know what I mean?’ she goes on. ‘The only thing was, I had to, you know, to make money. But I can take care of myself,’ she says, banging the spoon against the side of the bowl. ‘I can live on my own just fine and get a square job, work in a doughnut shop or something.’

The truth is, she can’t take care of herself, and she knows that: last October she turned herself in to the Children’s Aid Society out of sheer desperation. ‘But I couldn’t take it after a few months and went back to the streets. I got gonorrhea again, and I guess that’s when I began realizing I would die if I didn’t stop.’

Boy, I’m really at a dead end, huh? I don’t want to think about my past, the things I’ve done,’ she says, squeezing her eyes and trying to shut out some of those memories. ‘I’ll die if I go back to the streets. I really screwed up. But the future? How can I think about that? I don’t have any.’

The cake is done. ‘Perfect,’ she announces. ‘Do you think I could bake cakes for a living?’ Carol, a staff counselor, steps into the room. ‘Beth’ she asks, ‘let’s talk about your plans for tomorrow.

(From the Annual Report, Covenant House, New York, 1985 )

Advocacy for humanitarian causes, especially for one such as street children, is often an uphill struggle, particularly when public opinion and official attitudes are indifferent or hostile, bureaucracies lethargic, and resources derisory. The issue falls at the junction of different institutional constituencies, at a point where they overlap, or seem­ingly just fail to. Yet advocacy, representing those with no voice or vote of their own, is one of the keys to concrete action, by first raising concern and translating it into resources. Its role is fundamental.


Upholding the Cause

Lobbying by pressure-groups in support of an issue is usually the first step to national policy. Street children have hitherto had to make do with leftovers, and hitch a lift with issues such as the Condition of Women, Child Labour, Universal Education, Penal Reform, or Child Abuse. They now compete in the arena with a crowded field of legitimate contenders: working children, children in armed conflicts, handicapped children, refugee children, children in prison, ‘childrens rights, not to mention adult groups with close connections. All jostle for attention, for media exposure, and particularly for scarce resources. In advancing their claims, considerations of market, impact, and timing are as carefully assessed as in launching any new commercial product-line.

For fieldworkers, advocacy is complementary to the provision of services and forms an integral part of a wider preventive strategy. Warnings about the dangers of the street life and information about available help can be directed towards the public, perhaps using symbols and drawings to reach the illiterate. At the national level, articulate and diligent advocacy can help bring about constructive changes, in small increments, and alter punitive attitudes held by the general public and the authorities.

In developing countries, some fieldworkers feel projects themselves are better served by discretion and should be shielded from too much public scrutiny. Advocacy can be especially difficult under a climate of political opinion which tends to direct resources away from social welfare into law  enforcement. It should then ensure that positive measures are applied as keenly as repressive ones.

To influence public opinion, the process depends increasingly on access to the mass media. In the past, the issue has frequently featured in works of literature, and has been brought to the screen in classics of the cinema, such as Sciuscia (‘Shoeshine– Vittorio de Sica, 1946) and the well-named Los Olvidados (‘The Forgotten Ones’ – Luis Bunuel, 1950), set in Mexico City. More recently, Pixote (Hector Babenco, 1981) denouned the corruption and brutality of Brazilian childcare facilities.

Television, for its part, is rarely slow to tap a colourful vein. Its contribution has, however, remained sporadic and relatively con­troversial. Journalistic reports of street children in Third World coun­tries have tended either merely to keep tourists away or to backlash and attract a much more dubious kind of tourist. A hard-hitting account of child prostitution in Manila in 1983, for example, appeared to produce a ‘net loss’ rather than any beneficial result. Exploitation of the misery of street children is not necessarily restricted to pimps and racketeers.

Today, the issue is no longer a footnote. Its time has come, although it has not yet achieved its rightful place. Attitudes among its advocates are clearly contrasted. At one end of the scale, we have the reduc­tionist, no-nonsense party, which sees the problem as essentially econ­omic, ‘no more than’ one aspect of child labour. The position is epitomized by the incident of Lord Keynes who, when taxed by a friend for refusing a coin to a beggarchild in Algiers, replied that he was unwilling to contribute towards the devaluation  of the currency. At the other end, we find what may be termed the romantic school, sensationseeking or sentimental, who see street children as strange and exotic; study of their daily lives is described in terms of ‘descending into the depths’ of human experience. Between the two, the great majority of those who feel genuine concern recognize that to be realistic compassion must be grounded in a longterm perspective.


Emerging Concern

At global level, the issue of street children first appeared very late, in the wake of the International Year of the Child (IYC), in 1979. Before being adopted by the United Nations system, the idea of asking governments to make a special effort for children had originally been proposed by the International Catholic Child Bureau (ICCB), acting as a forum for the discussion of current child-related issues. During the International Year, the ICCB housed the secretariat of the 60 international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) taking part in it. It found that many international programmes existed for various categories of children, but none for those like Street Children who, through no fault of their own, fell outside all conventional categories. The scope of the issue dictated that a purpose-built initiative should be launched in cooperation with other likeminded organizations. The Inter-NGO Programme on Street Children and Street Youth, the first to draw on the extensive body of expertise and built up in relative obscurity by fieldworkers, appeared in 1982. Perhaps its main achievement, beyond giving recognition to those too modest to seek it and publicizing their work with funding agencies, was to crystallize and articulate the concern widespread throughout the private sector vis-a-vis the international community.


United Nations System

The world’s statutory lead agency for children is the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), originally established in 1946 as an emergency programme for refugee children in post-war Europe. Its mandate has since expanded in scope and scale. It now helps 91 developing countries improve standards of child welfare. Within the UN system, and outside, it enjoys  high credibility. The cornerstone of its present major strategy, originally termed the ‘Child Survival Revolution’, is the reduction of infant mortality rates by the use of rehydration salts, vaccination, and improvements in nutrition. The initial, somewhat technical concept was later extended into the ‘Child Survival and Development Revolution‘. The adjunctions included the promotion of universal primary education for women and children the recognition of children’s rights, and improvements in mothers health, etc.

The agency’s advocacy for this Revolution, however laudable, has at times been perceived by some as too exclusive. Consequently, it has not always met with the whole-hearted support of National Commit­ tees. Misgivings centre on the perception that UNICEF programmes in the context of the ‘Child Survival Revolution’ (CSR); the ‘Child Survival and Development Revolution’ (CSDR); ‘Growth Charts, Oral Rehydration, Breastfeeding and Immunization’ (GOBI); ‘Fam­ily spacing, Food supplements and Female education’ (FFF) – have tended to draw attention and perhaps funds away from other concerns relating to the welfare of children. Concentration on survival has also led to a questionable belief among some donors that this ‘Revolution’ saves lives without providing children, as they grow up, with the skills required to become productive and self-supporting individuals. This is seen as merely adding to the millions of destitute who will be a constant financial claim on rich donor countries.

The issue is epitomized in the valid question raised at the 1984 UNICEF Executive Board: ‘What is the use of bringing children into the world if we cannot ensure their survival?’ It provoked the equally apt rejoinder: ‘What is the use of ensuring their survival if the lives they are going to have are not worth living?’ What is needed, some say, is a ‘Child Survival, Development, and Protection Revolution’ (CSDPR), to safeguard childrens’ rights and to extend official con­cern to those vulnerable groups, like street children, who live under circumstances of high risk and require special protection and care.

In comparison with its other programmes, UNICEF has not been in a position to devote to street children the resources  and  attention they deserve. With droughts and famines causing millions of deaths, street children have inevitably been confined to the back burner. The groundwork has nonetheless been laid, especially in devising ways of modifying public attitudes. Present strategy centres around finding examples of projects and methods which seem to work,  and  their active promotion with member-governments.

One of the  problems is that none of the community-based models so far identified, all non-governmental, cater for the needs of totally abandoned children, who necessarily imply greater expense. Interest now centres on the extent to which these examples, such as the Republic of Young Tradesmen’ described in chapter 4 are replicable in different social and economic contexts outside Latin America. start has been made in the last year in Mozambique and the Philip­ pines, but in other countries ranging from Thailand and India, to Nigeria and Sudan, not to mention industrial countries, much remains to be done. It is hoped that UNICEF and its Executive Board, when formulating future policies, will pay greater attention to ‘Children in Especially Difficult Situations’ such as Street Children. The specific problems faced by each category of vulnerable children will have to  be borne in mind.

Street children have surfaced sporadically at other points within the United Nations system. The 1983 Report of the DirectorGeneral of the International Labour  Organisation (ILO) on Child Labour, for example, views them in the same light, as one variety of working children among others. The measures proposed to solve the problem fall within the general context of the position of children vis-a-vis employers, labour inspectors, minimum wage legislation, and the ratification of relevant legal instruments. From the judicial perspec­tive, the issue has come to the attention of the Criminal Justice Division of the Centre for Social Development and Humanitarian Affairs, based in Vienna, in the context of defining Standard Minimum Rules for juvenile justice.

It has also been discussed in the Working Group on Slavery of the Human Rights Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, which meets every summer in Geneva. Merely to get an issue raised in such fora, with their complex procedures, taxes the resources and endurance of the non-governmental organizations which press the issue. Often, it comes to be seen as an end in itself. A concrete follow-up actually  affecting the lives of the children appears to be light-years away.

One hopes the same will not be true of  the  ‘Convention on the Rights of the Child‘ – rights described as especially important for 1 billion reasons. Agencies have been slow to recognize the violation of human rights involved, perhaps because, unlike exploitation in a factory or repression behind bars, hanging around in the street does not in itself prejudice the right to liberty, shelter, health or education. Street life is not Slavery’. Rights can equally be violated by omission, however, and in reality street existence without a family to protect intrinsic rights must be considered the sum of all individual violations, even though one cannot single out its perpetrators.

The Convention presently being drafted was proposed by Poland during the International Year of the Child. The intention was to supplement the 1959 ‘Declaration’ on the same subject with a binding instrument. It refers specifically to ‘all forms of physical or mental injury…neglect, or negligent treatment, maltreatment, or exploitation…of children by parents and others responsible for them.’ When adopted and ratified, it will oblige member states to adjust their national legislation, for example on the penalties for child abuse. Drafting of international instruments even in the best of circumstances is a laborious process. The Working Group responsible for the drafting meets for one week per year. Between 1979 and 1985, it went through the preamble and nearly all the substantive articles. It is expected to complete this part of its work during 1986 and address the articles dealing with implementation in1987.

Speedy ratification may not be easy. Full enforcement is even less so. When Bangkok has 6,000 factories depending for their survival on the exploitation of child labour – to take a case more clear-cut than street children – and the government inspectorate can only afford a staff of eleven, it is hard to be optimistic over the prospects of the full implementation of the Convention. Nonetheless, elaboration of such international instruments can only be a step in the right direction.

Opportunities for international action to  focus  on the problem under UN auspices may also arise through future International Years. So far as street youngsters are concerned, the impact of the most recent such event, International Youth Year (IYY) in 1985, appears to have fallen somewhat short, in several countries, of what might have been expected. Perhaps inevitably, the theme was less likely than its predecessors to generate a wave of sympathy and concern, and seems to have been seen essentially as a gesture to a constitutency which had previously been passed over. If the Year bore signs of hurried preparation, the fault lay also in the system for designating International Years in general. Since the event for the Handicapped in 1981, which did produce lasting gains, Years have suffered from diminishing returns.

The International Year of Shelter for the Homeless (IYSH) in 1987, organized from Nairobi, will be the first UN Year to be based in a Third World country. Within a varied programme, the main emphasis during the build-up is tending to fall not so much on the humanitarian aspect as on technical policies and standards, and the promotion of model formal-sector housing projects. Its relevance to street children and its potential for mobilizing public opinion in their favour, however, are at least as great as in the case of IYY, if not more so. The cheaper and well-accepted strategy of upgrading squatter settlements and inner city slums must be seen to go hand-in-hand with support for the weakest. The encouragement of neighbourhood residents’ associations, one of its components, combined perhaps with forms of collective tenure, could make those most at risk feel more secure. The UN body competent to provide guidance for the purpose, the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat), could play a decisive role in this regard. Its efforts could be supplemented by the UN Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA). It would be sad for those in the street who were left out in 1979 and 1985 to be ignored yet again, as homeless adolescents, in 1987.

The  UN system and  the international community should see them­selves as trustees of those with no voice of their own. To help implement policies, cooperation between governments and international agencies should be encouraged. Existing national and international networks for the exchange of information and experience  must  be strengthened, and new ones created. The  trend  towards  regionalization, as in South­ern Cone countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, should be encouraged. One can envisage involving international bodies so far untouched, such as the Council of Europe, the Organisation of American States (OAS), the Organisation for African Unity (OAU), the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN); and the UN Regional Commissions in Baghdad, Addis Ababa, Santiago, and Bangkok. The research institutes such as the UN Social Defence Research Institute (UNSDRI) in  Rome, the UN University in Tokyo, and the UN Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) in Geneva  could be called upon to carry out research into specific aspects of the problem. Similarly, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) could play a catalytic role in promoting education in the street. International financial institutions, such as the World Bank and others which have not hitherto considered the problem to come within their own domains, should be sensitized and mobilized, so that urban policies promoted or supported by them take the predicament of street children fully into account.


Future Avenues

The overall objective of future action will be to create a world-wide movement of awareness, care, and support, with coping mechanisms comparable to what has already been achieved for other humanitarian issues. Recognizing that progress will necessarily be piecemeal and that substantial change can only be expected in a long-term perspec­tive, efforts will concentrate firstly on what can be improved, with limited resources, within five to ten years. Recommendations in this regard might include the following:

  1. Governments should first of all take stock of the situation of street children, whether they are already faced with the problem or not. If it exists, they should recognize it, and seek a clearer appreciation of the actors involved and the forces at work. Instances in which this has already been done should be made known.
  2. In defining the response, the central consideration should be the needs of the child, and the strengthening of his or her identity. Projects should be devised as a function of this objective. Governments should place the emphasis on a non-institutional approach, based on the reality which street children face, that of having to work to survive. They should define their policies in the light of lessons learnt from existing experience, and make every effort to expand and accelerate their programmes.
  3. Community development initiatives should include a sharper focus on fragile families, such as those with a single parent or faced with chronic unemployment, to help them cope better with the human consequences of economic deprivation.
  4. The primary resources for preventive and curative action must be sought within the local community itself. Efforts should be made to mobilize local resources through residents’ committees or similar groupings. In some areas, existing selfhelp associations, formed on the basis of ethnic affiliations, could also be helpful. These should be supplemented by technical and financial inputs from national and, where necessary, from international bodies. 
  5. The primary administrative responsibility for dealing with the problem should lie with departments of social welfare of local auth­orities and municipalities, or with umbrella agencies dealing with humanitarian questions, rather than with the judiciary.
  6. Governments should recognize that street children as such are not delinquent, but only immediate candidates for delinquency if their needs are not met. In principle, law enforcement agencies should be used as sparingly as possible, as a heavy hand only serves to legitimize and reinforce aggressiveness.
  7. Governments should take steps to create a legal framework within which NGOs can operate, collect and disseminate data. Where appro­priate, the confidentiality of information available to NGOs should be respected. Such a framework would recognize the responsibility of the State to protect street children.
  8. Every effort should be made to facilitate and promote co­operation and coordination between local authorities and national NGOs. They should endeavour to help fieldworkers extend their provision of outreach, primary care, shelter, and vocational training. Caring personalities should be given greater recognition.
  9. In the longer-term, governments should define a national policy framework and develop their capacity to implement it. In assessing their resources, they should constantly be sensitive to the need to identify new potential within different components of the community.
  10. Where appropriate, social development programmes should be introduce to  bring about attitudinal changes regarding practices which negatively affect the institution of the family.
  11. Governments can extend an umbrella of greater legality and protection to the informal sector in which many street children work. Shoe-shine boys, car washers, etc. can be given legal recognitiosymbolized perhaps by a badge or uniform. Their conditions of work can be improved and combined with nutrition programmes, informal learning , and recreation. Local authorities must take efforts by NGOs to organize them into cooperatives seriously, and not-as has occurred in some West African countries – greet them with derision. The positive contribution of artisans who employ street children must be acknowledged. Authorities must better define their relationships with officialdom and try to build mutual confidence.
  12. Governments should adopt minimum standards of treatment for child-care institutions, with systems of monitoring and reporting to prevent abuse. The standard of qualifications of staff should be raised. The imprisonment of children alongside adults, as is presently the case in most countries both in the developed and the developing worlds, must cease. 
  13. A focal point within the Government for all matters  relating to working children should be established.  It will provide  them  with a right of redress against police, the staff of institutions, and others in authority. Such a focal point will also act as an independent moni­toring body for safeguarding children’s rights.
  14. Greater attention should be given to ways of making existing educational programmes flexible and attractive enough for street children to benefit from them. They should aim to encourage trust, strengthen the selfconfidence of the child, and promote self-help.
  15.  As a preventive measure, primary schools should be more closely integrated into the community, and envisage greater parent-teacher contact, a broader perception of their role in childhood development, and some degree of parental control. To reduce wastage, the syllabus should take into account the fact that many children are not going to go on to secondary education, but will have to work at an early age. The whole process must be more closely geared to the needs and expectations of poor families, who appreciate the benefits of education but cannot afford to lose the income their children bring in. Education for prospective working street children should be speeded up, and concentrated on everyday practical knowledge, and basic literacy and numeracy. Educational busesoffering library and general education facilities could play a useful role in this context.
  16. Street Educators should be accorded full professional status with an appropriate career structure to facilitate recruitment. 
  17. Professional training courses for all those likely to come into contact with street children, such as social workers, nurses, doctors, and law enforcement officials, should take into account the specific problems faced by  street children. The importance of respecting human dignity should be stressed.
  18. The resources of universities, intellectual and material, should be brought to bear. Research should focus on the nature and preva­lence of street children; the long-term effects of street existence, and local causes and consequences of the problem. It should evaluate efforts undertaken to resolve it.
  19. Socially responsible media can contribute to making the problem more widely known, by giving publicity to positive achievements and policies, locally and nationally, and highlighting individuals as well as NGOs and governmental programmes. Radio and television can play an important role, particularly in developing countries, in edu­cating street children and in educating the general public about them.
  20. The haphazard, uncontrolled growth of urban areas in devel­oping countries has not taken the requirements of children into account. Enlightened town planning could gradually better adapt the fabric of cities, developed and developing, to human needs, not only reducing the negative effects of the street, but restoring to it a genuine socializing influence. In some European cities, pilot schemes have begun to redesign the street on a more human scale, to reconcile the speed and pollution of road traffic with the child’s right to play. Efforts should be made to go beyond that and to restore to the street the educational and social role it has enjoyed in history and still does in some communities. A pedestrian precinct can be an extension of the house, both stimulating and safe, and, when carefully planned, can help reduce criminal activity.
  21. more human environment would facilitate the emergence of a street culture likely to interest and involve those who have little or no support at home. Fostering cultural events in public places, even on a small scale, can help offset the perception of the street by the public as a place only of danger and violence. Street games for an instance, varied and cheap, have considerable educational potential. Street entertainment, music and dancing as well as street theatre, have a long tradition in many countries. They can provide an oppor­tunity for the positive qualities of street children to be recognized, and allow them to take pride in what they do. Street children preoccupied with survival have little energy for contributing to the enrichment of society, and yet the contributions of some street children have been astonishing. ‘Street art’ has captured public attention. Popular music, dance and even fashion have been influenced by the city streets. Street children have grown up to be athletic heroes: Pele, the great Brazilian footballer, started life as a street child. Many of these children lack neither talent nor ability, only opportunity.

The International Year of the Child called upon governments and nations to put children ‘at the centre of the worlds concern’. The condition of street children, by its scale, its extremes of suffering, and above all, by its very familiarity, is symbolic of society’s neglect. But what about the sick and starving children in Africa and elsewhere, some will ask, surely their claim is more urgent? Yes, but the emerg­ency assistance they require need not be  provided at the cost of total neglect of other deserving groups. Street children, despite their numbers and their proximity, are not only more difficult to reach , but far more difficult to treat. Somehow, they attract fewer willing hands, and still await their television reporter, or their pop singer, who will shake us, at long last, into looking them squarely in the eye. We have so far been afraid to meet their gaze  because we know that we cannot meet their legitimate demands. Street children are the victims not of local natural phenomena like drought, or of the equally blind and terrifying fate which strikes the handicapped, but of our own technical civilization. They are a mirror of modern urban  life, whose nature they accurately reflect. It is this which makes them so disturbing, and compels action. The story of the bicycles with which this book opens reminds us that street children are as all other children.Our responsibility towards them is unavoidable.