This report touches on a sensitive spot, hitherto largely unacknowledged, for which concern is long overdue. While the media have concentrated on massive natural disasters and spectacular international action, and while governments have struggled with recession and the balance of payments, the failures of development and over whelming social pressures have unexpectedly given rise to a phenomenon which, in the industrialized societies, was thought to have disappeared in the 9th century: modern ragamuffins – adrift in large cities, growing in number, and prey to every physical and moral danger. And perhaps, as they grow older, a danger to others.
Street children are forced by circumstances beyond their control to live on the margins of the adult world. In developing countries, they are products of rural-to-urban migration, unemployment, poverty and broken families. In industrial countries, they are victims of alien action and systematic exclusion. Their lives are shaped by deprivation, violence and fear: on the street, to be unprotected is to invite exploitation at the hands of the unscrupulous.
It is not just a question of orphans or young delinquents, or of runaways, but of a malaise which goes to the heart of societal attitudes and government policy. The emergence of countless street children was never foreseen in any national plan, and yet here they are, more than thirty million strong by conservative estimates, spread over all parts of the world. ‘Who cares?’ they ask.
It is because so few have answered the question, in relation to this need, that the Independent Commission, which we have the honour to co-chair, wishes to increase awareness of their suffering, and invite those who do care to stand up and be counted. The issue is central to humanitarian concern through being the breeding ground and common denominator of many of the gravest social ills, such as violence, prostitution, and drug abuse, all of which exact an enormous toll on society, and seem to affect ever younger sectors of the youth population. Coming to grips with it will have broadly beneficial repercussions. This report is therefore addressed not only to policy makers, but to the widest possible readership (young people in particular). Street children are primarily a matter for communities, not experts. Although it is intended to generate scholarly research and discussion, the primary purpose of the report is to encourage tangible action.
Realistic long-term solutions to the problem will depend on a clearer analysis of the macrosystems underlying the disintegration of families. Its root causes seem to spread in every direction. While the child and the city have never coexisted easily, today, in blighted slums as in shantytowns, destructive trends are tearing the fabric of urban child hood apart. The bonds of family life are loosening almost everywhere. A host off factors isolate children. Statistical indicators tell a categorical story: divorce and separation, child abuse, teenage pregnancy, alcoholism, and suicide are all increasing inexorably. In the United States, single-parent households now account for almost 25% of all family groups. In developing countries, the proportion among poor communities is much higher.
The fate of the street generation is inseparable from the uncertain future of cities. Bursting or decaying, they were never built with the needs of children in mind. Today, the notion of man as the measure of all things has long vanished from urban life, and huge urban agglomerations have become increasingly inhuman and unmanageable. Beyond a certain Joint, their problems multiply faster than the means of solving them. Administration becomes remote from the people it is meant to serve. Street children are poignant evidence of this reality.
The twentieth century may come to be seen as the age of urbanization. By the year 2000, the world’s urban population is expected to increase by half. For the first time, it will exceed the number of those living in rural areas, a historic and probably irreversible tilt of the balance. If present trends continue, there will be 430 cities of over one million inhabitants, and 45 of the 60 cities with over 5 million will be in developing countries, with environmental consequences to match. Currently, two-thirds of the annual population growth in the Third World is in urban areas. By the turn of the century, the proportion may be four-fifths.
The population of cities is also becoming younger. By the year 2000, half the world’s population will be under 25. In the age group 5-19, there will be 247 million more urban children than today. Of these, 233 million will be in developing countries, where 35% of the total population will be under 14. In Latin America alone, projections for the year 2020 point to almost 300 million urban minors, of whom 30% will be extremely poor. The number of street children living in complete or partial abandonment is consequently bound to grow by tens of millions.
To a large extent, the fundamental causes of urban crisis in developing countries lie in the immemorial hardships of the small farmer, and the consequent flight from the land. The first, faint signs of an ebb away from urban areas are starting to appear sporadically. In most countries, however, the drift to the cities is still as powerful as ever. There are few areas where the rural poor are convinced that the future of their children lies in the countryside. Opportunities for economic advancement there are almost non-existent. Slender profit margins and heavy financial burdens, as well as unsuitable methods, climatic factors, and the risk of pests may all contribute to making farming a hazardous way of life in many developing countries.
The bleakness of rural life compares unfavourably with the enticing glamour of cities, which hold out the promise of further education, higher earnings, and more varied activities. Industry is perceived as being more flexible and less seasonal than agriculture. Physical links provided by modern transport have made moving easier and information about urban opportunities more widely available. Natural and man-made disasters also contribute to the trend.
Expectations for better opportunities in urban centres are frequently ill-founded. Most new arrivals experience desperate housing problems and are reduced to settling in unhealthy, overcrowded slums. Endemic unemployment is the norm. For many, survival depends on searching for remunerative work every day. Both parents are often obliged to work long hours away from home for low wages. Children are left behind to fend for themselves. The family unit gradually crumbles under mounting strains .
Governments, for their part, have been unable to give the problem the importance it deserves. Paternalism and preconceived conceptions should be abandoned in favour of holistic solutions which address the emotional as well as physical needs of the youngsters, in the context of community development. Rather than imposing solutions on the poor, experience shows it is more constructive to encourage voluntary and self-help groups to tackle their problems themselves, with inputs of technical know-how, materials, and finance. National policies must take into account the changing age structures much more, and adopt social and population policies which respond adequately to the demands of the future. They must aim gradually to reduce the congestion and fragmentation of urban areas and improve the distribution of social services.
In many countries, North and South, there is no realistic prospect of the labour market being able to absorb and give direction to the lives of street youngsters in the foreseeable future. Schools may have to prepare them not for work, but for unemployment. Those excluded may demand a hearing in the only way they know, that of violence. Local authorities, at a loss as to what to do, may find vigilante groups springing up to protect those who feel threatened, and taking the law into their own hands, under the label of legitimate community response. Already, in one large South American city, officially-licensed radio stations have openly urged private individuals to do away with street children physically. The result reportedly is not only widespread violence but the actual killing of two youngsters, on average, every day.
We must recognize and confront the spiritual dimension of such a crisis. The indifference of society to the plight of the victims is an affront to human dignity. They can die, and no one will notice.
However understandable the fear of violence may be, however justified our indignation, the condition of street children is symptomatic of widespread selfishness , insensitivity to the needs of others, and an erosion of communal spirit, as if charity were restricted to the isolated gesture. Yet being compassionate is part of being human. On this issue, for once, North and South can agree.
In addition to humanitarian considerations, it is also in governments’ own interest to take the issue seriously. The presence in a city of large numbers of disgruntled young people with nothing to lose may be politically destabilizing. There are always those wishing to convert envy of the rich into hatred, who consider street youngsters tough, ruthless, unattached, intellectually vulnerable, and familiar with secrecy and deception – to be perfect recruits. Certain governments themselves, requiring ruffians in uniform for their paramilitary forces, have found suitable material in the ranks of street youths. It will not be unreasonable for them, and others, to fear that the street children of today may become the guerillas or terrorists of tomorrow. As this report makes clear, the know–how to grasp the nettle exists nonetheless. Vision, drive, and imaginative endeavour are more important than resources. Cities can find a more human face, attitudes can change, and the flame of participation can be rekindled. Nobler instincts can be nurtured and canalized. Every community has people willing to respond in a positive way if only given an opportunity. It is for leaders, parents and young people everywhere to create it, and, remembering their own childhood, come to the rescue of those who start life against heavy odds.
Sadruddin AGA KHAN
Hassan bin TALAL