In their little worlds in which children have their existence…there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt, as injustice.
Charles Dickens (Great Expectations, 1861)
The street was like so many others in Lima – long rows of low mud brick walls, with small wooden doors leading into corridors of more small wooden doors. Behind each door was a tiny ‘apartment’, often of just one room, where families of 11 or 12 would live, sleep and eat together. Miguel’s family lived in one such place.
Ever since his mother left when he was one year old, Miguel, his father and grandfather had lived together and managed somehow – until his father married again. His stepmother, who had two small sons and two daughters, resented having to cope with Miguel in addition to her own children, and, behind his father’s back, treated him shabbily. She gave him less food and more work and beat him more often than her own boys so he took his revenge by threatening to kill them. Once he held one of his stepbrothers out of the window by his leg and everyone became hysterical. After that his life was made ever more unbearable than before; his stepmother kept telling him how mean and dangerous he was, and that he would do everyone a favour if he just got lost.
One day, he did. He was barely eight but he knew that the best place for a runaway to go would be La Parada, where the buses from all over Peru come in, next to the fruit and vegetable market.
Miguel met other boys there like himself who lived on the streets. On and off, some had a sort of home where one of their parents lived; others had only the vaguest memory of their families. As small children, they had been taken to Lima from the provinces and put to work by strangers who ran ‘businesses’. They were told to carry parcels or cases for customers, or help unload the lorries. Sometimes they stole from the stalls, and earned their name as pajaros fruteros, the ‘fruit birds’.
There are several gangs in La Parada. Though they all know each other, each one keeps to itself. Usually the boys in one group come from the same barrio or province, and share a common dialect. The oldest or toughest is the group leader, and they hang around together, sharing what they have, and competing with other gangs for jobs and favours.
At the end of the market proper is a huge stretch of land where all sorts of stolen goods are for sale. Here, each gang has an adult anchor-man, or ‘uncle’, who helps defend it against other gangs, or can be called on when needed to settle internal conflicts. He gives advice, and sometimes gifts to the youngest boys, who in return lend a hand as campanas – bells, or look outs – when he is trying to pull off a job.
Miguel played the game, and became adept at snatching handbags. As he was small and slender, he often proved his worth as a campana. One day he was hoisted up a wall to climb in through a tiny window and open a door from the inside, but he was too slow, and the police caught him.
As a minor, Miguel was sent for a year to a correctional institution. When the people came to discuss what to do about him, his father explained that he had reported the boy’s disappearance, and was glad to learn that he was safe. At home, he said, Miguel was impossible to control. He would not accept authority, and was a danger to his stepbrothers. Surely the best thing for everyone, before he could do any more harm, would be just to keep him where he was?
(From a UNICEF Field Report, Peru)
Speculation about the root causes of the problem rapidly leads onto shifting ground. Whatever the immediate, precipitating crisis that leaves the child unprotected, causes and effects, and further causes, stretch back inextricably in time, each redoubling the other, until the strains on the family reach cracking point. Psychological, intra-familial, environmental, social, economic, and political, they seem to surround the child in the street in ever-widening circles. Through the lenses and mirrors of sinister ‘multiplier effects’, they bear down on the child from different ranges and directions with a powerful momentum. He is not only the victim of violence, but, without know ing it, also the plaything of historical trends and destructive global forces which reach invisibly into his daily life.
The street is by definition a catch–all category. Short of prison or a still more final resting place, it is often the only available option; the door leading onto it is always open. While the human dregs which settle there reach it from any number of starting points, they nonetheless share a common experience of increasing and more or less traumatic separation from their families. The process has so far attracted little analysis. Today, nobody really knows why some communities produce street children, and others, seemingly similar, do not. Adopting a street existence is not inevitable, in that many children survive a harsh upbringing and grinding poverty, even severe abuse, without ending up on the street. Experience has conclusively shown that blanket solutions, such as confinement in institutions, are inappropriate for children from different family backgrounds.
While the location and scale of the problem are new, as are the name given to it and the concern it arouses, the phenomenon of children living on their own is not. The particular mix of factors required has occurred in the past. Street children have made a fleeting appearance at the window of history on several occasions, always in times of social upheaval or rapid transformation. Like other aspects of children’s lives in previous centuries, most cases were presumably not thought worth recording. The similarities between modern groups and those of earlier times are striking. Likewise, group life and survival strategies have been much the same, whatever their time and place.
In the Middle Ages, after the failure of the Children’s Crusade in 1212, bands of youngsters are said to have roamed the countryside. Living mostly by pillage, the older cared for the younger, before being sold into slavery in Southern France and Italy. In the early days of the Russian Revolution, also, in conditions of famine and civil war, gangs of urban children and youths, the besprizomi, were said to be a common sight. Surviving by beggary, theft and odd jobs, they were estimated by one source to number between six and ten million. Similar instances have been noted, at different times, in Japan.
The closest precedent to the present-day situation in the Third World, however, is during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, when Europe and North America were also ‘under developed’. Street children, it seems, were accepted as part of the urban landscape. Their background has been brought to life in literature in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. The parallel between the street children of the past and the present appears in its true light when one reflects that the current transformation of developing countries is a continuation of the process which began in 18th century England. Its evolving manifestations
have reached the remote corners of countries such as Mexico and Bangladesh only now. When it is precisely such Western notions of ‘progress’ that have aggravated the lot of the marginal child, the West is in no position to preach about the need to cope with their consequences.
Although urbanization and industrialization in the North had social consequences comparable to those now underway in the Third World, the current street children scenario is not exactly a replay of events a century ago. Then, migration to urban areas was more closely linked to ample opportunities of employment and housing made available by the industrialization process. The movements of rural populations did not then lead to the creation of shantytowns. If they had no families, the children of the poor in England were placed in punitive workhouses. Poverty was equated with depravity.
In the United States, urban society reacted by removing them physically: between 1853 and 1890, 90,000 street children were shipped by train from the North-East to the Mid-West and placed in foster homes as farm hands. In an ominous parallel to present-day attitudes, a promoter of the scheme, the Reverend Charles Brace, wrote in 1853:
There are no dangers to the value of property or to the permanency of our institutions so great as those from the existence of. . .a class of vagabond, ignorant, ungoverned children. This ‘dangerous class’ has not begun to show itself, as it will in eight or ten years, when these boys and girls are matured…Then let society beware, when the outcast, vicious, reckless multitude ofNew York boys, swarming now in every foul alley and low street, come to know their power, and use it!
A psychological factor
In identifying the factors common to each context, some psychologists have looked to the motivation of the individual child, and speculated that street children are not sometimes so much abandoned as abandoning. To answer the question ‘Why this child, and not the other?’, it is suggested that some hereditary predisposition, irrespective of family conditions, actively pushes some to take to the streets on their own initiative, and make an early bid for independence . After ‘testing and waters’ by breaking away from the fold for longer and longer intervals, they are assumed to know fairly clearly where they are going. They are driven, the theory supposes, by a complex motivation which seeks out a greater autonomy and an active involvement with the social environment.
Proponents of this view are impressed not only by the lack of overt psychopathology in street children, but by the positive qualities they detect in a group which society despises. They stress the healthy, positive, competent adaptation which departure from home can some times represent. Whether it is possible to verify this hypothesis in such an unstructured environment, and to separate the psychological pull from the environmental push, remains to be seen.
Rather than in the heart and mind of the particular child, it is normally in the dynamics of the family that the more substantial human causes lie. A breakdown in human relations is aggravated by a host of factors relating to social environment. At the micro-level, the child is on the street, typically, because his family is in crisis; if it has not fallen apart already, it is on the verge of doing so. Often, the father will have left home at some stage and not come back, for any combination of reasons, irresponsibility, selfishness, illness , prison, or just being at the end of his tether. So, there is no positive father figure with whom the child can identify. This may have long–term consequences. In other cases, accidents or illness can leave young ones unprotected. Mothers resorting to prostitution can make life for their offspring impossible.
In many households, unemployment or underemployment lead to depression, the loss of self-esteem, alcoholism, and a vicious circle of overwhelming strain. The parents may not be legally married, in which case their children are technically illegitimate. This may not be a major problem in societies where a common-law union is more in the nature of a business transaction than a marriage in the ordinary sense. In others, it can be a permanent stigma. Many case histories have a recurring pattern of violence, on whatever pretext. Some parents take out their frustrations on the children. Under the stress of physical, psychological and emotional overload, relationships deteriorate, and beyond a certain threshold, ‘home’ is rent asunder.
The physical environment in which the family lives exacerbates the process. Poor housing not only creates tensions but affects attitudes.
The sociologist Paulo Freire tells of trying to persuade a man living in a one-room hut in Recife not to beat his children, or at least not quite so much. ‘There are nine of us in the family’ came the answer. ‘When I get home from work, all of them are crying, from hunger, or cold, or sickness. If I have to get up the next day at four o’clock in the morning, I simply must get some sleep, and there’s no other way.’ Although accommodation, cramped by Western standards, does not necessarily help break up a family, as traditional societies show, misery of this order invariably robs parents of the hope, strength, and resources needed to keep their children cared for. ‘The street’ outside the door appears in a different light. If there are going to be beatings into the bargain, small wonder if the youngsters start to spend more and more time away from the house, like their fathers.
The role of urban geography may also prove to have been a hitherto underestimated dimension of the problem. Distance from work, food, and services and the absence of transport tends to increase the time when children are left unsupervised.
With no spouse to provide, the mother must then try to bring up a large family and earn a living simultaneously. This is quite a tough task at the best of times, difficult to carry out without support from relatives, neighbours, and the community. When this is unavailable or insufficient, the best hope of survival for a de facto widow may seem to lie in finding a replacement. When she starts changing partners, however, the stepfather in the household is unlikely to have the best interests of her children by his predecessors at heart.
Under the pall of poverty, economic causes underlie and coalesce with all others. All too often, the new stepfather is interested in his mate only for her services, not her dependents. So let the latter bring in some money. A child can be blackmailed into paying for his share of food, care, and attention by being sent out until he has earned his ‘quota’: if he doesn’t, then too bad for him. He has three possible courses of action: earn the money somehow; not earn it and get beaten; or stay in the street for good. Though he may succeed in fulfilling the unequal ‘contract’ for a time, rebellion is inevitable as he gets older. Instead of handing the money over to his mother, why not keep it?
The condition of women
The condition of such women, struggling to stay afloat in crisis, drudgery and exhaustion, is clearly critical to the issue. In many societies, due to the breakdown of extended families and community structures, single women with children are left to fend for themselves. The problem is not only that these women have been abandoned by men, but that they are deprived of the alternative support necessary to affirm their self-esteem and control over their lives. Because of the close relationship which exists between women and children, the lack of such support naturally affects the emotional security of their offspring.
For millenia, women have brought up happy, well–adjusted children. According to scholars, the earliest family units were mothers and children who bonded together in tribes for protection. Permanent male parentage did not exist. Ancient Inda-European languages apparently had no word for ‘father’. If we believe classical writers, matriarchal societies existed in Ancient Egypt and Greece, and among the Etruscans in Italy. In these societies neglect of children was said to be unknown. No child was considered illegitimate. Today, similar societies exist in certain islands of the Pacific, in Tibet, among the hill tribes in Assam, India, and in certain tribes of North and Central America. Whether because of a natural instinct towards bonding, or the fact that women have traditionally cared for children, their involvement in decisions concerning children’s welfare is essential. The benefits of drawing upon women’s resourcefulness are limited only by the imagination.
The situation of modern women has attracted sympathy and sup port from many quarters. The United Nations Decade for Women 1975-1985, for example, was intended to accelerate the process of emancipation. A woman alone trying to get fair access to jobs, housing, services, social security, not to mention equal pay, still faces serious discrimination. Far from making her path easier, large numbers of children are only likely to increase the obstacles put in her way. Attempts by women to organize themselves, to form a cooperative, for instance, can meet with strenuous opposition. If the experience of industrial societies is anything to go by, progress in the developing world will continue to be slow. Despite impressive legislation, the status of women during the Decade has been marked almost as much by retrogression in some areas as by advancement in others. And paradoxically, the social protection of women has been known to have adverse effects on the condition of children, whom employers in financial difficulty see as the next group down to exploit.
The higher the number of children single working women must support, the greater the possibility of their ending up in the street. Although family size might, generally, be a decisive factor, it has rarely been debated. A significant proportion of street children, at least in Latin America, are the eldest of large families of six to ten children, with no supportive father-figure. They are sent out to earn while the mother gives priority to the smaller ones. As they grow and reach working age, the financial position of the household is likely to improve: a large family becomes an asset, not a liability. However, this does not mean the offspring cease to be street children. They merely become street youths.
School and other elements within the community can be envisaged as a further circle of causes restricting the chances of the child. One might expect education – with health, the State service which reaches the highest proportion of the population – to be the great engine for social advancement able to contribute to a better life, if not for the deprived of today, then at least for their offspring tomorrow. In many developing countries, however, schools seem to belong to a different world, remote from the everyday existence of those at the street level, for whom they constitute yet another possibility of failure.
Schools, sometimes overlooked as a contributary cause, have a lot to answer for. Governments of developing countries anxious to emulate the Western educational model, and at the same time keep their urban children occupied, sometimes place primary school teachers in front of classes of 50, 80, or even 100 pupils. The percentage of school attendance becomes a matter of international respectability. With such mass-production methods, the number of drop-outs in the obstacle race is very high, and the devil take the hindmost. Very few educational authorities in Third World countries can afford to give much further attention to those who have fallen at the first hurdle : better never to have started.
The content as well as the form of education is often questionable, and unsuited to the children of the most deprived. It may still be based on Western middle-class values, promote a model of the consumer society, and reflect the idea that only white-collar jobs are entirely proper. Students and parents alike consider the diploma or school-leaving certificate a passport to a guaranteed income, preferably in the civil service. Schools teach them, in effect, to hate the unemployment into which circumstances entirely beyond their control often guarantee they will fall. For those who find themselves weeded out, there is no future. When confronted with the years of useless effort and expense, frustrated youngsters will tend to reject the entire system, and seek refuge among those already in the street as disaffected as themselves. In Africa, where learning carries great prestige, drop-outs have taken up washing windscreens rather than face the shame of returning home to the village.
As for apprenticeships alongside craftsmen for the less academic they are normally few and far between, and despite the long hours of work must often be paid for. That is not easy, particularly when competition is fierce, and profit margins, due to a recession, are very low. The employer has to make his money somehow, and does so at the expense of his young apprentices. On the labour market, street youngsters represent throwaway manpower and are in no legal or moral position to bargain.
The failure of education and training is compounded by the lack of other possible supports within the community. The fragmentation of the family, whether first – or second-generation immigrants, is repeated on a larger scale due to the very reasons which caused it to move in the first place. The bright lights of the Big City attract hordes of landless peasants, like moths. The high hopes of a better future which bring them to the city are soon lost in the filth, misery, and despair of shantytowns. The familiar scenario has been described so often that one wonders how any rural emigrant could still entertain the slightest illusion about his future prospects.
The rural push is less conspicuous and tangible than the urban pull, but, for the younger generation, the attractions of a lifetime’s backbreaking labour fade rapidly when compared with the rosy picture of the outside world brought nowadays by the media to the remotest village. For those whose immemorial lot has been dependence, weakness, indebtedness, vulnerability, and powerlessness, it takes no more than a speck of ambition to convince them to try their luck elsewhere, for better or worse. With nothing to lose, many are willing to risk privation and uncertainty for a chance of giving their children the education they never had, of getting in where the action is. They exchange misery without hope, as the saying has it, for misery with hope.
Despite the change in environment, many families make enormous efforts to adapt to their new circumstances, sometimes successfully. The presence of other immigrants from the same area or ethnic group is often a factor in the survival of the family as a unit, or in the support of a child whose family is deficient. Conversely, isolation among those not perceived as kin may help push a child into the street, as a social outcast.
Children are in all circumstances the most vulnerable to radical changes, and often the first to suffer. They are even less prepared for what they will find than adults. In the rural community, for the child who, for some reason, does not enjoy normal parental support, the extended family is always there. Childrearing is a collective task, and when everybody knows everybody else, a single working mother can go off to the fields or to market knowing that her children will come to no harm. As they grow older, their extra hands are more of an asset than their mouths to feed are a liability. Work takes priority over education. Children are a blessing, a source of wealth and prestige. When infant mortality is high, large families are the equivalent of an old age pension.
In the city, economic and social conditions are in many ways reversed. Whereas previously food was relatively easy to come by, perhaps by barter, now everything must be paid for in cash, sometimes even drinking water. Maintaining a child becomes expensive. School attendance, for example, will mean buying books and other items of equipment. Families who migrate leave their web of local relationships behind, so the child becomes more dependent on his parents than before, and more vulnerable. The role of the elderly, previously so important, is reduced. The loss of the extended family, with its spread of generations, cuts the youngster off, in particular, from a sense of time. Whereas rural life, it has been said, ‘fills things with time’, urban life ‘fills time with things’. In the city, he lives much more in the present moment, with its crowded, dizzying impressions and hectic change. Cut off from the old ideas, bombarded with the new, with nobody to turn to, the street youngster is in an unenviable position.
City life puts him ill at ease. Although his basic needs for food and shelter may be met, his perceived needs for a decent income and status are not. The slums or shantytowns where he lives have more in common with the remote villages his parents grew up in than with the elegant buildings downtown. He feels at home in neither world, rejects both, and is rejected by them. In front of a television, the traditional rural values he might have absorbed are devalued at a stroke: juxtaposed, the two cultures make strange bedfellows. With no desk education either, and no predetermined role to guide him, the street youngster is at the mercy of the first myths society will pull over his eyes. He experiences not so much rising expectations as rising frustrations, and cannot swallow the incongruity between the targets society puts before him and the limited means of access it proposes. When the material goods and standards it extols are unattainable by normal, or even heroic, labour, his less scrupulous friends may be tempted by far quicker, if riskier, methods: first beg, then pilfer, then grab.
Although the appearance of street children in developing countries correlates broadly with ‘economic miracles’, one should also be aware of quite different social causes which can produce the same result. Some street children, for example, are the offspring of prostitutes, and make an inauspicious start in life as an occupational hazard. Others have been disowned by a ‘respectable’ parent unwilling to recognize the embarassing outcome of wild oats. In this case those in the street do not invariably come from the poorest families. Fieldworkers in Togo have come across the son of a taxi–driver, the nephew of a dentist, even the grandson of a former minister.
In dictatorships, the families of political detainees, faced with sudden crisis, have been known to disintegrate. Handicapped street children, rejected by their families and reduced to begging, also constitute a distinct and relatively large category. Domestic servants living in, who are numerically significant in many developing countries, may be forced to abandon children by their employers.
Different again are the rural children sometimes entrusted, as in certain West African countries, to the care of an itinerant ‘ mara bout’ for religious instruction. When this is deemed to be completed, several months later, the child is often left to his own devices, in town, where begging – a religious duty – may fall foul of Western–style provisions against vagrancy. The likely result of a youngster alone looking for other ways to survive is easy to foresee. The lads hanging around behind the bus station, after dark, might give the newcomer a few helpful tips. In the rural areas, the failure of inter-ethnic marriages can lead to rejection of the offspring as an outcast by both parties and their respective communities.
While the causes at work in some of these cases may seem exceptional or relatively amenable to intervention, the general forces push ing families into the downward spiral of deprivation and marginalization are depressingly self-sustaining, and transmissible from one generation to the next. Poverty causes malnutrition, increasing susceptibility to disease, and so reduces work capacity. Reduced income increases the importance of child labour, which rules out education. With no education, the youth can get no proper job and so no money. With no money, he cannot give his own children, when the time comes, any proper education. Children with no father-figure with whom to identify will find it difficult to relate positively to their own offspring. Fathers devalued by enforced idleness, the bottle, or dubious improvizations are not in the best condition to nurture clear eyed, self-confident sons. Those who did not run quite fast enough often emerge from correctional institutions, miracles apart, more highly ‘trained’ than before to survive in the street, but not in society. And so it goes on. A street youngster trying both to make good and go straight might envy Sisyphus.
The wider setting
Behind the drift to the cities looms another, wider ring of macro factors. In many developing countries, cash crops, grown for export by mechanized agribusiness, have displaced subsistence farming, with government approval. Like the Okies in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, families have been ‘tractored off’ their plots, and left with no alternatives but to move to the cities, with up marketable skills or ways of learning any.
The present global economic recession, beyond the control of the state, has significantly aggravated the problem. In many developing countries, economic growth has fallen to a rate below that of population increase. While the numbers in the cities grow, as much through natural increase as through movement of rural populations, the formal economic sector can absorb a decreasing proportion of the urban labour available. Opportunities for earning cash incomes in the informal sector, the main employer of the population concerned, are reduced. More and more families have to scrape by and improvise with different stratagems, of which the ‘use’ of street children is one. Budgetary constraints have seriously affected social programmes, underfunded at the best of times, so leaving the poor desperately short, if not utterly deprived, of state services of any kind, and without the means for private alternatives. The overall human consequences are devastating, and in most places there is no respite in sight.
Wars, too, bring their inevitable aftermath of orphans in the streets, as in Italy in the 1950s. In Colombia, for example, the civil war at the same period known as ‘ La Violencia’ drove many families into an overcrowded capital, as does continuing insecurity in Central America and elsewhere today. During the war in Indochina, cities like Phnom Penh and Vientiane had large numbers of street youngsters. Today, in several countries, counter-insurgency strategy contributes to the depopulation of rural areas. Natural disasters like floods and drought, in the Sahel or North-Eastern Brazil, can also be responsible for the displacement and disintegration of communities and their component families, which are often less cohesive than in the past.
Beyond even these overwhelming events lies an unjust and appallingly wasteful world order, where 80% of the population must make do with 20% of the resources. In this gloomy context, the number of street children in a given society acts as a kind of danger signal that pressures have become intolerable. Against this formidable dynamic, hard-pressed governments with crowded agendas may feel disinclined to divert resources from seemingly more urgent and rewarding items. Yet it is for governments, irrespective of the means available, to take the lead. Very often, their present practice inspires little confidence.