There are a number of common misconceptions about street children, from who they are, to how many there are around the world, to why children take to the streets in the first place.
Here we outline some of the most up to date information, based on findings from the 2012 United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ study.
The term ‘street-connected’ is now more widely used to describe the broad range of experiences children and youth have on the streets: some live on the street; some work on the street; some street children maintain relationships with their family whereas others break all contact; some are on the streets currently and some are off the streets but could be easily drawn back there. All of them have strong connections to the street.
Where are they?
It’s a common misconception that street children only exist in the developing world. In a recent survey we conducted, 61% of people said they only associated street children with Africa and Asia. In fact, across the globe there are large numbers of children surviving on the streets. In the UK, they are more commonly known as homeless, rough sleeping or detached youth. Whether they are a runaway from Derby or a street child in Delhi the factors that drive children to the streets and the issues they face there are often similar
How many of them?
We don’t actually know. UNICEF estimated there were 100 million street children in 2005. However, it is not known how many children worldwide depend on the streets for their survival or development. Numbers vary by country and by city and counting street-connected children can be difficult due to their lack of permanent location as well as differences in opinion on how to define and therefore identify them.
Why are they on the streets?
There are many factors which can push children onto the street including poverty, family breakdown, violence, war, natural disasters and forced marriage. There are also factors which can pull children to the street such as financial independence, friendships, adventure and city glamour. It is often a combination of these push and pull factors that keeps children connected to the street.
How do they survive?
Although children are vulnerable to the dangers of life on the street, they are also resourceful and resilient. They often adopt tactics necessary to survival, such as begging, stealing, rough sleeping and substance misuse. In criminalising such behaviours, society alienates street children and stigmatises them. Street children actively make connections with the street – they build homes, friendships and earn a living on the street. These connections are vital to their everyday survival.
What are the risks?
Substance misuse is a common way for children to numb the reality of their experience on the streets. In many countries this presents itself as glue or solvent sniffing as this is the most economical option.
Street children often experience direct exposure to violence. It can be a factor in pushing them onto the street, perhaps through family violence or war. Once on the street, violence is also a challenge – street children have repeatedly reported suffering violence at the hands of adults, the police and other street children.
Girls on the street are at particular risk of sexual violence – from adults in the community, those in positions of authority and other street children. They are also at particular risk of being trafficked into a brothel or a household for domestic work. As a result, street girls are particularly vulnerable to contracting HIV and other sexually-transmitted diseases. There are many young mothers on the streets – giving rise to second and third generations of children born into these circumstances.
What is being done to help?
The Consortium for Street Children works to improve the lives of street children. We tap into the knowledge and experiences of our network, so that we can share learning and highlight good practice, leading to improved services for street-connected children around the world. Two of the key ways we are currently doing this are through our Shared Learning Hub and the production of a Toolkit on street girls.
Through our advocacy work, both in the UK and internationally, CSC continually strives to keep street children on the agenda. By ensuring that governments recognise the issue, better services and legislation can start to be put in place to support street children, resulting in their rights being realised.
Finally, we aim to ensure that information on street children is easier to access and more accurate. Our Global Resource Centre brings together hundreds of resources on street children from around the world. Our annual Research Conference allows researchers and practitioners to explore current themes and collaborate on projects to ensure a holistic approach to both the delivery of services and the generation of research.