The common understanding of the term ‘street children’ is that the children are without parental care and sleeping on the streets. While some children are runaways or orphans, many more are still with their families. Today, it is becoming more common to talk about ‘street-connected children’. The Consortium for Street Children, a global network of over 100 organisations, including ChildHope, defines street-connected children as children who depend on the streets to live and/or work and those who have strong connections to public spaces such as markets, parks and stations. For these children the street plays a vital role in their everyday lives and identities, even if they are not rough sleeping.
Street-connected children come from families with a wide range of challenges, including poverty, mental illness, domestic violence, child abuse and addiction. It is not just family crisis that pushes children onto the streets – war and natural disasters can all trigger a sharp rise in numbers. There are attractions that pull children, such as the excitement of independence, adventure, money and the bright lights of the city.
In 2005 UNICEF estimated that there were some 100 million street-connected children around the world, but this is only an estimate and data is not collected by the UN or any other international body. We simply do not know precisely how many children worldwide depend on the streets for their survival. However, we do know it is very hard to conduct any accurate count because the children often do not want to be found and live in fear of the authorities who beat or imprison them without just reason. Simple street ‘head-counts’ can also mean that many girls, who may be hidden in rooms, bars and people’s homes at the time of the count, and in many ways are at even greater risk than boys, will be missed.This can result in services failing to meet the needs of girls.
Challenges street-connected children face include poor or non-existent hygiene facilities, unsafe sleeping arrangements, violence from adults and other children and no opportunity to go to school. They take on hazardous work or resort to petty crime to earn enough money to get by. Substance abuse is common as children try to cope with trauma, mental illness, hunger, stigmatisation and discrimination. Because many of their survival techniques – rough sleeping, pick pocketing, glue sniffing, sex in exchange for money, food or shelter - are criminalised, the children are further stigmatised. They may also be under the control of adults who aim to exploit the children and will do whatever they can to ensure they are kept out of sight as much as possible. Street-connected children with disabilities are at even greater risk and can be even harder to identify, reach and support.
Supporting street-connected children is hard. They live transient lives and many traditional support services are available at the times when children are working or are staffed by people who are hostile to street-connected children. If they do manage to go to school, they may struggle to keep up with lessons or be discriminated against by other children and teachers. Yet street-connected children are entitled to the rights enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, as all children are. This is why we continue to be committed to supporting them.
We have been supporting street-connected children since we were established nearly 30 years ago. Like all our programme work, our approach has evolved and each project is led by a local partner and tailored to the exact needs of the community, but there are common aspects to our work across countries: