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Open letter: on the lives of street children

As a UN committee continues to draft a 'general comment on the rights of adolescents', academics working with street children weigh in on what it should (and should not) include.

Jaipur, India. Nolan Peers/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child is in the process of preparing a 'general comment on the rights of adolescents'. This open letter, written by a group of academics researching street children, has been produced in response to an open call for input from the drafting committee. This is the second letter published on Beyond Trafficking and Slavery regarding this topic. The first letter, 'A better approach to child work', was published 27 January 2016 and signed by 59 academics.

12 April 2016

Rights of children regarding the streets

There are several ways in which dominant members of societies sometimes restrict the rights of children living or working on the streets, reflecting restrictions on the rights of children in streets and public places more generally. Articles 14 and 15 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) require that, within given conditions, children should be able to use streets and public spaces freely for civic, cultural, economic, religious, and political activities. However, urbanisation, with planning that focuses on commercial benefits and privatisation of public spaces, frequently reduces children’s access to outdoor spaces, with many children having only crowded, dangerous streets as social spaces where they can meet and play.1 Laws and bylaws specifically controlling children and young people, such as curfew or restrictions on ‘youths gathering’, can be discriminatory in contravention to articles 1 and 2. The UNCRC requires that police and other agencies work to protect and support children on the streets, and especially those at greater risk of danger.2 Yet police are often hostile to children, especially those in greatest need of support. Such general diminution of rights of children in public places is of special concern with respect to children living and working on the streets, and should therefore receive some consideration by the Committee.

Street connected children: ideals and realities

There is a danger that discourse and interventions concerning children’s rights too frequently reflect elite ideals of childhood, and fail to take adequate and holistic account of the realities of life – and indeed the rights – of such children as those living and working on the streets.3 As a result, attempts to protect them too often in practice further disrupt and damage their lives, sometimes criminalising their attempts to improve their situations. Rights must be rights of real children in their life situations; the imposition of an ideal childhood that bears little relation to their needs in the world they face is not a defence of children’s rights. The preamble to the General Comment on children in street situations should draw attention to this danger.

In particular, while children’s street life goes strongly against the ideals of elites, for many children it offers respite from even worse situations. Certainly street life can lead to destruction, even self-destruction, of many children;4 this danger necessitates attention and urgent intervention. But for many others, street life can result in improved nutrition and material quality of life against the poverty and violence5 they fled. It can also bring benefits to their impoverished families together with self-esteem for the children.6 Some children establish on the streets supportive relationships, which can be important for the wellbeing of those from disruptive or destroyed family backgrounds. While such relationships can result in gang behaviour that threatens wider society, for many children, street relationships provide the only support they have. For some, life on the streets is a means to acquire entrepreneurial and other skills that can be important for their future life situations and even provide upward mobility.7 Successful negotiation of street life can lead to self-esteem and resilience. Any consideration of the rights of children connected with city streets has to take account of the very varied situations of the children and the very varied effects of street life on them. In particular, advocacy and intervention should be careful not to further damage the lives of greatly disadvantaged children.

Discrimination

Perhaps the most pervasive discrimination against street-connected children, and one about which they have often complained, lies in the discourse used about them. Since their lives are so discordant with elite ideals of childhood, even neutral language quickly becomes derogatory. For example, the term “menino da rua” (translated as street child) was introduced as a neutral term to avoid derogatory language in Brazil. However, it quickly became a derogatory term itself, and the English term was later rejected by, for example, the African Movement of Working Children and Youth (who do not mind the term “street workers”, which acknowledges their efforts). Common discourse ignores or denigrates the efforts of children to improve their lives through their street activities, and in particular it ignores and denigrates the support they give each other. Rather than supporting these efforts, intervention often disrupts them.

In particular, we are concerned that the call for submissions speaks of “strategies to prevent children from developing strong street connections”. Caution is needed in this kind of discourse, which may result in children being deprived of the very things that give their lives some meaning and hope. The benefits some children receive from street life are significant to their realities, and are part of their street connections. More important, when adults and families have failed children, the relationships they establish with peers and others on the streets may be extremely important for their wellbeing. Even in situations in which children have some level of family support, time in the streets may allow them to develop other important social and economic conditions, strengthening social safety nets and the number of adults and peers looking out for them. Campaigns that target children for removal from the street may make them worse off by destroying these carefully established networks. It is tempting for social workers to decry the relationships of street children with their peers as something that prevents them leaving the streets, forgetting that these may be the only meaningful relations that children have,8 and to destroy them could be traumatic. This observation on the importance of street connections relates to the special assistance to be provided for those deprived of a family environment as well as to holistic support of children in street situations.

Work

Children pose for the camera while begging for alms at a railway station in India. Sumanth Garakarajula/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by)

Economic activity is fundamental to the lives of children on the streets. It provides material necessities and sometimes more, and often gives their lives purpose and meaning. The General Comment on children in street situations should attend to their work explicitly and in a constructive way.

As we have pointed out, important life skills can be learned through work. Children working on the streets sometimes regard steady employment as an important benefit, and a steady job can be a means to develop regularity in life that can subsequently enables them to benefit from appropriate formal schooling.9 Often it is not possible to remove children from the streets without further disrupting their lives and destroying what self-esteem they have acquired. In such cases, their lives can be improved by replacing hazardous and exploitative work with work that is safer and more developmental, and so not exploitative. Since there is no minimum age below which children do not appear on the streets (indeed some are born there), there should be no age below which they are deprived of the benefits of economic work, which can be important to their standard of living and their quality of life generally.

Seeing beyond the negative

Children in street situations encompass a diverse group of children and young people with different needs and priorities. Rather than assuming that removal from the streets will best ensure the fulfilment of the rights of all children, solutions should be targeted to the particular needs of children, such as providing more stable employment opportunities, drop-in municipal dormitories and other facilities, or drug treatment centres. A General Comment that emphasises danger and children being “out of place” on the streets is likely to support the present dominant concepts of childhood as separate, different, and mainly to be controlled, contradicting the bases of universal human rights (including the right to work).

A couple of decades ago, Benno Glauser, reflecting on experience in Latin America, made a remarkable suggestion, which merits more reflective consideration than it has received: “Might growing up in the streets, rather than just being a negative experience for children, also show new and potentially positive ways, and even provide a new paradigm, for children’s lives and growing up in disintegrating societies? ... such questions ... point the way forward for new research and analysis.”10 We may add that they point to a way forward for more critical thinking relating to child protection and intervention.

Note: Unless otherwise specified, those signing below do so in their capacities as individual practitioners and researchers.  The names appear in alphabetical order.

  1. Professor Priscilla Alderson, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University College London
  2. Dr Nicola Ansell, Brunel University, London
  3. Dr Dena Aufseeser, University of Maryland, Baltimore County
  4. Professor Janet Boddy, University of Sussex
  5. Professor Michael Bourdillon, University of Zimbabwe
  6. Ms Rebecca Budde, Coordination, M.A. in Childhood Studies and Children's Rights, Free University, Berlin
  7. Mr James Boyon and Moussa Harouna representing AMWCY, African Movement of Working Children and Youth
  8. Mr Richard Carothers, Partners in Technology Exchange (www.ppic-work.org)
  9. Mr Saifullah Channa, Executive Director, Development of Institution and Youth Alliance
  10. Dr Kristen Cheney, International Institute of Social Studies, The Netherlands
  11. Professor Tara Collins, Assistant Professor, School of Child and Youth Care, Ryerson University
  12. Dr Gina Crivello, University of Oxford
  13. Professor Maria Claudia Duque Paramo, Pontificia Universidad Javeriana
  14. Dr Jane Dyson, University of Melbourne
  15. Mr Manuel Finelli, NATs Association, Bolivia
  16. Dr Peggy Froerer, Division of Anthropology, School of Social Sciences and Media, Brunel University London
  17. Dr Lourdes Gaitan, Group of Sociology of Childhood and Adolescence
  18. Dr Jason Hart, University of Bath
  19. Dr Neil Howard, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute; Editor Beyond Trafficking and Slavery, Open Democracy
  20. Dr Roy Huijsmans, International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam
  21. Mr Prem Kumar, Youth Charitable Organization, India
  22. Dr Cath Larkins representing the Centre for Children and Young People’s Participation , The Centre for Children and Young People’s Participation, University of Central Lancashire
  23. Professor Manfred Liebel, International Academy Berlin and Freie Universität Berlin
  24. Dr Stanford Mahati, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa
  25. Dr Brian Milne, Independent Consultant
  26. Dr Virginia Morrow, Deputy Director of Young Lives, Associate Professor & Senior Research Officer, Department of International Development, University of Oxford
  27. Dr William Myers, Retired from United Nations (UNICEF and ILO), University of California, Davis, Chair International Institute for Child Rights and Development,
  28. Ms Claire O'Kane, Independent Consultant
  29. Dr Samuel Okyere, University of Nottingham; Editor Beyond Trafficking and Slavery, Open Democracy
  30. Dr Alphonce Omolo, Lensthru Consultants, Kenya
  31. Professor Gina Porter, Durham University
  32. Professor Heidrun Schultze, Hochschule RheinMain, University of Applied Sciences, Weisbaden
  33. Professor Spyros Spyrou, European University - Cyprus
  34. Dr Jessica Taft, University of California
  35. Mr Fabrizo Terenzio representing Enda , Enda Tiers Monde
  36. Professor Nigel Thomas representing the Centre for Children and Young People’s Participation , The Centre for Children and Young People's Participation, School of Social Work, Care and Community, University of Central Lancashire
  37. Professor Rachel Thomson, University of Sussex
  38. Professor Kay Tisdall, Centre for Research on Families and Relationships, U of Edinburgh
  39. Dr Ben White, Institute of Social Studies (the Hague) & University of Amsterdam

Additional Signatories

  1. Dr Antonella Invernizzi, Independent Consultant
  2. Professor Anne Trine Kjørholt, Norwegian Centre for Child Research, Norwegian University of Science and Technology
  3. Professor Deborah Levison, Humphrey School of Public Affairs, Univ. of Minnesota
  4. Ms Carmen Ponce, Group for the Analyis of Development, Lima
  5. Dr Afua Twum-Danso Imoh, Department of Sociological Studies, University of Sheffield

  1. Priscilla Alderson, The Politics of Childhoods Real and Imagined: Volume 2: Practical Application of Critical Realism and Childhood Studies, vol. 2 (London: Routledge, 2016)., chapter 11. ↩︎
  2. Girls, for example. See Gina Porter et al., "Moving Young Lives: Mobility, Immobility and Inter-Generational Tensions in Urban Africa," Geoforum 41 (2010). ↩︎
  3. See Judith Ennew, "Why the Convention Is Not About Street Children," in Revisiting Children's Rights: 10 Years of the Un Convention on the Rights of the Child, ed. Deirdre Fottrell (The Hague, etc.: Kluwer Law International, 2000). ↩︎
  4. Roy Gigengack, "Young, Damned and Banda: The World of Young Street People in Mexico City, 1990-1997" (University of Amsterdam, 2006). ↩︎
  5. Alphonce Omolo, Violence against Children in Kenya: An Ecological Model of Risk Factors and Consequences, Responses and Projects (Münster: Waxmann, 2015). ↩︎
  6. e.g. Rainer Gross, Britta Landfried, and Susilowati Herman, "Height and Weight as a Reflection of the Nutritional Situation of School-Aged Children Working and Living in the Streets of Jakarta," Social Science and Medicine 43, no. 4 (1996); Rachel Baker, "Runaway Street Children in Nepal: Social Competence Away from Home," in Children and Social Competence: Arenas of Action, ed. I. Hutchby and J. Moran-Ellis (London: Falmer Press, 1998); Rachel Burr, Vietnam's Children in a Changing World (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2006)., 114, 72 ↩︎
  7. Antonella Invernizzi, "Street-Working Children and Adolescents in Lima: Work as an Agent of Socialization," Childhood 10, no. 3 (2003); Lesley A. Sharp, "The Work Ideology of Malagasy Children: Schooling and Survival in Urban Madascar," Anthropology of Work Review 17, no. 1 & 2 (1996)., 37-8; Dena Aufseeser, "Limiting Spaces of Informal Learning among Street Children in Peru," in Informal Education, Childhood and Youth: Geographies, Histories, Practices, ed. Sarah Mills and Peter Kraftl (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014); "'Managing’ Poverty: Care and Control in the Everyday Lives of Peruvian Street Children" (University of Washington, 2012)., 261; Thomas A. Offit, Conquistadores De La Calle: Child Street Labor in Guatemala City (Austin: Texas University Press, 2008); see also Jenny Huberman, Ambivalent Encounters: Childhood, Tourism, and Social Change  in Banaras, India, ed. Myra Bluebond-Langner, Rutgers Series in Childhood Studies (New Brunswick: Rtgers University Press, 2012). ↩︎
  8. Einar Hanssen, "Finding Care on the Street: Processes in the Careers of Sri Lankan Street Boys," Childhood 3, no. 2 (1996); see also Burr, Vietnam's Children in a Changing World., 113, 115-116 ↩︎
  9. Dena Aufseeser, "'Managing’ Poverty: Care and Control in the Everyday Lives of Peruvian Street Children." ↩︎
  10. Benno Glauser, "Street Children: Deconstructing a Construct," in Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood (2nd Edition), ed. Allison James and Alan Prout (London: Falmer Press, 1997)., 163 ↩︎


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