If one ever gets into the city centre at an early hour they are bound to be met by the sight of a group of children huddled in groups sleeping on cardboard boxes with large plastic bags covering their bodies for the provision of warmth. Those who are lucky and have met a donor or two have a blanket, but for the majority it is the cold hard floor of a shop entrance that serves as a bed every night of the year unless of course if they have been thrown into juvenile prison for one ‘misdemeanour’ or another.
It is common place in most cities around Africa to see either a group of youth or one boy or girl roaming around asking for money, doing odd jobs, in a corner sniffing glue or getting harassed by the police or even another group of street children. They loiter around poorly dressed often barefoot looking sickly, they are seen yet unseen, pitied but alas poorly assisted and most of all struggling but unassisted.
The Resilient Pandemic
According to the World Bank, as of 2014 sub Saharan Africa has an average fertility rate of 5.0, this means a sizable number of children are born to one woman (approximately five children to one woman) and given the rampant poverty and debatably unstable social state of most African countries in relation to children and children’s rights, it is extremely likely that at some point caring for the children born becomes a burden for the parents. It is this factor that leads to the rising number of street children on the cities of the continent. Although a large number of children run from their homes to escape abusive relationships, in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo children are sent from their homes to go onto the streets to beg for money and scrounge for a living as a way of ensuring their survival since home will no longer be a viable source of support and food. With the high fertility rate and appalling economic state that the majority of African countries are in the number of children living off the streets is on the rise. The actual number of street children in most countries is a rough estimate usually made by NGO’s, it is hard to not notice an air of disinterest towards these children by respective African governments as the bulk of work is left to NGO’s which clothe, feed, train and rehabilitate as many of these children as the can on the limited resources available.
The children of the street face day to day challenges that range from simply finding money for a decent meal to protecting themselves from abuses of all kinds. While in countries like South Africa and Botswana finding food is less of a problem for the children, in Uganda, the DRC and other numerous African countries it is natural to find them living on leftovers and food rescued from trash cans. This is however not always the case as the same children are often involved during the day in one form of money generating enterprise or another, like some who are vendors and operate small stands in market places selling candies and other tiny edibles so as to eke out a living or those who carry luggage for bus passengers for a meagre pay-out. The money gained from these ventures is often not enough as the children often have dependents either in the form of other children with whom they have made coalitions or their families and in some cases get robbed by officers of the law. Those that have the chance to start small vending stalls are the ones that are better off as they face less intense abuse; with girls sex work is a sad but realistic option when one is a street child and at times rape is a more than common phenomenon, according to one of Kinshasa’s street children who ran from her home to evade being married off to an elderly man,
"I'd rather be in the streets and risk being sexually abused than be married to an old man," she said. "If I have to, I prefer being a sex worker to being a young wife."
Sexual abuse is not a rare occurrence for these children and paired with this sexual abuse is the physical ill-treatment that emanates from the very people that the children depend on for protection, the police.
In Uganda among other countries talk of brutality towards homeless children is often heard. These allegations are of course denied by the police in Kampala but stories from the children have been heard. According to a report made by human rights watch it has been revealed that in six Ugandan towns including Kampala government officials are frequently harassing and robbing homeless children, reports of being beaten and tied down and taken to police stations and finally remand homes without a charge being brought against the arrested children are also in circulation. The struggle to survive and integrate has created instead of a group of needy children seeking help earnestly, a pack of hungry wolves willing to do anything to take care of each other and keep themselves fed. It is easy to see the children more as a nuisance but it is simply the effect of the marginalisation and abuse that is rampant on the streets and this same effect has led some of them to crime, taking into the consideration the gangs of street kids that for years ruled the city centre of Harare snatching everything from sunglasses to phones from pedestrians.
Whether it is a bid to entertain themselves or an attempt to escape the day to day troubles of life on the street is unknown, but the majority if street kids around Africa and globally even are involved in drug abuse with glue marijuana and cigarettes being the ones in widest use. The immense use of drugs endangers these adolescents and leaves their health impaired. It is such a deep sited activity that most children after being taken from the streets have to undergo rehabilitative therapy to set aside the acquired taste. The rehabilitation of street children is something that child focused organisations have been trying to implement, and although results are often poorly progress is at times noted with some children turning from lives of crime and drug abuse and taking interest in technical work that the same organisations offer.
The Light That Is Not At The End Of The Tunnel
Street children in Kinshasa have taken to the radio in an attempt to air their views,, to share with their communities what life as a child of the street is how they got to the place they are. This is one of the most innovative ways to make people aware, to propagate an understanding that the children that they scurry away from in the streets and look upon with contempt are not vermin but human, just like them. The radio programme focused on street children was brought into action by Children's Radio Foundation, "Radio is incredibly cheap and easy to learn," said Clemence Petit-Perrot, a programme director at the Children's Radio Foundation. Numerous homes have been erected all around Africa in a gesture to show love for this group of society but the biggest thorn across all borders is the stigma that people have towards the scrawny unkempt children of the streets whose fate has been decided not by them but merely by chance, the only way to ever properly address the African street child is to be rid of the stigma and bring onto the stage governments with an agenda to develop Africa through its youth.