Who are they?
Street children describes children who live or work on the streets. Some of these children live with their families (who are also living on the streets). Other street children live and work on the streets but do not live with their families. The term can also include child labourers, sexually-exploited children, and war-affected children, who may also be forced to live or work on the street. The children's relationship to the street varies. Some live and work with their parents on the streets. Some return home at night, but work independently during the day. Others maintain their family contacts, but are forced to spend most of their time on the streets and return home once in a while to spend a night with their family. Still others sleep and live entirely on the streets of the big cities without any family contact at all: often they have left home due to abuse. They sleep in abandoned buildings, under bridges, in doorways, or in public parks.
How many are there?
The global figure for children living and working on the world's city streets is likely well over 100 million children. And that number rises every day. About 40 percent of them are homeless. These children may support only themselves or their homeless families. The other 60 percent work on the streets to support their families, but have a home to return to.
These young people range in age from three to eighteen. Most of them are in developing countries. Street children are mainly boys, but the number of girls is increasing.
Why are they on the streets?
Children and youth may take to the streets for a number of reasons including war, poverty, urbanization, political instability, natural disasters, family breakdown, AIDS, rebellion against their parents, insufficient income, and violence including physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Children who live and work on the streets are often the victims of violence, sexual exploitation, neglect, chemical addiction, and human rights violations. For example, street children throughout the world are abused—and sometimes murdered—by police, other authorities, and individuals who are supposed to protect them. Those with some family links spend their lives on the streets selling trinkets, shining shoes, begging, working with their families, or washing cars to supplement their families' income. Most never go beyond the fourth grade. Those without direct family contact often create family and security by living in groups with other children. They may also sell small items, or undertake manual labour. When there are no other means of survival, street children with and without formal family contacts may resort to petty theft and prostitution for survival. Street kids may prostitute themselves because they need the money, because they are looking for praise they can't get anywhere else, or because their families, or family contacts, force them into this activity. They are extremely vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS. Child prostitutes can be boys or girls, but are more often girls. Up to 90 percent of street children use psychoactive substances, including medicines, alcohol, cigarettes, heroin, cannabis, and readily available industrial products such as shoe or cobblers' glue and paint thinner. The potent fumes of these cheap and easily available inhalants hit a part of the child's brain that suppresses feelings of hunger, cold, and loneliness. Solvent-based narcotics offer them an escape from reality. But they must exchange their temporary highs for physical and psychological problems—hallucinations, pulmonary edema (fluid accumulation and swelling in the lungs), kidney failure, irreversible brain damage and, in some cases, sudden death.
How can we help?
In Latin America and the Caribbean, the streets are home to millions of children who work as shoe-shiners, rag-pickers, vendors, and sex-trade workers. While the sex trade is one of the worst forms of child labour, the other forms of work can vary in the harm or benefits they bring to street-involved children. These children are often in conflict with the law, and may be institutionalized for long periods of time. (CIDA's Action Plan on Child Protection)
Today's youth will become the largest generation to enter adulthood. By 2025, six out of ten urban dwellers are expected to be under 18 years of age. Ignoring the rights of street children threatens human development around the world.
Street children deserve respect. They are valuable members of society. Some street children run thriving businesses, supporting themselves, their families, and other children. We must hear their voices, listen to their stories, and learn from them. We need to recognize that children and youth are full of imagination, desires, and hopes and that they must be involved in decisions that affect their lives.
They need access to counselling, information, knowledge, skills, and a supportive community to protect themselves from harm, help them move off the street, and take back control of their future. They also need better access to health and safety services—medical care, legal aid, and food—and business training so they can develop safe and more profitable ways of earning money.
"We street children are by ourselves; we have no one in front or behind who cares for us. There is no one to cry for us when we die. Yet we are free to do what we want. Yes, I was a street child and you are one, but you need to get rid of these thoughts in your mind of being a street child. You need to determine in your own mind, by yourself, to do something for yourself that will be important for your future. We are sure that if you work hard and think positively, you will definitely reach the peak of success one day." Rewat Timilshina, ex-street child and member of Jagaran, a street children's organization in Nepal (excerpted from Action Plan on Child Protection)
These children are not just victims—they are survivors. They often show incredible resilience in overcoming or living in the midst of adversity. They have developed coping mechanisms for caring for themselves, and for friends or family members. These children are active participants in their families, workplaces, and communities.
But, without improved protection and promotion of their rights together with increased opportunities, many of these children are likely to remain marginalized throughout their childhood and into adulthood.
Links to information and organizations involved with street children:
Read articles at Children's House in Cyberspace
Visit the PANGAEA Street Children Worldwide Resource Library: a collection of articles from countries throughout the world, an extensive list of organizations working with street children, and links to other worldwide resources.
Human Rights Watch
Free the Children
Save the Children
The Youth Advocate Program International
UN Special Session on Children
A WORLD FIT FOR US Message from the Children's Forum, delivered to the UN General Assembly Special Session on Children on 8 May 2002.
Oneworld Street Children Guide — this guide provides information that will challenge myths and propose alternatives on street children.