About street children


by Ton Hendriks

"The phenomenon of street children, a product of the modern urban environment, represents one of humanity's most complex and serious challenges. No country and virtually no city anywhere in the world today is without the presence of street children. Both developed and developing countries face a broad spectrum of problems posed by these children, yet few steps have been taken to address the issue." (Causes and Characteristics of the Street Child Phenomenon: A Global Perspective, Johann Le Roux, and Cheryl Sylvia Smith, 1998).

South Africa, Johannesburg, Hillbrow. In the centre of this big city is the highly dangerous district, Hillbrow and right in the centre of this district is the Van-der-Merwe Street. Here you will find Twilight Children, one of the biggest organizations for street children in Johannesburg. Today I am unable to take photos in the street, because the food supply van has broken down and the car of the outreach workers, who wanted to guide me, has to be used today for the transportation of meat and groceries. So I stay in the street children’s shelter, and hang around in the playground.
Moeketsi, one of the boys living in the shelter, is always very happy to see me. He runs towards me and asks right away: “Ton, do you want to read aloud from the encyclopaedia?” Inside the classroom we find the remnants of what once was an encyclopaedia dating from 1965 and we decide to take the letter ‘L’ and read the article about President Lincoln, which seems quite apt since he fought for the emancipation of the black people in the times of apartheid and slavery in the United States. 14 year-old former street boy Moeketsi absorbs everything with huge attention and after I had finished reading he appears to have remembered everything perfectly. He looks up, turns his face to me and says loudly: “You are the first person in my whole life, who really loves me.”

Children of the street are homeless children who live and sleep on the streets in urban areas. They are totally on their own, living with other street children or homeless adult street people.

Who exactly is a street child? UNICEF gives the following definition, making a distinction between two kinds of street children - Children of the street and Children on the street. “Children of the street are homeless children who live and sleep on the streets in urban areas. They are totally on their own, living with other street children or homeless adult street people. On the other hand, children on the street earn their living or beg for money on the street and return home at night. They maintain contact with their families. This distinction is important since ‘Children on the street’ have families and homes to go to at night, whereas children of the street live on the streets and probably lack the parental, emotional and psychological support normally found in parenting situations.”
Strictly speaking, children on the street cannot be called street children. They are asked to beg by their parents, but they still live with them at home. Children of the street are the real street children according to this definition. They live on the street without parental care. They have run away from home,have been thrown out of the house or abandoned by their parents, or are orphans with no place to go. Street children in the strict meaning of the word sleep outside, without a shelter.
The problem with the above definitions is that they are not able to describe the complex reality in many countries. There are many different variations. In India whole families live in the streets. They are the so-called pavement dwellers. Here children live with their parents, but at the same time they sleep in the streets.
“The term ‘street child’, has now been recognized by researchers as a social construction reflecting society’s disquiet at children who are very visible, but who are deemed ‘out of place’. It has come under increasing criticism as labelling and stigmatizing due to its connotations of delinquency in many societies, and for this reason is disliked by children themselves. For this reason some organizations have started to use terms such as ‘street active children’ or ‘street involved children’. The causes of street involvement are complex, multi-faceted, context-specific and personal. They operate at all levels: internationally, nationally, at the level of the district, community, family and the child.” This has been stated by the Consortium for Street Children in their 2011 report, in which they acknowledge the complexity of the definition of street children on a global scale.
Street children are present in all countries of the world, but in developing countries the number of street children is significantly higher and the problems are far more numerous. In rich countries we often use the term homeless youth: they do not live with their parents, but neither do they live in the streets. Most of the time, it is just too cold to live outside, so they often remain in squatted houses and the like but seldom in the street. Street children are commonly aged between 10 and 15 years old, but at least one quarter of the street children are between ages 6 - 10 and the other quarter is aged above 16. Legally, we refer to the word child up to the age of 18, but there are many street children above 18, whom we might refer to as street youth.
The most important aspect of street children is that they live without parental care and that they are physically, economically, psychologically and emotionally totally relying on themselves. The street child has the feeling that nobody loves him.
Or, to put it in the words of Peter Taçon in a UNICEF report (1981): “He is the child most rejected and, at the same time, most in need of acceptance; the most difficult for adults to love and the most in need of adult affection; the least trusted and the most in need of trust; the most abandoned and the most in need of family; the most repressed and the most deserving of freedom; the most forgotten and the most worthy of our remembrance; the least helped and the most in need; the least fed and the most hungry; the dirtiest and the least able to find a good bath.”

Ghana, Accra, Kantamanto market. One of the biggest markets of the city has been built on the rails that lead to the main station of Accra. Little stalls are placed halfway across the rail track and a part of the merchandise lies negligently on the rails. Only at the very moment a train approaches, market goods are taken away, after which you see here actually is a railway. Gideon, a street worker from the CAS, Catholic Action for Street Children, an organisation founded by the Dutch priest Jos van Dinther, asks me how many girls I want to have for my shoot. “Not so many at the same time”, I reply, because taking one portrait takes quite some time. Some minutes later Gideon comes back with ten girls, almost all of them with a big bowl on their heads, with which they carry vegetables. “Let’s send six of them back”, I say, because I can only photograph and interview four girls today. I start the photo shoot with Nafisa. Boldly and proudly she keeps the big bowl motionless on her head. She is sweating, but the tropical heat does not seem to bother her. I install my mobile studio flash on the tripod and start the shoot.
The market girls are referred to as Kayayoos, meaning porters, and in fact they are slaves of the market salesmen. For a completely negligible fee they carry vegetables, onions, rice and the like from early morning to dusk. Almost all Kayayoos come from the poor rural areas of Ghana, mostly from the Islamic north of the country. They left their parental homes to try their luck in the capital, mostly driven by extreme poverty. Nafisa earns $ 1 a day and she hopes to buy a sewing machine with her salary in order to start a new career in her village. There are about 10,000 Nafisas in Accra, as estimates go, but nobody knows exactly how many they are.
Jos van Dinther, who has already been in Ghana for more than 30 years, estimates the number of street children, girls and boys together, to be seventeen thousand (17,000). He quickly adds that ten years ago this number was only seven thousand (7000) - more than double in ten years. Several years after my visit, on the website of CAS the numbers appear to have increased again: “The latest census conducted in Accra in 2009, shows that the number has increased to over 35,000 plus. When the urban poor and those born on the street are included the total is 61,492.”(2009)
In 1989 UNICEF estimated the total number of street children to be a hundred million. This is very often quoted but the question is how accurate is this figure? Even though it is widely criticized as being exaggerated, it is still blindly cited by journalists, investigators and NGOs. UNICEF still puts this high figure on their website as one of its estimates, even though with a caveat: “The exact number of street children is impossible to quantify, but it is likely to number in the tens of millions or higher, some estimates place the figure as high as 100 million. It is likely that the numbers are increasing as the global population grows and as urbanization continues apace - six out of ten urban dwellers are expected to be below 18 years of age by 2005.” (UNICEF)

The question often asked is if the number of street children is rising or not. One certain fact is that since 1980 there has been a dramatic rise.

The UN puts the numbers even higher: “According to UN sources there are up to 150 million street children in the world today. Chased from home by violence, drug and alcohol abuse, the death of a parent, family breakdown, war, natural disaster or simply socio-economic collapse, many destitute children are forced to eke out a living on the streets, scavenging, begging, hawking in the slums and polluted cities of the developing world.” (UNESCO)
But how many street children can there possibly be worldwide? Let’s do the math. In Mumbai the number of street children is estimated at 10,000. India has at least 10 big cities like Mumbai. So that would mean there would be about 100,000 street children in the whole of India. Imagine that all of the Asian countries have the same amount of children, which probably is an overestimate. There are 56 Asiatic countries, so that would make 5.6 million street children in Asia. If you would run this calculation for the continents of Africa, South America, and Europe, then the total sum would be some 22.4 million. A figure around or under 20 million would be more realistic.
The question often asked is if the number of street children is rising or not. One certain fact is that since 1980 there has been a dramatic rise. However, in the last decade there has been a rise in awareness and there have been more investigations, so this might also be responsible for the higher figures. But if you look at accurate local counting such as in Accra, the numbers are definitely on the rise. As put by CAS: “These statistics show an alarming rise in the number of children who live, work and spend at least some of their time on the streets of Accra.”
Even though the problem is huge, there is no scientific basis for the estimate of 100 million. In the report of State of the Worlds Street Children by the Consortium of Street Children, it is stated that, according to anthropologist Judith Ennew, the numbers run to tens of millions, which come close to my own calculation. The report justly states that a higher number would falsely arouse political debate, as higher number appeal more to politicians. But, are 20 million children living in the streets worldwide – more than the entire population of Netherlands - not enough cause for concern?

India, Mumbai, Wadala, the Dadar station. Together with Sujeet, a boy who lives in the Don Bosco institute, I climb over the wall of the Dadar Station. Days before, I had been arrested three times by the police for ‘taking pictures in public without permission’, which every time had been countered by the street boys who helped me, saying we would not supply them with a bonus on their monthly salary. Everybody is very nervous in the city because just days earlier a group of Pakistani terrorists killed close to 200 people in an attack, involving one of the main stations. So we don’t want to attract the attention of the public and guards, which is almost impossible in a city of 18 million, utterly curious people.
We are going to photograph Kumar, a boy of 13 years old, who picks garbage between the rails. I ask if Kumar is going to stand near the rails as I make to place my heavy camera on the tripod. “We don’t have time for that Mr. Hendriks, says Sujeet in stress. “I hear already people shouting that we have to leave.” I bend down, look through the viewfinder and try to make a nice composition. Kumar does not have a proper pose and does not get the concept I have of his portrait. After 10 exposures he starts to understand my directions. He drapes the big garbage bag over his shoulder and poses like a real Bollywood star. While some people shout that they will warn the police, we climb again over the fence. Kumar says he is ashamed that he had to pose in dirty clothes and asks me if he can get new clothes. We go to a small shop near the station and buy a complete new outfit for him. Kumar’s smile is big. He looks wonderful now. But his story is not so easy dressed up. His father was a land labourer and earned too little to care for him. He therefore advised his son to leave the house and try his luck in Mumbai. Now he earns less than $ 1 a day by collecting garbage. However bad this may sound, this is not the worst part of the story. Kumar is an addict and sniffs continuously in his little piece of cloth, drenched in thinner. This costs him almost all of his meagre salary and keeps him perpetually in the cycle of poverty. In addition, it damages his brain, making it almost impossible for him to go to school again.
Poverty is one of the most important causes of the phenomenon of street children. Poverty pushes them to the street, often encouraged or forced by their parents. Almost all children who end up in the streets come from poor families of lower class and from the poorest regions of their countries, and they often belong to the less privileged ethnic groups. In Bolivia children come from the poor villages in the mountains of the Aymara Indians; in Turkey they come from the poor, often Kurdish eastern parts; in Romania the majority of the children are from Roma descendants. In Ghana they come from the poor province of the dry north; in South-Africa they come from the poor areas around big cities where mostly only black people live; in Mongolia they often come from the nomadic families that live in yurts; and in India they come from literary everywhere, because all India is poor, but often they are descendants of the lower casts. But can poverty be held as the only cause?

Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar, Peace Avenue. On the pavement of the biggest shopping street sits a young boy in almost impeccable white sportswear, with a big empty box before him. I propose to my local guide and interpreter Sonny to photograph this boy. Sonny doesn’t think this is a good idea. “I don’t think he is a street boy. He is just begging here for his parents and goes safely home tonight.” But when I insist Sonny asks the boy about his life, and if he sleeps in the street, the boy answers in affirmative. We agree to photograph him in a secluded spot behind old Soviet flats partly not to attract curious spectators and in part because I do not know how the police here will react to obvious attention for non-touristic subjects. The boy poses as a real Genghis Khan, unmoved and sturdy, heroic and emotionally detached. Sonny still does not believe he has a strong story or that he is a real street boy. The sportswear looks too neat according to him. “Maybe he wants to pose because we offered him money,” he insists. But I insist we go on. When we interview him on a bench in a nearby park, the story of the 12-year-old Munkh-Chuluun appears to be more tragic than we could imagine. “My father murdered my mother while he was drunk. He said he would kill me too if I told the police. I then decided to leave our yurt in the countryside and flee to the city. That was one year ago.”
Almost all of the children that end up in the street come from broken families, often have a father, who is addicted to drugs or alcohol, and have been harassed by their father or their stepfather, or have been bullied by a jealous stepmother. In many cases, one of the parents of a street child has passed away, sometimes through a tragic traffic accident, sometimes killed by a disease, such a cholera or HIV. The latter occurs more frequently in African countries.
Many investigators identify the father figure as one of the main social causative factors leading to the phenomenon of street children: either he is absent or he is abusive. In many African countries the father is traditionally not concerned with the education of his children and in many occasions he does not even live with the family. Mothers of street children are often too young and are unable to support their education or are faced with a poverty situation when the father becomes addicted or runs away.
When I ask Norman Tshikuvne, the outreach-manager of Twilight Children in Johannesburg to name the causes of the phenomenon of street children, he comes up with this list: abuse of children by parents, broken families, and child trafficking - where the children are used for prostitution and drug dealing. Norman adds that of all the different causes he discerns poverty as the root cause. In Egypt, I ask Ismael Abd El Aziz, an employee of Hope Village the same question. He lists divorce, abuse of children by their parents and poverty as the main causes. I ask UyungaZalaa-Uul, of Save the Children in Ulaanbaatar the same question. She offers the abuse of parents as the main issue, giving rise to street children. “In Mongolia we have the tradition that you should beat children when they don’t listen. The parents have been beaten themselves and see this as a common practice. But children of nowadays cannot accept this anymore and therefore run away.”
The tradition of physical punishment is not limited to Mongolia: in most parts of the world, children are beaten as a means of correction. This beating becomes outright abuse when it is executed by an alcoholic father. And the fact is that many fathers become alcoholic when they are poor and jobless. Poverty and family disruption are intertwined and the children are the victims. This is one of the reasons that many NGOs in developing countries, like India and Cambodia have recently begun with education programs in the rural areas. By educating the parents, they aim to prevent the rise of street children and have to a large extent been successful.

Bolivia, La Paz, near Iglesia de San Fransisco. On the stairs of the shelter for street girls sits Ruth. She is 16 years old and has a one-year old baby, a present from a street boy. Ruth ended up in the street because her father, a pensioned miner abused her regularly, not hindered by her mother or even supported by her sister. When Ruth was eight years she left home and ended up in the street. “I begged to get some money but in the end it did not work out. Then I started to steal small thing like watches from market stalls and wallets from market visitors. From the money I made, I bought myself food. I find it miserable to steal because it is against my own principles. I still regret it very much, when I think about it but then there was nothing that I could do.”
The life of a street child is tragic on different levels. To begin with, he has no physical shelter, but if we look deeper into the matter, this appears to be a side-effect, however strange that may sound. Children sleep on various spots in the city, often in the very centre. They form small groups, that sometimes become criminal gangs, but most of the time these are groups of friends that give mutual protection. In Rio de Janeiro many children sleep under the flyovers, that protect them against the sun and the rain, as well from passers-by; in Accra they often sleep in the market underneath a stall; in Bucharest and Ulaanbaatar they sleep under the ground in the tunnels of the heating pipelines; in Istanbul and Mumbai they sleep in parks. In La Paz, the children built a complete little village of huts fabricated by bricks and iron plates.
The basic human rights of the child are almost continually violated. In many cases, the main culprits appear to be the police, who should be there to protect them. The police know very well where the street children are hiding and often hold raids in their makeshift dwellings - as they say to catch thieves - and often take away all possessions of the children in order to resell them again. Children in different countries told me that they did not find this the most tragic. They suffer more from the fact that they are beaten savagely and humiliated by the police, depriving them from the basic feeling of safety and dignity. In some cases, they are killed. When visiting Rio de Janeiro, children and street workers alike told the story of the policeman who shot a child. The child did not die, ended up in the hospital and was shot again fatally by the same police officer.
Citizens treat street children as criminals, which is why they are not welcome to places where they might make little earnings. Most citizens are full of prejudice and fear the not-so-well-dressed and sometimes dirty looking children. But it is amazing how clean and neatly dressed they can look though most of the time, and when you talk to them it appears they all try to do their best to look as fine as possible, knowing that their looks highly influence the peoples’ judgement. Basically their own feelings of identity, of which they have been deprived, are the most important reason why they try to look attractive, particularly street girls.
Street children often try to earn their own income; child labour is prevalent among street children. In Mumbai children often have a little job as dishwashers at the big wedding parties. In many countries like Bolivia and Cambodia they work as shoe shiners. In Ghana most girls work at markets and the boys sell shoes and other items. Only if a job does not turn out favourably do they turn to begging or in the worst case, stealing and robbing, which they feel is very humiliating. As put by Johann Le Roux and Cheryl Sylvia Smith in their study, Causes and Characteristics of the Street Child Phenomenon: A Global Perspective: “The longer children spend on the streets, the more likely it is that they will become involved in criminal activities; but the popular beliefs that the streets are ‘schools of crime’ and that all street children inevitably become criminals are not true. However, they are often guilty of antisocial or self-destructive behaviour. This self-destructive behaviour frequently results from a lack of knowledge, rather than from negative and fatalistic attitudes.”

Romania, Bucharest, near Gara du Nord. In the dining hall of Victory Outreach, a street children centre run by Dutch Christians, Georgana, 11 years old, loudly counts: “Una, două, trei, patru…” She really tries hard to get me to count to ten in Romanian. She is keen on my pronunciation and corrects me like a real teacher. Today I am going to photograph her near the railway station, where many street children have their habitat. After the shoot we go to eat in a shabby restaurant with an equally shabby service. Here, she tells her story in extensive detail. On a fateful day, her father was imprisoned, and Georgana was forced to beg by her mother in order to keep the household going. She was not allowed to go to school anymore and up to this day she has remained illiterate. If she did not collect enough money by begging she was locked up in the bathroom with ropes around her arms. “I hate my mother”, she says quietly and apparently without emotion, “Not for what she has done to me, but mainly because she never hugged me.”
Street children have undergone a traumatic lack of love, and during their early years they have lived in a total deprivation of warmth and security. This beats them more than the absence of a physical shelter. They are psychologically traumatized, which undermines their self-esteem for the rest of their lives. Some children find it hard to talk about it and many interviews I tried to have with them have been stopped for this reason. Some children are chronically depressed, which often results in an aggressive behaviour. As long as they live in the streets, there is no possibility of dealing with their past because they have the present situation to contend with.
Another major problem with which street children have to deal is the total absence of education. Children that come to the street at the age of eight years are almost all illiterate, which is disastrous for their future. All children with whom I spoke eagerly wanted to study and learn a trade. There are many organizations that understand this, but often they lack the funds to implement a real good programme of education. In Accra they pick out the most talented boys and let them go to school, but often that is only 1% of the total amount of street boys in the shelter. In Don Bosco in Mumbai all children who live in the shelter go to school, but these are only 60 children out of the 10,000 that live in the streets of Mumbai.
So worldwide there are 20 million street children that grow up without any education. This not only creates an individual problem for them, but also creates a problem for the economy of the developing countries. Education is one of the major human rights children have in theory. For many street children, eager for knowledge as they are, this does not apply.

Turkey, Istanbul, near Galata Köprüsü. Yusuf Kulca, the president of Umut Çocukları Derneği, (Children of Hope) calls some children and asks them if they want to be photographed by me. We had just had an extensive interview about the situation in Turkey. He explained many children come from poor and often jobless families from the Eastern parts. Many children feel humiliated by their parents, who were not able to cope with their social situation. This is one of the causes of a high rate of violence among the boys who stroll through Turkey’s capital - recently, several street boys have been murdered by their fellow kids. One of the boys comes to me. From a distance I smell the glue fragrance that surrounds him. With a bewildered look he pulls out his huge knife, a weapon he always wears with him. Like thousands of street children in Istanbul he sniffs his glue through a cloth he continually holds in his hand. The glue lets him forget his sorrow, his hunger and makes him violent and aggressive. I say I won’t photograph him with the knife, after which he gently puts the weapon back in his pocket. He poses meekly, but does not show any emotion.
One of the most alarming facts of the recent years is a widespread drug use among the street children. The WHO reports in a survey that between 25% and 90% of street children use some sort of psychoactive substances: cannabis, LSD, opiates, like heroin, nicotine, alcohol, benzodiazepines, barbiturates, inhalants, like aerosol sprays, butane gas, petrol, glue, paint thinners, solvents, amyl nitrite (poppers).
Almost all of the children in all countries I have visited sniff thinner or glue. As to the reason for their drug abuse, the children say that it gives them peace of mind and it makes them forget the past. But the drug-use also give them hallucinations, destroys their memory capabilities, causes coordination problems and as well as an uncontrolled aggressive behaviour. In a medical investigation in South Africa abnormal deviations are found in EEG scans of the children. The worst problem is that in recent years these drugs have been replaced by the far more dangerous drugs crack and heroine.
The journal, Addiction, published a systematic review of 50 studies on street kids conducted in 22 countries. Dr. Paula Braitstein, the senior author of the study, calls the drug use a hidden epidemic: “They’re so detrimental to a person’s health,” she writes. “They cause really a lot of short term effects, for example, sudden heart failure. They cause teratogenic effects. So if a girl is pregnant – and she’s sniffing – it gets passed on to her baby and causes birth defects of various kinds. It causes a huge amount of cognitive effects. Basically, their brains become impaired. The substances in the glue basically just kill your brain cells.”
One of the side effects of drug use is a high risk of violence among street children. By the uncontrolled behaviour enhanced by drugs, children can become dangerous to the public and themselves. But the violence among street children does not originate with drug abuse itself. It is the result of the violence and neglect they have endured and the risky life they encounter in the streets. Often, violence is a part of the natural habitat in which the children grow up. This violence is again the cause of low self-esteem and drug use.

Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, Rodaviária. The rain has just stopped and the traffic buzzes loudly on the background. I set up my lighting equipment and focus on the girl standing proudly before the camera. Even though car horns blare loudly, 13 year-old Tatiana poses, fully concentrated like a real fashion model. Like many street girls in Brazil she is scantily dressed, ultra short trousers and a bikini-like shirt. When I ask after the shoot if she does ‘the program’, a Brazilian term for prostitution, she utterly denies it, like all the girls in the Rodaviária group deny this in response to the same question. I am happy for her, either that she is not involved in this humiliation, or that her self-esteem commands her to deny it.
But unfortunately, the facts are against her. Brazil has the highest rate of child prostitution in Latin America and the second highest rate in the world. The Brazilian Centre for Children and Adolescents has estimated that there are 500,000 children involved in prostitution in Brazil. Child prostitution is closely linked to the much wider phenomenon of child trafficking, which is not only limited to street children. However, this group is more vulnerable to traffickers as they are without parental care, living in the streets and often under the influence of drugs. It is a brutal form of slavery that a lot of street girls, starting from the age of 12 have to suffer. Investigators from different organisations estimate the number of sex-enslaved girls in Brazil at 500,000 and in India at 400,000.
The UNICEF report, ‘The State of the World's Children 2006: Excluded and Invisible’ states: “Children who are victims of exploitation are arguably among the most invisible as their abusers will prevent them from accessing services even if these are well publicised.” There are many organisations, like ECPAT, Fact Alliance, War child, Love 146, Sisha and Free a Girl that fight to end child prostitution and child trafficking worldwide.

Cambodia, Phnom Penh, Preah Sisowath Quay. While the motorcycles of the young students’ election campaign are loudly passing by, we start to photograph 15 years old Heng. He wants to pose with the blue flag of the opposition party in his hands, because he knows they help the poor people of Cambodia. Heng’s father left home in order to find a factory job in Thailand, leaving him with his mother and brothers behind. For years, he has not seen his father and misses him very much. The family structure Heng used to have and which gave him safety, fell apart. So he decided to try his own luck in the big city of Phnom Penh. Heng always sleeps outside along the Mekong River or underneath a Chinese footstall, but when it rains he tries to enter an Internet shop that usually stays open all night. So he can play on the computer and check his Facebook account. Heng misses his family but finds the life in the city very exciting at the same time.
Is there a relation between our flat screen televisions, our cheap garments, our iPhones, our trendy shoes and the phenomenon of street children? The phenomenon of street children, on the present scale in developing countries is not that old historically, maybe some 20 to 30 years. But street children have existed far longer. In the 19th and early 20th Centuries, street children and child labour were prevalent, not in Asia or Africa but in the Western world, in cities like London and New York.
The Scottish photographer John Thompson photographed street children in London in 1878. At the end of the 19th century there were numerous, homeless, destitute children living on the streets of London. Many children were turned out of home and left to fend for themselves at an early age and many more ran away because of ill treatment. In her book The Victorian Town Child, Pamela Horn writes: “At the beginning of Victoria’s reign the number of youngsters who through poverty, family hardship, or criminality found themselves on the edges of respectability, was growing rapidly. It was the unfortunate by-product of an expanding and fragmented industrialized and urbanized society. In 1848 Lord Ashley referred to more than thirty thousand 'naked, filthy, roaming lawless and deserted children, in and around the metropolis'.”
There are parallels in history. In the 19th century we saw the rise of the industrial revolution, which attracted many labourers from the countryside to the big cities, and caused huge migrations from the poor regions of Europe, escaping to the promise of America. In that same period there was a rise in the proletarian labour class out of which street children emerged. The phenomenon of street children in London and other big European cities arose in the last decades of the 19th century. The labouring classes’ children were often badly treated by their parents – they had to work under harsh conditions to keep the family going and were not allowed to go to school – so they often ran away and ended up in the streets. The detailed descriptions, in books like Oliver Twist, of the position of street children, orphans and child labour in Victorian England by the novelist Charles Dickens accurately describe the era.
The industrial revolution of the 19thcentury resembles the present stage of economic development in many developing countries. Indeed, an industrial revolution in developing countries has taken place in recent times and this revolution is much faster and has more impact on the social environment of the affected people. This revolution, known as globalisation, has rapidly created a new global poverty. Many economists have acknowledged the new poverty as an outcome of the industrial advancement of developing countries, even though the matter is complex and no direct evidence can be given. Several studies confirm that globalization has been accompanied by increasing inequality and polarisation within developing countries. “Finally, whatever we conclude about income inequality, absolute income gaps are widening and will continue to do so for decades,” writes Robert Hunter Wade in the paper ‘Is Globalization Reducing Poverty and Inequality?’ (2004). Even though there is growth of average income and welfare in developing countries, many labourers who lack education and do not have access to well paid jobs see a decline in their income.
Roslyn Arlin Mickelson writes in her study Globalization, Childhood Poverty, and Education in the Americas: “Globalization is multidimensional in its effects. It creates great wealth, and as it spreads, its process challenges the state in new ways.” Advances in technology and communications beam information and U.S. popular culture into the lives of people throughout the developing worlds. So while globalization raises the standard of living for many, it also raises the expectations of what people consider the minimum standards for housing, education and medical care. Dreams of a better life, in conjunction with economic forces associated with industrialization, push people from rural areas and draw them to cities.”
The effects of globalization are largely favourable for the majority of Western countries. We buy cheaper clothes that come from collapsing factories in Bangladesh and flat screen TV’s, that have been made by workers in China who migrated from the rural areas to the metropolis.
“Globalization’s essential quality is the increased mobility of capital. Among the consequences of this mobility are the tendency for multinational firms to locate production and assembly plants across many countries, to obtain financing in the international capital markets, and to market goods and services worldwide. Telecommunications and computers create the material infrastructure that permits firms to conduct business independently of the physical location of the corporate.” With this observation,Mickelson also points out the downside of the globalization process for the developing countries.

Moeketsi has a brilliant idea. The next day is the national day of Traditional Cultures and that means everybody has a day off. With a good sense of theatrical drama he unrolls his plan. “Ton, do you know, since my birth I have never seen a monkey.” He points out that tomorrow is a perfect day to go to the Jo’burg Zoo. But the social workers of the shelter are against Moeketsi’s plan, out of fear that they will have to let all the children go. I try higher up in the hierarchy and ask the chief manager. He is a little easier and allows us to go together. In the Zoo, Moeketsi is full of joy and laughs out loud about the behaviour of the gorillas. He stares full of bewilderment at the bonobos, the baboons and the mandrill monkeys, but at the end of the day he looks serious and says: “We did not see the orang-utans.” He knows that the chance to come here again is utterly small. The shelter would not pay for it; neither would there be any parent to take him to the Zoo, nor would he himself have enough money to do so.
Globalization creates jobs and welfare, resulting in overall higher prices, but for the uneducated people, like farmers and nomads and lower class city dwellers who cannot profit from the new jobs, the costs of living become higher, while their income stagnates. But even though the poor people in the slums of the big cities see a diminution of their budget, the slums keep growing. The expectancy of welfare works like an irresistible magnet and poor families place their hope in big cities. LeRoux and Smith state that: “The dramatic increase in the number of street children has been linked to societal stress associated with rapid industrialization and urbanization.”
A survey of The Consortium, made in 2011, shares the same fear of the increase in the phenomenon of street children. “Organisations that participated in the survey feel that the causal factors of street involvement are likely to increase in scale over the coming years. Globally, economic downturns and the imbalance between economic development and population growth will continue to increase the risks of street involvement by children from families on the margins of survival in poor rural and urban areas. This will be exacerbated by climate change, which will make it increasingly difficult for families to maintain a viable livelihood in rural areas.”

Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, Lapa, the stairs of Selaron. On the famous stairs made by the artist Selaron, where Snoop Dogg shot his clip, I am going to photograph Jorge. The manager of São Martinho, the nearby shelter for street children, strongly advised against this shoot, as he was afraid I could be robbed. But today, Karine, a Brazilian photographer joins me and we take the risk. Jorge wears a yellow-blue T-shirt, which matches well with the same coloured tiles of the steps. It had just rained and the stairs are still wet. Jorge feels honoured that he is captured on this special spot. He left his parents’ house only two months ago. Jorge explains that his mother hit him daily. She just divorced his father, who ill-treated her on a daily basis. Jorge explains his decision as very difficult, but he does not feel totally alone because he brought his two brothers with him. Jorge, being new in the streets, says he begs honestly for his income, because he does not dare to steal, as the other boys do. He recalls that the other day, a street boy had been killed by another boy, just for a piece of bread. Jorge prays every day for a better future, as well as for his mother in the poor favela in the hills of Rio.
How does poverty produce a street child? There are many poor families where children live peacefully with their parents, so poverty alone is not a recipe for the phenomenon of street children. It needs two other factors: family disruption as has been mentioned before, e.g. divorce, death of parents, alcohol addiction and joblessness, as well as a disruption of family ties on a larger scale, the disappearance of the extended families and the traditional social network of the villages. Parents who go to the big cities have high expectations in terms of welfare, but are often faced with more poverty. The father, often a famer, a manual labourer, a nomad, and in most cases illiterate, does not have the right education to find jobs in the modern globalised industry. Out of frustration he often starts to drink, or becomes addicted to drugs or starts to gamble. The family becomes disrupted; the mothers are in despair and the children finally become the victims. Often children are faced with a divorce, after which the mothers remain alone without any form of income. Sometimes the child runs away by herself or is sent to beg by the mother, and in all cases the child never returns back home because the street has revealed its perilous freedom and fatal attraction.

“Close to the wall with the painted flag,” is the answer Moeketsi gives me, when I ask him where we shall take the picture. For my safety, a little crowd of shelter boys is going with us in the streets. Moeketsi understands well that he should not smile for the camera and he poses naturally when I push the release button. After the shoot he tells his story. His parents were already divorced before he was born and he never saw his father. Out of frustration and anger he started to wander in the streets with other boys and started to drink with the money he stole from his mother. “I hate my father,” he says, “because he never came to visit me. I often dream that I see him and that we play soccer together, but I am sure that will never happen.”
In Africa, Asia and South America a strong social coherence is established by the extended family. Parents and grandparents, uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces live together in villages. When one of the parents would have a personal problem, the child could always consult his other family members. In the case of divorce, the child often would go the grandparents or to an uncle and aunt. With the disappearance of the extended family as a result of the urbanization, this social network has also disappeared. In the big anonymous city, an abandoned child has to settle for the lonely street.
Here’s how they are all related: the globalised industry that produces our flat screen television, caused a migration from the rural area to big cities, caused a loss of social coherence, caused poor fathers to be frustrated, caused children to be abandoned. Thus globalization has a causative relation with the rising incidence of street children in developing countries. The street child is an undeniable by-product of the globalisation of industry and of our consumption of its products.

Egypt, Cairo, Face For Children Orphanage. The orphanage of Face is located at the border of endlessly vast Cairo, more than one hour from the city centre by taxi. The staff member gently explains to me that they are very willing to cooperate with me, but points out that taking pictures inside the orphanage is not allowed. I explain that I do not mind this, because I want to have the portraits taken outside in the street. Upon hearing this, the staff member exclaims in visible despair: “But it is strictly forbidden to shoot outside, the government does not allow any publicity about street children, in order not to scare off tourists.” But Mohammed is very willing to help me out and, together with the whole staff, we drive in the middle of the night to the rich district Maadi. Hidden behind a truck on an empty sidewalk, I photograph 12 year-old Nadeem. I’m only allowed 3 minutes. Nadeem is so happy about the attention he gets that after the interview, which for safety reasons we held inside the orphanage’s van, he kissed me on both cheeks.
Are the governments of the developing countries the bad guys in this story? When I put this question to Brother Jos van Dinther in Accra, he replies: “The government does almost nothing at all. For many years we are lobbying for more support to no avail.” When asked the same question, the manager of Prada, the circus for street children in Bucharest, answers: “On paper the government seems to do a lot, but it is not effective at all. The quality of the orphanages is very bad – the reason why many children flee to the streets again. The mental structure of the government is still communistic, even when they feel the pressure of Europe.”
The mindset of many governments reveals itself by the behaviour of their police. Almost all the children I interviewed spoke full of hatred about the police: the biggest enemy of all street children. The police should be the first to protect the street children against the abuse of adults, but they act to the contrary.
In many countries there is an absence of any social plan to re-socialize street children. Many governments do not know what to do about the phenomenon of street children and tend to ignore it. In many countries, like Brazil children are put in prison when found guilty of petty crimes without any rehabilitation program. Instead of locking up street children, governments should protect children against neglect and abuse of parents, drug dealers, and girl-traffickers. It is remarkable that all NGOs worldwide are supported and organised by rich countries. All their funds come from European and American countries. They are doing a good job and the employees have an admirable patience and commitment. It is a pity though that most NGOs are not aware of what the others are doing. They all seem to develop their own program. In La Paz they taught the street kids to work with computers, in Istanbul they had a so called wash machine program, in Cairo they taught the children to play, in South Africa the children learned pottery and the like. None of these programs were copied elsewhere. Most NGOs offered shelter to a limited number of street children, sometimes only 2% of the total street children population but only a few of the shelters also offered psychological counselling. And if there was one thing I saw in all these countries, it was the deep desire of the children to be heard and understood and to be counselled in their mental needs. The traumas they have to live with are huge and often underestimated. Happily there are interesting initiatives. Some street children shelters offer creative programs like painting, photography courses, theatre and dance. The soul of the street child needs to be cherished and fed with new energy that can enhance his identity and his self-esteem.
But apart from supporting NGOs the rich countries should also press the local governments to address the issue of street children themselves. What effect does it have when you send money and aid, if the children are left at the mercy of governments that do not recognize their human rights?
The Dutch government once sent a special training mission for the Afghan police, in order to help them make Afghanistan a safer place. This kind of mission could also apply to police forces in many developing countries. They could be trained to respect the children’s rights and needs. This recommendation has also been put in the report ‘Violence’ by the Consortium: “Juvenile justice policies should be reformed to introduce and sustain a non-violent culture of respect for children, including training for staff at all levels and imposing sanctions against individual staff infringing children’s rights.”
Childs Rights were adopted in 1959 and later again in 1989 by the United Nations, comprising 42 articles, encompassing all basic rights of children. On paper they look realistic and just. Special attention is given to the duty of governments regarding children. In the Rights stated in 1989, in which governments are involved, we read the following: “Governments must do all they can to fulfil the rights of every child. Governments must respect the rights and responsibilities of parents to guide and advise their child so that, as they grow, they learn to apply their rights properly. Governments must respect and protect a child’s identity and prevent their name, nationality or family relationships from being changed unlawfully. If a child has been illegally denied part of their identity, governments must act quickly to protect and assist the child to re-establish their identity. Governments must do all they can to ensure that children are protected from all forms of violence, abuse, neglect and mistreatment by their parents or anyone else who looks after them. Governments must provide extra money for the children of families in need. Governments must protect children from all other forms of exploitation that might harm them.”
For street children, the reality is quite different. Governments often neglect the issue of street children. Governments often ignore their duty to inform and support parents who are not able to educate their children, causing the children to go off into the streets. Governments often do not do enough to protect the identity of street children. They are not able to get an ID-card needed for work. On many occasions, they just ignore their existence. Governments allow their police to harass, beat, and rob street children. Governments seldom provide money to NGOs to help street children to get off the street. Many Governments do not do enough to fight against child trafficking and child abuse.
It is a fact that nowhere in the UN Children’s Rights is it stated that NGOs have any responsibility: only the governments concerned are stated as having the ultimate responsibly and it is clear that in many cases the governments neglect or underestimate the plight of street children.
It must be said that more and more governments of developing countries are beginning to acknowledge their responsibilities, but frequently do not supply enough financial and practical support to address the issue. As the Consortium states in their report, Still on the Street - Still Short of Rights: “The social sector is extremely poorly resourced in many countries. Government budgets for children’s care and protection and street involvement are extremely small.”
Governments should take the lead in defending the children’s rights, starting with supporting the parents of the children in order to prevent them from ending up in the street in the first place, and furthermore giving the street children a shelter, education and emotional counselling so they can create a bright future from the debris of their lost youth.

Moeketsi is thirsty. “Ton, shall we drink a cola?” We are going to the local steak house, have a cola and take a small meal as well. On the way back, passing jobless people, drug addicts and illegal refugees from Zimbabwe, Moeketsi has another brilliant idea. “Do you want to be my father?” he asks me sincerely, full of enthusiasm and without any restraint. With this brilliant request he sums up the dire needs of all street children worldwide.