Essay about Street Children by Ton Hendriks

Hillbrow, Johannesburg, South Africa

In the center of the big city is the notorious Hillbrow district, and right in the center of this district is Van der Merwe Street. Here you will find Twilight Children, one of the biggest organizations for street children in Johannesburg. Today I’m not able to take photos on the street. The food supply car has broken down, and the car of the outreach workers, who had wanted to show me around, has to be used today to transport meat and groceries. So I stay at the street children’s shelter, and go out onto the playground.
Moeketsi, one of the boys who lives at the shelter, is always happy to see me and runs over. “Ton, do you want to read aloud from the encyclopedia?” he asks straightaway. Inside the classroom we find remnants of what was once an encyclopedia from 1965. We decide on the letter “L” and read the entry about President Lincoln, which seems quite apt seeing that he fought for the emancipation of black people in the era of apartheid and slavery in the United States. Fourteen-year-old former street boy Moeketsi absorbs everything with rapt attention, and after I finish reading appears to remember everything perfectly. He looks up, turns his face to me, and says loudly, “You’re the first person in my whole life who really loves me.”
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 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 still live with them safely 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 or have been thrown out of the house by their parents. Street children, in the strict sense of the word, sleep outdoors without a shelter.
The problem with the above definitions is that they are not able to describe the complex reality that exists in many countries. There are numerous variations. In India, whole families live on the street. They are known as pavement dwellers. Here, although the children live with their parents, they also sleep on the street.
“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 was stated by the Consortium for Street Children in its 2011 report, thereby acknowledging the complexity of the definition of street children on a global scale.
There are street children in every country of the world, but in developing countries the number of street children is significantly higher and the problems are far more numerous. In affluent countries the term often used is homeless youth: although they don’t live with their parents, they don’t live on the streets either. It’s usually just too cold to live outside, so they will often stay in places like squatted houses rather than on the street. Street children are commonly between the ages of ten and fifteen, but at least a quarter of them are between six and ten, and another quarter are older than sixteen. For legal purposes, the word child is used up to the age of eighteen, but there are many street children older than eighteen whom we could refer to as street youth.
The most critical aspect of the lives of street children is that they live with no parental care and that they are physically, economically, psychologically, and emotionally totally self-reliant. The street child feels unloved. Or, in the words of Peter Taçon in a UNICEF report from 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.”

Kantamanto Market, Accra, Ghana

A section of one of the city’s biggest markets has been built on the railway tracks that lead to the main train station of Accra. Little stalls are placed halfway over the tracks, and some of the merchandise is displayed casually on top of the rails. Only when a train approaches are the market goods removed and do you see that it is actually a railway. Gideon, an outreach worker from Catholic Action for Street Children or CAS, an organization founded by Dutch priest Jos van Dinther, asks me how many girls I need for my shoot. “Not too many at one time,” I say, because taking a single portrait is time-consuming. A few minutes later Gideon comes back with ten girls, almost all of them balancing big bowls on their heads; they use the bowls to carry vegetables. “Let’s send six of them back,” I say, because I can only photograph and interview four girls today. Nafisa is first, and stands proudly as she holds the bowl motionless. She is sweating, but the tropical heat doesn’t seem to bother her. I install my mobile studio flash on the tripod and start the shoot.
The market girls are referred to as kayayos, or porters, and in fact they are the slaves of the market sellers. For an entirely negligible fee they carry vegetables, onions, rice, and the like from early morning until dusk. Almost all of these girls come from the poor rural areas of Ghana, mostly from the Islamic north of the country. They left their family homes to try their luck in the capital, driven mainly by extreme poverty. Nafisa earns 4 Ghanaian cedis a day, and she hopes to buy a sewing machine with her money so she can start her own business back in her village. According to estimates, there are about 10,000 Nafisas in Accra, but nobody knows the exact number.
Brother Van Dinther, who has been in Ghana for more than thirty years, estimates that there are 17,000 street children, both girls and boys. He quickly adds that ten years ago this number was only 7,000, and has more than doubled in ten years. Several years after my visit in 2002, the CAS website showed that the number of street children had risen even more: “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 figure will be 61,492.” (2009)
In 1989, UNICEF estimated the total number of street children to be 100 million. This estimate is very often used when referencing the number of street children worldwide. The question is, how accurate is this figure? Even though it is often criticized as being exaggerated, it is still blindly cited by journalists, researchers, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). UNICEF itself still uses this figure on its website as one of its estimates, along 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 UNESCO gave an even higher number: “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 ten big cities like Mumbai, so this would mean there are about 100,000 street children in the whole of India. Imagine that all Asian countries have the same number of children, which is probably an overestimate. There are 50 countries in Asia, so that would mean there are 5 million street children in Asia. If you would do this calculation for the continents of Africa, South America, and Europe, the total number of street children would amount to 22 million. Although a figure of around 20 million or less would be more realistic, this is still a huge number.
The question often asked is whether the number of street children is increasing. Since 1980, the number has been shown to have risen dramatically. However, over the past decade awareness has also risen and there have been more studies, so this could also be responsible for the higher figures. But if you look at accurate local counts such as those in Accra, the numbers are definitely increasing. According to 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 its report “State of the World’s Street Children,” the Consortium for Street Children states 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 a higher number would appeal more to politicians. But are 20 million children living on the streets around the world – more than the entire population of the Netherlands – not sufficient cause for concern?

Dadar Station, Wadala, Mumbai, India

Together with Sujeet, a boy who lives in the Shelter Don Bosco, I climb over the wall of the Dadar Station. Only days before, I had been arrested three times by the police for “taking pictures in public without permission.” Every time this happened, the street boys helping me countered by saying we would not give them a bonus to top up their monthly salary. Everyone in the city is very nervous, 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 guards and the public, which is almost impossible in a city of 18 million utterly curious people.
We are going to photograph Kumar, a thirteen-year-old boy who picks up garbage from between the rails. I ask Kumar to stand near the rails as I place my heavy camera on the tripod. “We don’t have time for that, Mr. Hendriks,” says Sujeet in distress. “I already hear people shouting that we have to leave.” I bend down, look through the viewfinder, and try to come up with a good composition. Kumar doesn’t pose, and doesn’t understand my concept for his portrait. After ten exposures, he starts to understand my directions. He drapes the big garbage bag over his shoulder and poses like a real Bollywood star. People start shouting that they will warn the police, and we climb back over the fence. Kumar says he’s ashamed he had to pose in dirty clothes, and asks me if he can get new ones. We go to a small shop near the station and buy him a complete new outfit. Kumar smiles broadly. He looks great now, but his story isn’t so easy to fix. His father was a farm laborer and didn’t earn enough to take care of him. He advised his son to leave home and try his luck in Mumbai. Now he earns less than 70 Indian Rupees day collecting garbage. However bad this may sound, this isn’t the worst part of the story. Kumar is an addict, and constantly sniffs at a little piece of cloth drenched in paint thinner. This costs him almost all of his meager salary, and keeps him in a perpetual cycle of poverty. What’s more, it damages his brain, making it almost impossible for him to return to school.
Poverty is one of the most important causes of the phenomenon of street children. Poverty pushes them onto the street, often encouraged or forced by their parents. Almost all of the children who end up on the streets come from poor lower-class families. They also come from the poorest regions of the countries, and often belong to less privileged ethnic groups. In Bolivia the children come from the Andean mountain villages of the Aymara Indians; in Turkey they come from the eastern parts of the country, which are often Kurdish; in Romania the majority of the children are of Roma descent. In Ghana they come from the regions of the arid north; in South Africa they come from the areas around big cities where mainly black people live; in Mongolia they come from the nomadic families who live in yurts; and in India they come from literally everywhere, because the entire country is poor, but are often descendants of people from the lower castes. But is poverty the only cause?

Peace Avenue, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

On the sidewalk of the largest shopping street sits a young boy in nearly spotless white sports clothes, with a big empty box in front of him. I tell my local guide and interpreter Sonny I’d like to photograph this boy. Sonny doesn’t think this is a good idea. “I don’t think he’s a street boy,” he says. “He’s just begging for his parents and tonight he’ll go safely back home.” But when I insist, Sonny asks the boy about his life, and whether he sleeps on the street, and the boy answers in the affirmative. We photograph him in a secluded spot behind some old Soviet flats, in part not to attract curious spectators and in part because I don’t know how the police here will react to such obvious attention for subjects unrelated to tourism. The boy poses as a real Genghis Khan, unmoved and stoic, heroic and emotionally detached. Sonny still doesn’t believe he has a strong story or that he’s a real street boy. His clothes look too neat, according to him. “Maybe he wants to pose because we offered him money.” But I insist. When we interview him on a bench in a nearby park, the story of the twelve-year-old Munkh-Chuluun appears to be more tragic than we could have imagined. “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 run away to the city. That was one year ago.”
Almost all of the children who end up on 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 stepfather or bullied by a jealous stepmother. In many cases, one of the street child’s parents has died, sometimes in a traffic accident, sometimes from a disease such a cholera or HIV. The latter is more common in African countries.
Many researchers have identified 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 a large number of African countries, the father is traditionally not involved with the education of his children and sometimes doesn’t even live with the family. Mothers of street children are often very young and are unable to provide for their children’s education, or find themselves destitute 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 homes, and child trafficking, whereby the children are used for prostitution and dealing drugs. Norman adds that of all the various causes, he sees poverty as the root cause. In Egypt, I ask Ismael Abd El Aziz, an employee of Hope Village, the same question. He mentions divorce, abuse of children by their parents, and poverty as the main causes. I ask Uyunga Zalaa-Uul of Save the Children in Ulaanbaatar the same question. She mentions abuse by parents as the main issue. “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 nowadays children don’t accept this, and they run away.”
The tradition of physical punishment isn’t limited to Mongolia: in most parts of the world, children are beaten to correct behavior. This beating becomes brutal abuse when meted out by an alcoholic father. And many fathers become alcoholics when they are poor and unemployed. 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 started educational programs in the rural areas. By educating the parents, they can make great strides in preventing an increase in the numbers of street children.

Rosario, La Paz, Bolivia

On the stairs of the shelter for street girls sits Ruth. She is sixteen years old and has a one-year-old baby, a present from a street boy. Ruth ended up on the street because her father, a retired miner, abused her regularly; her mother did nothing to stop him and she received no support from her sister. When Ruth was eight years old, she left home and ended up on the street. “I begged to get some money, but in the end it didn’t work out. Then I started to steal small things like watches from market stalls and wallets from market visitors. From the money I made, I bought myself food. I feel miserable about stealing because it’s against my principles. I still regret it very much when I think about it, but then there was nothing else I could do.”
The life of a street child is tragic on a number of levels. To begin with, the child has no physical shelter. If we look more deeply into the matter, though, this appears to be a side effect, however strange that may sound. Children sleep in various spots around the city, often in the very center. They form small groups that sometimes become criminal gangs, but most of the time these are groups of friends who protect each other. In Rio de Janeiro many children sleep under the overpasses, which protect them from the sun and rain and also from passersby. In Accra they often sleep beneath the stalls in the markets; in Bucharest and Ulaanbaatar they sleep underground in the tunnels that house hot water pipes; in Istanbul and Mumbai they sleep in parks. In La Paz, the children have built an entire little village of huts from bricks and sheets of iron.
The basic human rights of the child are violated almost continually. In many cases, the main culprits appear to be the police, who should be there to protect them. The police are well aware of where the street children hide, and often raid their makeshift dwellings – according to the police, so they can catch thieves – and often take all of the children’s possessions in order to sell them afterwards. Children in different countries have told me that this isn’t what they find the worst. They suffer more from being beaten and humiliated by the police, which deprives them of a basic feeling of safety and dignity. In some cases, children have even been killed. When I visited Rio de Janeiro, children and outreach workers alike told me the story of the policeman who shot a child. The child survived and ended up in the hospital, and was then shot again by the same police officer, this time fatally.
Residents treat street children like criminals, which is why they’re not welcome in places where they might make a little money. Most residents are prejudiced against and fearful of the children, who are not so well dressed and sometimes dirty. But it’s actually amazing how clean and neatly dressed they are most of the time, and when you talk to them it seems they all do their best to look as good as they can, knowing that what they look like greatly influences how people view them. Basically, particularly for the girls, the most important reason for wanting to look good is to express their own individual identity, of which they have largely been deprived.
Street children often try to earn their own living, which means that child labor is prevalent among them. In Mumbai, children often have small jobs as dishwashers at big wedding parties. In many countries, such as Bolivia and Cambodia, they work as shoeshiners. In Ghana, most girls work at markets and the boys sell shoes and other items. Only if a job doesn’t work out do they turn to begging or, in the worst case, theft and robbery, which they feel is very humiliating. As stated 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.”

Gara de Nord, Bucharest, Romania

In the dining hall of Victory Outreach, a center for street children run by Dutch Christians, eleven-year-old Georgiana counts loudly: “Una, două, trei, patru…” She’s doing her best to teach me to count to ten in Romanian. She pays special attention to my pronunciation, and corrects me like a real teacher. Today I’m going to photograph her near the railway station, where many street children live. After the shoot we go to eat in a shabby restaurant with equally shabby service. Here, she tells her story in great detail. Her father was sent to prison, and on that fateful day Georgiana’s mother forced her to go out and beg to help support their family. She was no longer allowed to go to school, and still doesn’t know how to read or write. If she didn’t bring home enough money from begging her mother would tie her hands together with rope and lock her up in the bathroom. “I hate my mother,” she says quietly and apparently devoid of emotion. “Not for what she did to me, but mostly because she never allowed me to hug her.”
Street children have experienced a traumatic lack of love, and during their early years have been completely deprived of warmth and security. This damages them far 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 this, and I stopped many of the interviews for this reason. Some children are chronically depressed, which often results in aggressive behavior. As long as they live on the streets, there is no possibility of dealing with their past because they still have the present situation to contend with.
Another major problem faced by street children is the total absence of education. Children that come to the streets at the age of eight are almost all illiterate, which is disastrous for their future. All of the children I spoke with were eager to study and learn a trade. Many organizations realize this, but they often lack the funds to implement a good and effective educational program. In Accra they pick out the most talented boys and send them to school, but often this only amounts to 1% of the total number of street boys in the shelter. In Shelter Don Bosco in Mumbai, all of the children who live there go to school, but these are only 60 children out of the 10,000 who live on the streets of the city.
So, there are 20 million street children around the world growing up without any education. This not only creates an individual problem for them, it also creates a problem for the economies of the developing countries. Education is one of the main human rights of children, at least in theory. For many street children, eager as they are to learn, this does not apply.

Karaköy, Istanbul, Turkey

Yusuf Kulca, the president of Umut Çocukları Derneği (Children of Hope), calls together some children and asks them if they would like to be photographed by me. We have just had an extensive interview about the situation in Turkey. He explained that a large number of the children come from poor families from the eastern parts of the country, and that their parents are often unemployed and unable to cope with their situation. Many children feel humiliated by the way their parents treat them, and this contributes to the high rate of violence among the boys who wander Istanbul – recently, several street boys were murdered by other street children.
One of the boys from the shelter comes over to me. I can smell the glue from a distance. Looking bewildered, he pulls out a huge knife, a weapon he always has with him. Like thousands of street children in Istanbul, he sniffs glue on a cloth that he keeps clutched in his hand. The glue lets him forget his sorrow and his hunger, and makes him violent and aggressive. I say I won’t photograph him with the knife, and he puts the weapon gently back in his pocket. He poses meekly and without emotion.
One of the most alarming facts that has emerged over recent years is the widespread drug use among street children. A survey by the World Health Organization (WHO) has shown that between 25% and 90% of street children use some sort of psychoactive substance, listing cannabis, LSD, opiates (such as heroin), nicotine, alcohol, benzodiazepines, barbiturates, inhalants (such as aerosol sprays), butane gas, gasoline, glue, paint thinners, solvents, and amyl nitrite (poppers).
Almost all of the street children in all of the countries I have visited sniff paint thinner or glue. When asked about the reason for their drug use, the children say it gives them peace of mind and makes them forget the past. But the drugs also give them hallucinations, destroy their memory, and cause coordination problems, and in addition produce uncontrolled aggressive behavior. A medical study in South Africa showed abnormal deviations in the children’s EEG (electroencephalogram) scans. What is even worse is that in recent years these drugs have been replaced by crack and heroin, which are far more dangerous.
In 2013, the journal Addiction published a systematic review of fifty studies on street children conducted in twenty-two countries. In this review, entitled “The epidemiology of substance use among street children in resource-constrained settings: a systematic review and meta-analysis,” 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 that it greatly increases the risk of violence among street children. The drugs produce uncontrolled behavior, and children can become a danger to the public and to 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 hazardous life they live on the streets. Often, violence is a part of the natural environment in which the children grow up. Again, this violence results in low self-esteem and drug use.

Rodaviária, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The rain has just stopped and traffic buzzes loudly in the background. I set up my lighting equipment and focus on the girl in front of the camera. In spite of the blaring car horns, thirteen-year-old Tatiana is completely focused and poses proudly, like a real fashion model. Like many street girls in Brazil she is scantily dressed, wearing ultra-short shorts and a bikini-like top. When after the shoot I ask if she does “the program” – a Brazilian term for prostitution – she completely denies this, as have all the other girls in the Rodaviária group. I’m happy for her – either she doesn’t participate in this humiliation, or her self-esteem requires her to deny it.
But unfortunately, the facts show otherwise. Brazil has the highest rate of child prostitution in Latin America and the second highest rate in the world. The Brazilian Center for Children and Adolescents has estimated 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 limited to street children. However, this group is more vulnerable to traffickers because they have no parents to care for them, live on the streets, and are often under the influence of drugs. Many street girls have to endure this brutal form of slavery already from the age of twelve. Researchers from different organizations estimate there are 500,000 such girls in Brazil, and 400,000 in India.
The UNICEF report “The State of the World's Children 2006: Excluded and Invisible” states that “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 made visible.” There are many organizations – among them, ECPAT, Fact Alliance, War Child, Love 146, SISHA (South-East Asia Investigations into Social and Humanitarian Activities), and Free a Girl – that fight to end child prostitution and child trafficking worldwide.

Preah Sisowath Quay, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The motorcycles of the students’ election campaign roar by as we start to photograph fifteen-year-old Heng. He wants to pose holding the blue flag of the opposition party, because he knows they help the poor people of Cambodia. Heng’s father left home to find a factory job in Thailand, leaving his mother behind with him and his brothers. He hasn’t seen his father for years, and misses him very much. The family structure that used to provide Heng with safety fell apart, so he decided to try his luck in the big city of Phnom Penh. He always sleeps outside, along the Mekong River or underneath a Chinese food stall, but when it rains he tries to go to an internet shop that usually stays open all night. There he can play games on the computer and check his Facebook account. Although Heng misses his family, he also finds life in the city exciting.
Is there a relationship between our flat screen televisions, our cheap garments, our iPhones, our trendy shoes, and the phenomenon of street children? The present scale of this phenomenon in developing countries is a relatively recent development, and has existed for maybe the past twenty to thirty years. But the phenomenon itself has existed for far longer. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, street children and child labor were common, 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 nineteenth century there were numerous homeless and destitute children living on the streets of the city. Many children were turned out of their homes 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 nineteenth century we saw the rise of the industrial revolution, which attracted many laborers from the countryside to the big cities, and caused huge migrations from a poor Europe to a promising America. This period saw a rise in the numbers of the proletarian working class from which street children emerged. In the final decades of the nineteenth century, street children became common in London and other large European cities. The working-class children were often badly treated by their parents – they had to work under harsh conditions to help support their family and were not allowed to go to school – so they often they ran away and ended up on the streets. The detailed descriptions of child labor and the position of street children and orphans in Victorian England in books like Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens are illustrative for the era.
The industrial revolution in the nineteenth century resembles the present economic development in many developing countries. In recent times an industrial revolution has also been taking place in developing countries, and this revolution is happening much faster and is having more of an impact on the social environment of the people affected. This revolution, known as globalization, has rapidly created new poverty. Many economists have acknowledged this new poverty as an outcome of this industrial revolution in developing countries, even though the matter is complex and there is no direct evidence for this. Several studies have shown that globalization has been accompanied by increasing inequality and polarization 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 his paper Is Globalization Reducing Poverty and Inequality? (2004). Even though there has been growth in average income and prosperity in developing countries, many laborers who lack education do not have access to well-paid jobs and have seen a decline in their income.
In her study “Globalization, Childhood Poverty, and Education in the Americas,” Roslyn Arlin Mickelson writes: “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 quite favorable for the majority of Western countries. We buy cheaper clothes that come from collapsing factories in Bangladesh and flat screen TVs made by workers in China who migrated from the rural areas to the metropolis.
Mickelson again: “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 corporation.” With this, Mickelson points out the downside of globalization for developing countries.
Moeketsi has a brilliant idea. Tomorrow is Heritage Day, South Africa’s national day for traditional culture, and everybody has a day off. He reveals his plan with dramatic flair. “Ton, do you know, since my birth I have never seen a monkey.” He points out that tomorrow is the perfect day to go to the Joburg Zoo. But the social workers at the shelter are against Moeketsi’s plan, for fear they will have to let all the children go. I try higher up in the hierarchy and ask the chief manager. He’s a little easier to convince, and allows us to go together. Moeketsi is overjoyed to be at the zoo, and laughs out loud at the behavior of the gorillas. He is astounded by the bonobos, the baboons, and the mandrill monkeys. But at the end of the day he looks serious, and says, “We didn’t see the orangutans.” He knows the chance of coming here again is almost nonexistent. The shelter won’t be able to pay for it, nor will there be a parent to take him here, nor will he have enough money to go on his own.
Globalization creates jobs and prosperity, resulting in overall higher prices, but for people who have not had a formal education – such as farmers, nomads, and lower-class city dwellers who won’t benefit from the new jobs – their cost of living rises while their income stagnates. But even though the poor people in the slums of the big cities see their income drop, the slums themselves keep growing. The expectation of prosperity works like an irresistible magnet, and poor families place their hope in the big cities. Le Roux 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 conducted by the Consortium for Street Children in 2011 shares the fear that the numbers of street children will increase: “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.”

Lapa, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

I’m going to photograph Jorge on the famous staircase created by the artist Selarón, where Snoop Dogg shot his clip. The manager of São Martinho, the nearby shelter for street children, strongly advised against this shoot because he was afraid I might be robbed. But today I’m joined by Karine, a Brazilian photographer, and we take the risk. Jorge is wearing a yellow-and-blue T-shirt, which goes well with the similarly colored tiles of the steps. It has just rained, and the stairs are still wet. Jorge feels honored to have his picture taken on this special spot. He left his family home only two months ago. Jorge explains that his mother beat him every day. She had just divorced his father, who had abused her on a daily basis. Jorge explains that his decision was very difficult, but he doesn’t feel totally alone because he brought his two brothers along. Jorge, being new to the streets, says he gets his money only by begging – he doesn’t dare to steal like the other boys do. He says that the other day a street boy was 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 does not produce street children. Two other factors need to be present: first, family disruption, as previously mentioned (for example, through divorce or the death of one or both parents, alcohol addiction, and/or unemployment), and second, disruption of family ties on a larger scale and the disappearance of extended families and the traditional social network of the villages. Parents who go to the big cities have high expectations in terms of prosperity, but instead often face more poverty. The father – who is often a famer, manual laborer, or nomad, and in most cases illiterate – doesn’t have the right education to find a job in today’s globalized industries. 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 become the victims in the end. When parents divorce, the mothers find themselves alone without any source of income. Sometimes children run away on their own or are sent out to beg by their mothers, but either way they not often go back home because the street has revealed its perilous freedoms and fatal attraction.
“Close to the wall with the painted flag,” says Moeketsi when I ask him where we should take the picture. For my safety, a little crowd of shelter boys goes with us onto the streets. Moeketsi knows he shouldn’t smile for the camera, and poses naturally when I press the shutter 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 the streets with other boys and to drink with the money he stole from his mother. “I hate my father because he never came to visit me,” he says. “I often dream that I see him and that we play soccer together, but I’m sure that will never happen.”
In Africa, Asia, and South America, strong social coherence is established by the extended family. Traditionally, parents and grandparents, uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces, would live together in villages. If the parents had problems, the child could always go to other family members. In the case of a divorce, the child would often go the grandparents or to an aunt and uncle. With the disappearance of the extended family as a result of urbanization, this social network has also disappeared. In the big anonymous city, an abandoned child has to settle for the lonely streets.
To return to the question I posed earlier, here’s how all of this relates to the phenomenon of street children: the globalized industries that produce our flat screen televisions have caused a migration from the rural areas to the big cities, a loss of social coherence, frustration among poor fathers, and caused children to be abandoned. Thus, globalization is related to the rising incidence of street children in developing countries. The street child is a by-product of these globalized industries and of our consumption of their products.

Maadi, Cairo, Egypt

The FACE Orphanage is located at the edge of the vast city of Cairo, more than one hour by taxi from the city center. The gentle staff member explains to me that they are very willing to cooperate, but points out that taking pictures inside the orphanage is not allowed. I explain that I don’t mind, because I want to take the portraits out on the street. Upon hearing this, the staff member becomes visibly upset: “But it’s strictly forbidden to take pictures outside. The government doesn’t allow any news about street children so that the tourists won’t be scared off.” But Mohammed is very willing to help me out, and along with the entire staff, we drive to the affluent district of Maadi in the middle of the night. Hidden behind a truck on an empty sidewalk, I photograph twelve-year-old Nadeem. I’m only allowed three minutes. Nadeem is so happy about the attention he’s receiving that he kisses me on both cheeks after the interview, which for safety reasons we’ve held inside the orphanage’s van.
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’ve been lobbying for more support to no avail.” When asked the same question, the manager of Prada, the circus for street children in Bucharest, says, “On paper the government seems to be doing a lot, but it’s not effective at all. The quality of the orphanages is very bad, and it’s the reason why many children flee to the streets again. The mental mindset of the government is still communist, even though they feel pressure by Europe.”
The mindset of many governments reveals itself through their police forces. Almost all the children I interviewed felt hatred for the police, the main enemy of all street children. Although the police should be the first to step in and protect the street children against abuse by adults, their actions run counter to this.
Many countries lack a social plan for resocializing street children. Many governments don’t know what to do about the phenomenon of street children and tend to ignore it. In a number of countries, like Brazil, children found guilty of petty crimes are put in prison, with no rehabilitation program. Instead of locking up street children, governments should protect them from neglect and abuse by parents, drug dealers, and sex traffickers. It is striking that most NGOs for street children worldwide have been set up and are supported by wealthy countries. Most funding comes from Europe and the United States. They are doing a good job, and the level of patience and commitment among their employees is admirable. However, it’s a pity that most NGOs are not aware of what the other NGOs are doing. They all seem to be developing their own programs independent of each other. In La Paz they teach the street kids to work with computers, in Istanbul street children can wash their clothes in washing machines in the shelters. in Cairo they teach the children how to play, in South Africa the children learn to make pottery and the like. None of these programs have been duplicated elsewhere. Most NGOs offered shelter to a limited number of street children (sometimes only 2% of the total population of street children), but only a few of them also offer psychological counseling. And if there was one thing I observed in all of the countries I visited, it was the children’s deep longing to be heard and understood and to receive counseling for their mental health needs. The traumas they have to live with are huge, and often underestimated. Happily, there are interesting initiatives. Some shelters for street children offer creative programs like painting, photography, theatre, and dance. The soul of the street child needs to be cherished and nurtured with new energy that can enhance the child’s identity and self-esteem.
But apart from supporting NGOs, the wealthy countries should also press the governments of the developing countries to address the issue of street children. What is the use of sending money and aid if the children are left at the mercy of governments that do not recognize the children’s human rights?
The Dutch government once sent a special training mission to Afghanistan to help the Afghan police make the country a safer place. This same kind of mission could also be used to train police forces in many developing countries to respect the children’s rights and needs. This recommendation is also contained in the Consortium for Street Children’s report “Violence”: “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.”
The Convention on the Rights of the Child adopted in 1989 by the United Nations General Assembly comprises forty articles that encompass all of the 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 of the Child, 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 onto the streets. Governments often do not do enough to protect the identity of street children, and they are often unable to get an identity card, which is required for employment. On many occasions, governments simply ignore the street children’s existence. Governments allow their police to harass, beat, and rob them. Governments seldom provide money to NGOs to help street children get off the street. In many cases, governments don’t do enough to combat child trafficking and child abuse.
Nowhere in the Rights of the Child does it state that NGOs bear any responsibility. Ultimately it is only the governments themselves that are responsible, and it is clear that in many cases these governments are neglecting or underestimating the plight of street children.
Although it must be said that more and more governments of developing countries are beginning to acknowledge their responsibilities, in many cases they do not provide enough financial and practical support to address the issue. In its report “Still on the Street – Still Short of Rights,” the Consortium for Street Children states that “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 street children’s rights, starting by supporting their parents to keep the children from ending up on the street in the first place. Furthermore, they should provide the street children with shelter, education, and emotional counseling so they can create bright futures from the remnants of their lost youth.
Moeketsi is thirsty. “Ton, shall we drink a cola?” So we go to the local steak house to have a cola and a small meal as well. On the way back, we pass unemployed people, drug addicts, and illegal refugees from Zimbabwe. Then Moeketsi has another brilliant idea. “Do you want to be my father?” he asks, utterly sincere, full of enthusiasm, without restraint. And with this request, Moeketsi sums up the pressing needs of all street children worldwide.