Street children have been identified by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) as children in difficult circumstances and their rights and welfare remain a growing concern to both national and international bodies. It is reported that street children in every country are developmentally at risk. The longer they stay on the streets, their situation becomes riskier.
This is despite the adoption of the Convention on the Right of the Child by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 20 November 1989. Evidence shows that while on the streets, these children lack protection, adult supervision and the framework of a family, which is believed to foster healthy development and growth.
The phrase ‘street children’ has not been the only term referring to such children; they have been identified by terms such as ‘teenage beggars’, ‘street kids’, ‘homeless kids’, ‘street boys’, ‘street bums’, ‘parking boys’, ‘city nuisance’ and ‘children in difficult circumstances’. A street child in India is defined as someone “for whom the street has become his or her habitual abode and/or source of livelihood; and who is inadequately protected, supervised, or directed by responsible adults.”
Children who are vulnerable to street life include those who have been abandoned by their families or sent into cities because of a family’s intense poverty, often with the hopes that a child will be able to earn money and send it home. Children who run away from home or children’s institutions frequently end up on the street since they rarely return due to dysfunctional families, or physical, mental and/or sexual abuse.
In several areas of the world, children with disabilities are commonly abandoned, particularly in developing countries. In addition, refugee children from armed conflict areas, children separated from their families for long periods of time and orphans repeatedly find nowhere to go but the streets.
How many of them?
The exact numbers are not known, as they are not recorded in any national/international survey or study – they don’t have permanent shelters. However, in 2003, UNICEF estimated that there were at least 100 million street children in the world. Though this figure is commonly found it is not seen to be based on any actual studies or survey.
In 1994, UNICEF estimated that there were 11 million street children in India. This number is said to be a drastic under-estimation. The Indian embassy estimated 314,700 street children in cities like Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, Kanpur, Bangalore and Hyderabad and around 100,000 street children in Delhi alone.
In several areas of the world, children with disabilities are commonly abandoned, particularly in developing countries.
Why are they on the streets?
The World Health Organisation (WHO) notes that every street child has a reason for being on the street and “while some children are lured by to promise of excitement and freedom, the majority are pushed onto the street by desperation and realization that they have nowhere to go”. Moreover, recent studies across countries show that, in all parts of the world, most street children have experienced intra-family violence and come from fragile families located in poor-income neighbourhoods.
Factors contributing to street life
There are many factors which can push children into the street including poverty, family breakdown, violence, war, natural disasters and forced marriage. There are also factors which can pull children to the street such as financial independence, friendships, adventure and city glamour. It is often a combination of push and pull factors that keep children connected to the street.
in 2003, UNICEF estimated that there were at least 100 million street children in the world.
The magnitude of the problem
Street children are often called ‘hidden children’. Being hidden, they are at higher risk of being abused, exploited and neglected. Homelessness and street life have extremely detrimental effects on children. Their unstable lifestyles, lack of medical care, and inadequate living conditions increase young people’s susceptibility to chronic illnesses such as respiratory or ear infections and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS. Drug use by children on the streets is common as they look for means to numb the pain and deal with the hardships associated with street life.
In 2007, an MWCD report on child abuse found that 65.9% of the street children lived with their families. Out of these children, 51.84% slept on the sidewalks, 17.48% slept in shelters and 30.67% slept in other locations such as under flyovers, bridges, railway platforms, bus stops, parks, marketplaces, etc. 66.8% of children reported being physically abused by family members and others.
A study conducted by Save the Children in 2013-14 on street children in four cities: Kolkata, Hyderabad, Bhubaneshwar and Jaipur (with a sample size of 4,224 children) found that 90.6% of the children surveyed reported that they faced risks on the street in the form of threat to limb/life, police harassment, parental abuse and sexual abuse. Overall, 9.3 % of the children did not respond when asked about the risks faced by them on the street.
The way ahead
In a country with a large floating population, vast disparities, social conflicts and turmoil, the challenge to attend to all rights is immense. The Government of India’s 2005 National Plan of Action for Children has identified certain key areas, keeping in mind priorities that require utmost and sustained attention in terms of outreach, intervention and resource allocation:
- Monitoring, review and reform of policies, programmes and laws to ensure the protection of children’s interests and rights.
- Complete abolition of child labour with the aim of progressively eliminating all forms of economic exploitation of children.
- Securing all-round legal and social protection from all kinds of abuse, exploitation and neglect.
- Universalisation of early childhood care, development and quality education for all children.
- The guidelines of the world conference on the Rights of the Child should be followed in letter and spirit.
- UNICEF and NHRC recommendations need to be given weightage for strict implementation of programmes and schemes.
- Human Rights Education Centers should be established throughout the country, starting at the mandal or taluk level. Awareness programmes, public meetings, street-level group discussion with village elders, film shows, dramas, audio-visual programmes, etc need to be conducted; highlighting the importance, need to provide, care and protection of street children.
- State governments need to allocate a sufficient budget to carry this out.
- The judiciary needs to review the decisions and alert the authorities concerned to initiate appropriate action against defaulters.
- Media plays an extremely important role, especially in matters related to social evils and injustice.
90.6% of the children surveyed reported that they faced risks on the street in the form of threat to limb/life, police harassment, parental abuse and sexual abuse.
‘Street children’ in India is a socio-legal issue which needs to be tackled carefully and delicately. Therefore, the state, NGOs, voluntary organisations, individuals, social activists who come forward and take up this task need to be mentally and physically prepared for any eventuality. Great care should be taken at every stage right from the beginning till the end of the plan; else the entire exercise becomes futile.
Featured image used for representational purpose only. Source: Desinema