The phenomenon of children running away from home and living on the street is a global challenge to governments, and society in general. Non-government organisations have, for their part, responded to it by making meaningful interventions. But the basic factors behind this highly disturbing trend remain virtually unaddressed — for instance, abject poverty, abuse, violence, conflicts, and war, to name a few. In recent times, HIV/AIDS has emerged as a cause in Africa. Of course, there are international agencies and laws that recognise the rights of children and seek to protect them against exploitation.
From Street to Hope presents the sordid picture of street children from a global perspective, based on a study undertaken in three cities — Los Angeles, Mumbai and Nairobi — in the light of welfare programmes implemented by faith-based and secular organisations.
The world population of street children (3-18 age group) was 150 million in 2001, according to an estimate by the United Nations. Approximately 40 per cent of these children are homeless and the rest work on the streets to support their families. By 2010, the number is expected to be 200-300 million, about the same as the population-size of the United States.
In North America, the last few decades have seen a sharp rise in the number of homeless children and youth, the figure ranging from 1.3 million to 1.7 million. But it is South Asia that has the world’s largest contingent of street children, with India accounting for the highest proportion of it. Some of the general, widely prevalent causes are poverty, abusive family milieu, and broken homes — of course, the presence of these factors, both in absolute and comparative terms, varies from country to country.
Quite a few others are country-specific. In Africa, it is war and the high prevalence of HIV/AIDS that force people, along with their children, onto the streets. In Kenya, 80 per cent of the street girls have been victims of sexual abuse at home. In Iran, the book reveals, 45 girls flee their homes every day, on an average, because of abuse at home.
In India, almost half of the street children belong to the Dalit community and other Scheduled Castes, and the Scheduled Tribes. According to the 1994 estimates, Mumbai has over 125,000 street children. The book provides an insight into the reasons for children fleeing their homes or living on the street with their parents. It also points to the need for meaningful interventions, suggesting that such programmes be adapted to religious rituals and practices. This is a highly debatable issue, although the authors have sought to substantiate their position by citing the feedback in their study.
In the affluent U.S., Los Angeles carries the unenviable tag of being the country’s capital for homelessness. In Nairobi, no credible estimate of the street children is available, although it is reckoned that they come mostly from families headed by women, 85 per cent of whom are not married.
Discussing the role of faith-based and secular organisations in the three cities, the study notes that the FBOs gave the street children skills training, food, and shelter. In addition, they also imparted some form of religious knowledge. Faith and religion instilled in them moral values, besides giving them hope, a sense of direction, and self-discipline. However, there is little research or conclusive evidence, the book notes, to prove the effectiveness of faith components in service delivery.
There are many lacunae at the policy level. The United States is yet to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). As for India, a measly 0.034 per cent of the Central Government’s budget is spent on child protection. Compared to Mumbai and Los Angeles, the problem Nairobi has on its hands is much more complex because of the HIV/AIDS factor.
The overall message from this study is that the organisations/agencies could consider co-opting religious rituals and practices with their welfare programmes targeting street children. Faith should be invoked in ways that provide guidance for the children. But it is imperative that such faith-based programmes are inclusive, with the children left free to follow the religious tradition that appeals to them most.
The book admits that reaching out to these children and protecting them from all sorts of exploitation is more critical and that designing rights-based interventions for their successful reintegration is the real challenge.
FROM STREET TO HOPE: Neela Dabir, Naina Athale; Sage Publications Pvt Ltd., B1/1-1, Mohan Cooperative Industrial Area, Mathura Road, New Delhi-110044. Price: Rs.750.