Street Children and Culture Research Paper

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Since the early 1980s street children have become a focus for attention in the media, an embarrassment to many bureaucrats, and a matter of priority for international agencies and numerous non-governmental organizations. At the same time, challenging academic and practical questions have been raised regarding who ‘street children’ are and the best strategies for helping them.

1. Definitions And Problematic Categorizations

The term ‘street children’ came into widespread use following the United Nations Year of the Child (1979) when it was adopted by international agencies and promptly translated into many different languages (as meninos de rua in Portuguese, ninos de la calle in Spanish, enfants de la rue in French). It arose from attempts to develop a term free of negative connotations about children popularly known as street urchins, vagrants, gaminos, rag-pickers, or glue-sniffers, and historically as street Arabs or vagrants. Utilized in 1951 by UNESCO to refer to vagrant children following World War II, it was applied in 1986 to the developing world by UNICEF, the agency primarily concerned with children’s wellbeing, to designate minors who worked or slept on the streets (Williams 1993).

At a most basic level, a street child is ‘a homeless or neglected child who lives chiefly in the streets’ (Oxford Dictionary). Welfare agencies, however, have reworked their definitions many times, encountering enormous problems in devising meaningful statements about street children and making appropriate distinctions between categories of children.

Problems ensued even after the consensual definition formulated in 1983 by the Inter-NGO Programme for Street Children and Street Youth: ‘Street children are those for whom the street (in the widest sense of the word that is unoccupied dwellings, wasteland, etc …) more than their family has become their real home, a situation in which there is no protection, supervision or direction from responsible adults’ (see Ennew 1994, p. 15). Several terms could lead to confusion: what is meant by ‘family,’ ‘protection,’ or ‘responsible’ adults (Hecht 1998)? Even what is meant by ‘home’ is conceptualized differently across cultures: being home- less is rendered as desamparado (without protection or comfort of other people) in Latin America, furosha (floating) in Japan, and khate (rag-picker) in Nepal, evoking concepts of disaffiliation, transience, and marginal work rather than notions of residential access or type of abode (Desjarlais 1996).

Several attempts to categorize street children, developed to acknowledge their heterogeneous circumstances and lifestyle, have also proved problematic. In one typology following UNICEF, ‘children of the street’ have a family accessible to them but have made the streets their home; ‘children on the street’ are child workers who return at night to their families; ‘abandoned’ children literally have no home to go to, while children ‘at high risk’ are those likely to be drawn into street-life. Distinctions have also been made between ‘abandoned’ and ‘abandoning’ street children (Felsman 1984), and among children according to their degree of family involvement and psychological characteristics. These terminologies have proved difficult to uphold in practice, given the fluidity of children’s movements on and off the streets and a lack of correspondance with the ways children themselves relate their experiences. Many labels such as children ‘without family contact’ and ‘abandoned’ lacked precision and were used ad hoc rather than analytically. The focus on categories of children, which led to the popular distinction between children of and on the streets (translated as de la calle/en la calle in Spanish, or de la rue/dans la rue in French) is falling into disuse.

The term ‘street children’ is still widely used to highlight a set of working and living conditions rather than to refer to the personal or social characteristics of the children in question. But while street children are identified as those who occupy the public spaces of urban centres and whose activities are largely unsupervised by adults, it has proved important to move beyond definitions based solely on physical, social, and economic criteria.

2. Statistics And The Creation Of A Social Issue

A great deal of controversy also surrounds the process of enumerating street children. Different agencies issue often widely different estimates, partly because they find street children difficult to count, partly because they are not always talking about the same children. In Brazil alone, the figure of 7 million street children is most often cited, typically with reference to the homeless, although careful surveys suggest a national estimate less than 1 percent of that figure (39,000 in Hecht 1998). The 1991 video ‘About the UN Rights of the Child’ stated that an estimated 200 million children around the world live on the streets, while another global figure of 100 million street children has also gained credibility. But how are the children counted and who exactly is included? Huge numbers, produced to draw attention to children’s plight, rest upon largely elastic and nebulous definitions of homeless and working children; they are usually the result of guesswork and have ‘no validity or basis in fact’ (Ennew 1994, p. 32).

The same problems of enumeration and group definition beset studies of the homeless in the developed world. The definitions of ‘homeless’ may shift to include those who sleep rough, live in shelters, squat, or double up with other families, encompassing the literally homeless and the precariously housed (Glasser and Bridgman 1999). Estimates of homeless youth—whether ‘runaways,’ in care, or with a parent—are often inflated by welfare agencies to legitimate their role, yet minimized by bureaucratic institutions with legal or financial responsibilities; thus statistics reflect the various agendas of organizations which collect them (Hutson and Liddiard 1994). The process of identifying and counting street youths is problematic in itself and it is also a part of the construction and management of homelessness as a social issue.

Notwithstanding their imprecision, estimates can help to identify significant groups and appropriate interventions in different cultural contexts. It is important to know that the great majority of street children in developing countries are not ‘homeless’ but return at night to their families (they are children on the streets). The fact that they are predominantly boys has alerted attention on why local circumstances should differ according to gender. Care is taken to reveal the age distribution between teenage adolescents, those in late childhood, and very young children with families, who may experience different reactions from the public, as well as ethnic distribution. Estimates also help to appreciate changing trends. In the US, the fastest growing subgroup among the homeless are presently young children.

3. Representations Of Street Children

Several different explanations have been offered to explain the phenomenon of homelessness and the dramatic rise in the numbers of street children. There are, broadly speaking, two major schools of thought: one links homelessness to personal pathology, the other to external structural factors (Glasser and Bridgman 1999). The former focuses on problems such as family dysfunction and substance abuse or mental illness, which increase an individual’s risk of taking to the streets. The latter emphasizes broad economic and sociopolitical factors such as poverty and marginalization under conditions of rapid urbanization, rural-to-urban migration, or conflict, which affect the stability of households. Whether linked to biographic or structural factors, street children are often portrayed as victims of deprived environments and helpless with respect to changing circumstances, or else as social deviants (Veale et al. in Panter-Brick and Smith 2000).

The ‘characteristics’ of street-children—their tenuous links with families and independence from adults—do not conform to commonly held views about what constitutes a ‘proper’ childhood in contemporary thought. Popular images of street-children—as victims or villains—rest upon particular representations of children and twentieth century discourses about child-hood that arose among the wealthier classes of the western industrial world (Boyden 1990). The apposition of ‘street’ and ‘children’ suggests that street location is a peculiar and significant mark of identity outside the normal frame: ‘after all, children can also be found using fields, lofts, and gardens without there being any apparent need to coin terms such as ‘field children,’ ‘loft children,’ or ‘garden children’ (Glauser 1990). Street children upset broad expectations both about the street—a place for commerce, men, and prostitutes—and about childhood—a time for carefree and protected innocence (Hecht 1998). From the modern Western viewpoint, children who are not ‘at home’ and nurtured by responsible adults are ‘forsaken’ or ‘deviant,’ and street children in particular are ‘out of place’ in society and ‘outside childhood’ (Connolly and Ennew 1996).

It has been argued that such portrayals are actually unhelpful to the children themselves (Ennew 1994). Many interventions which emphasise a vulnerable and ‘lost’ childhood have focused on ‘rescuing’ children from the streets by placing them in institutions or back with a family; this tends to ignore the social networks and coping strategies developed by the children, and generally has failed to provide lasting solutions. The focus of children’s activities ‘on the street’ has also tended to promote unidimensional accounts of their lives; for instance, it is not often realized that children who live on the street commonly attend school and retain contacts with their families (Ennew and Milne 1997). Furthermore, public condemnation of street murders in Latin America has unwittingly reduced children’s status to that of hunted prey, which conveys little understanding of the ways in which violence is actually experienced: in Brazil, while harassment at the hands of police is ubiquitous and extermination or torture not uncommon, street children are far more likely to die at the hand of their peers than as victims of death squads (Hecht 1998).

4. Child-Centered Perspectives And Research Issues

In the late 1990s fundamental assumptions about children and appropriate methods of research began to be re-evaluated, in the context of international legislation of children’s ‘best interests’ and the development of participatory methodology (Ennew and Milne 1997). The realization was made in social science research that children are not helpless or passive, but capable of making informed decisions about the future, and that they express views and aspirations that may well differ from those of adults. Child-centered perspectives and participatory research methods have emphasized the need to recognize the agency and social competence of street children and to enhance their participation. The key to research and project planning has changed to working ‘with’ children rather than ‘for’ them: ‘they are not ‘objects of concern’ but people. They are vulnerable, but not incapable. They need respect, not pity’ (Ennew 1994, p. 35). Remedial action in the best interests of children—as stressed by the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child—is not a matter of rescuing children, but of listening to them, and of fostering child participation.

A range of participatory approaches have been attempted, such as having street youths to conduct actual research, encouraging children to represent their world through drawings or plays, and staging workshops or group discussions on topics selected by the children themselves. These methods, more appropriate than the ubiquitous questionnaire survey, aim to involve the children in the research process rather than simply gather information or anecdotal testimonies. They have the potential to generate more valid data on children’s lives but raise their own set of ethical questions.

Two significant research problems have been the lack of comparative information on peer groups within the same country and a failure to evaluate longitudinally the ‘career’ outcomes of street children (see Baker and Panter-Brick in Panter-Brick and Smith 2000). The tendency has been to focus on snap shot descriptions of street children with little time-depth or contextual information. Street children live complex and varied lifestyles—they may move home and back to the street, go to school, or work at times for an employer. Few street children remain on the street into adulthood, although the range of outcomes is enormously variable and shaped by cultural context. While prison, insanity, or death are the common expectations of Brazilian street children, stable employment, marriage, and children are achievable career paths for Nepali street children.

Comparative and longitudinal research is critical, but not easily achieved. For instance, it is easy to contend that homelessness endangers children’s physical and emotional health, and indeed most studies of the homeless in the West and of street children in developing countries have emphasized the debilitating and deprived aspects of street-life. Recently, however, a number of comparative studies have questioned the expectation that homeless children should be the most vulnerable in deprived environments, arguing that poverty, not homelessness per se, may carry the most significant risks for health and behavior outcomes (Ziesemer et al. 1994, Bassuk et al. 1997, Veale et al. in Panter-Brick and Smith 2000). It is also recognized that the public discourse on street children has detracted from the issue of widespread poverty and violence affecting children who live at home.

The issues of violence, perpetrated by both adults and other street children, of substance abuse, of sexual exploitation, and sexually transmitted diseases, are often raised but among those most difficult to research. The nature of appropriate interventions designed to enhance children’s own coping strategies, such as social networks with street peers and resourcefulness in obtaining money, have also been discussed extensively. A compilation of studies across different continents and topics of research are found in Mermet (1997), Ennew and Milne (1997), and dedicated web sites.

5. Conclusion

Studies of street children and research on homelessness were first concerned with describing lifestyle situations in terms of the uses of public spaces and the links with family or institutions, hinging various categories of street life upon the constructs of home, family, and a proper childhood. Twenty years on, such research is concerned with identifying the subjective and cultural interpretations of homelessness (Desjarlais 1996), with considering explicitly the context of poverty and social exclusion (Mingione 1999), and with seeking to follow career paths and identify what transitions are possible from one situation to another. At the international level, advocacy for children is less focused on the ‘street’ as it is on abusive work situations, sexual exploitation, or criminality, and with promoting responses that are consistent with children’s rights (Ennew 1995, Bartlett et al. 1999).


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