Who are they?
Street children are defined by different organisations as children who live on the streets, children who work on the streets and children who spend the majority of their time on the streets. The children who live on the streets have either been forced to leave their home a children's home, or have made their own decision to live on the streets rather than at home. Sadly, some children are born on the streets and grow up knowing the street as their only home. Street Kids Direct identify any child or young person under the age of 18 years who sleeps regularly on the street as a street child. There are also many more children at 'high risk' of becoming street children and these include children who work on the streets, children begging on the streets and children who spend most of their time on the streets because of their family situation or culture.
How many are there?
The truth is, nobody knows. Because street children are often changing location or are continually on the move, making an estimate based upon the experiences of local organisations that work with the children is the most reliable guide.
Global estimates suggest that between 30 to 150 million children and young people live on the streets of the major cities and towns in the world. It is suggested that the numbers of street children increase or decrease depending upon local conditions. For example prior to the 1991 Gulf War there were no reported street children in Iraq; with the ongoing conflict, UNICEF is alarmed by the growing numbers of orphans on the streets ( UNICEF press release, 13 June 2003).
In Guatemala, when Duncan first started to work there in 1992, the numbers of children and young people living on the streets of the country were estimated to be at least 5,000. In 2103, and with the help of a census, it is now estimated that there to be no more than 500 children.
Do they have families?
Nearly all street children have some form of contact with a family member. Sadly, most children don’t maintain any contact with their family because of the circumstances that pushed them onto the streets in the first place. Poverty, physical and sexual abuses are the three main reasons street children give as to why they have ended up living on the streets.
Predominantly boys claim to have been physically abused whilst girls claim to have been sexually abused before leaving home. Sometimes the pressure of poverty together with social vulnerability and exclusion increase the likelihood of young children joining the population of street children worldwide.
At certain times of the year, like at Christmas, many children and young people on the streets try and make contact with their family as they all are desperate to find acceptance and belonging.
Does gender matter?
Many projects working with street children contend that the ratio of boys to girls on the streets is in favour of boys. The exact percentage is often difficult to estimate as one country or even city can be different from another. The experience that Duncan Dyason has had working with street children in Guatemala has shown that about 20-30% of children and young people living on the streets are girls, with the remainder being boys. Girls are more likely to be sexually exploited than boys and sometimes are less visible than boys on the streets. Is street life dangerous? Once a child begins to live on the streets they very soon realise that life is short, violent and perpetuated by crime. In Latin America the problem is particularly acute with the worst offenders being Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala and Honduras. The average life expectancy of a street child is just four years. Some organisations have spent years highlighting the torture and killing of street children. Ask any group of street children about violence and they will tell you story after story of children who are regularly beaten by police or security guards together with those who have lost their lives in fights, petty crime, traffic accidents or have been killed by vigilante groups and death squads.
How do they live?
Reports from those working with street children illustrate the fact that the vast majority of street children (83%) said they stole in order to live. Over a third said they engaged in prostitution and of that third 80% were girls. The rest claimed that begging, selling sweets or singing on buses gave them enough income to buy food and drugs. (see Tierney, N., 1997, Robbed of Humanity, USA, Pangaea) Street children are easily observed in cities wearing dirty clothes, ripped or no shoes, lice-infested hair and dirty skin. Often they are seen in groups as being part of a group offers protection as well as company. The abuse of solvents and other drugs is prevalent in the street child population, with the cheapest form of drug being the most commonly used. For example, in Guatemala street children abuse clinical alcohol which is poured into a rag and then inhaled. Previously street children in Guatemala abused the potent shoe glue which was poured into small plastic bags or containers and then inhaled. According to the children the drugs help them forget the pain of street life, take away hunger pains and keep them warm. The trust is that drug abuse destroys the nervous system and has led to many deaths. But despite this street children abuse drugs and solvents on a daily basis.