By Wenjie Jiang
In the past decade, the number of street children has increased in many African countries due to deepening poverty as well as other social factors. A definition for street children accepted by UNICEF is “any girl or boy 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” (Glasser 1994). There are two groups of street children generally accepted by researchers: (1) “children of the street”, which refers to children who are homeless, and streets in urban areas are their source of livelihood, where they sleep and live, and (2) “children on the street”, who work and live on the streets in the daytime but return home at night where they sleep, although some of them sleep occasionally on the streets (Szanton Blanc 1996).
Street children is a major social issue in Kenya. Due to the children’s mobility and elusiveness, it is hard to count the exact number of streets kids. A study commissioned by the Consortium of Street Children (CSC) estimated in 2007 that there were 250,000-300,000 children living and working on the streets across Kenya, with more than 60,000 in Nairobi. Within the population, the sex distribution is uneven (Kenya Children of Hope, n.d.). The study of street families in Nairobi’s central business district commissioned by the NCBDA in 2001 states that boys outnumber girls nine to one. Other research tells a similar story. From the 2018 National Census of Street Families Report, the proportion of the male population is higher (72.4 percent) compared with that of females (27.6 percent) (National Census of Street Families 2018). Some researchers explained that this is because of more focus on girl child empowerment, over boy child, in the country.
To shed light on this issue in Kenya, this article will first explain the major push factors of street children, and then analyze different challenges faced by such children. At last, it will provide an overview of the NGOs that aim to relieve the current problem, and specifically introduce one of the NGOs, Raha Kids.
The push factors of street children can vary. According to John Said, the director of Raha Kids, an NGO dedicated to helping Street children, problems within families have always been the major push factor for children to end up on the street. Major causes include 1) parents’ drug/alcohol addiction 2) poverty/lack of space in household accommodation, 3) domestic problems such as beating, 4) parents’ divorce, 5) and parents’ death. According to the 2018 National Census of Street Families, 24 percent of the street children aged 0-17 years reported that neither of their parents was alive (National Census of Street Families 2018). “I lost my parents three years ago. Nobody cares about me, whether I live or not. My uncle beat me hard when I live there, and so I ran. Living in the street is the only way to survive,” says William Githira, 15, who lives in the streets of the Kenyan capital (The New Humanitarian 2017). In fact, 20 percent of the street children (aged from 0-17 years) did not even know the whereabouts of their parents (National Census of Street Families 2018).
Figure 1: 2018 National Census of Street Families
Challenges for Street Kids
The lives of street kids can be very difficult. One of the biggest challenges they face is to simply survive and stay afloat. Obtaining income for this purpose becomes a major challenge for underage children. While boys can often survive on collecting garbage, help load and unload market goods, or steal from strangers, earning them up to 80 KSH (the US $1) a day, girls are forced to resort to prostitution in order to get clothes or food (The New Humanitarian 2017). According to a 2004 report from The Cradle and The Undugu Society, they earn as little as 10 or 20 KSH ($0.30-0.50) for each client. Even though some kids earn the money to survive, many of them would spend it on drugs and alcohol.
(2) Physical Abuse
Street kids are also prone to street abuse from older peers and even the police. There are “big boys” controlling different groups on the streets. These leaders of the groups would abuse the young kids by beating them and taking their money. For girls, sexual abuse is more common. One 9-year-old girl in the study of Emily and Jace reported that “the older boys could come to ask for sex and when I refuse, they start beating me and threatening to rape me if I continue resisting”(Sitienei and Pillay 2018). Moreover, abuse can also come from the police. Geoffrey, 23, described his experience in a police station: “I was sleeping one night in the street when the police came and took me to the police station. I did nothing wrong. In the police station, I was beaten to confess a crime I did not do.”
- Substance Abuse
Drug use and addictions is another problem faced by these kids, including sniffing glue, sniffing petrol, and taking bhang. Drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes are also common. These substances may offer temporary relief from painful life experiences. One of the boys reported: “After taking the substance, I cannot recall many things that disturbing me” (Sitienei and Pillay 2018). Many participants have developed dependence on substances, and are likely to do anything to seize them, as revealed by one of them, “I find it difficult to do without sniffing glue and even when I do not have money to buy those substances I am forced to steal from people or even other street children” (Sitienei and Pillay 2018). According to Josephat Chogo, a psychologist working in Raha Kids, about 80% of the street kids that he has worked with have a drug problem, but the degrees vary. The major push factor is peer influence and dysfunctional families. In some special cases, street children would even be exploited by some groups to trade the drugs. Finally, not only would they have drug problems, but they may even commit a crime.
(4) Health Problem
As would be expected of such a vulnerable group, many of the children have health problems. A study shows that health problems identified among the children included bronchitis and cough (12 percent), skin infections (14 percent), malaria (7 percent), and abdominal problems (8 percent) (Onyango et al. 1991, 28). The period of suffering from the specified problems ranged from one week to 48 weeks. However, the majority of them had suffered from such problems for an average period of 8 weeks. This suggests that such problems/diseases could have reached their chronic stage. For the few cases that had sought medical care, most of them (38 percent) had attended government hospitals while 8 percent had gone to private hospitals and clinics (mainly run by NGOs) (Onyango et al. 1991, 28-29).
- Social Discrimination
Due to the stereotypical portrayal of street kids associated with drug addiction and stealing, the public has some labels for them, which the street children seem to be well aware of. The most popular label given to street children was chokora, roughly translated from the Kiswahili language that refers to scavengers or pokers at dustbins or garbage heaps in search of food and other valuables (Onyango et al. 1991, 23). Other labels include prostitute, mtoto malaya, dustbin kid or pickpocket/thief. Such perception could make street children change and match their normal behavior to the labels used to describe them since labels have been known to influence peoples’ behavior (Onyango et al. 1991, 23). Moreover, such biased portrayal may potentially prevent people from helping these kids.
Currently, two major avenues of rescuing street kids are reintegration and adoption. Reintegration means that these children would be sent back to their original families, either to their parents or other relatives and friends. Adoption is a process that permanently transfers all rights and responsibilities from the biological parents to the entire new family. Many NGOs prefer the first solution since they believe that the warmth of the original families is irreplaceable. However, reintegration into the original family can only work for kids who still have a healthy and traceable family. Adoption is not easy either. According to Adoption Laws and Requirements for Adoption of a Child in Kenya, any child who is resident in Kenya must be adopted whether or not the child is a Kenyan citizen, was or was not born in Kenya; adoption order will not be done to the sole foreign applicant.
Institutions Dedicated to Help Street Kids
Nowadays, there are many institutions aiming to tackle this problem. The 2018 National Census of Street Families established that 13 percent of the street family rehabilitation institutions were Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), 40 percent were Charitable Children’s Institutions (CCIs), 16 percent were Faith-Based Organizations (FBOs), 23 percent were Community Based Organizations (CBOs) and 8 percent were Educational Centers (National Census of Street Families 2018). It is also common that these institutions offered more than one service. The services offered were: provision of food (75 institutions), rehabilitation (65 institutions), family tracing and empowerment (65 institutions), accommodation (55 institutions), and spiritual nourishment (50 institutions) (National Census of Street Families 2018).
Figure 2: Distribution of Street Families Institutions by categories from 2018 National Census of Street Families
Among the aforementioned organizations, Raha Kids is one of the most active rehabilitation, educational and reintegration centers helping abandoned children. It was founded on January 11, 2002. The name “RAHA” is a Swahili word meaning enjoyment, comfort and happiness. It also serves as an acronym that summarizes the work that Raha was founded to accomplish. This work is to:
R – Rescue and rehabilitate
A – And
H – Helping
A – Abandoned kids
Raha Kids currently has 75 street children in the center, and has successfully helped a lot of boys in the past several years — roughly more than 30 children are reunited with their families every year. There are currently 10 full-time staff members in Raha, including the director, psycho-social counselor, teachers, and house parents.
There are three main ways for Raha to get in touch with the street children. It may (1) directly get the street kids rescued by the government or the police, (2) rescue the kids from irresponsible homeless families, and (3) collaborate with other institutions like GRT. The children are rescued from the streets or their respective unsafe environments and then brought to Raha with the help of the social workers.
During their stay at Raha, the staff would conduct home tracing in order to locate their original residence. When the home is identified, the psycho-social team investigates the push factors that resulted in the child being in the streets. The family is then involved in group decision-making therapy. The outcome of this determines if the family is ready to receive the child back home during reintegration. At the end of the program, the staff would find the children a school near their family so that they can continue their education after returning home. Re-uniting the children is the last step of their program, after which Raha follows up with the family to ensure the child is successfully reintegrated.
Over the years Raha has shifted its focus from child-based care to a family-based care system. They not only work to rehabilitate the child but also to improve the home environment and break the poverty cycle. This is achieved by empowering the parents through entrepreneurship training, family decision-making therapy, and most recently, referrals to adult rehabilitation centers.
Raha Kids also has its own special education system. Taking into account the different ages of children, each age would receive their corresponding education according to the Kenyan curricular system. They usually spend 6 hours in school every day, receiving lessons such as Mathematics, English, Swahili, Christian Education, Science, etc. Raha also looks for vocational schools for children who are not able to continue in high school. For example, Raha has cooperated with other organizations such as Mwangaza Trust, and Mukuru Promotion Center, to send several boys to enhance their vocational skills and successfully complete the program.
Raha also offers different extracurricular activities for the kids. For example, there are debates, cleaning activities, football, and different kinds of clubs. The purpose of designing these activities is not only to encourage them to relax but also to build their confidence. According to Josphat Chogo, by incorporating a reward system in these activities, boys could notice themselves improving, and thus believe that they could also achieve something.
The biggest challenge for Raha Kids is financial. It takes about $200 monthly to provide comprehensive care for one boy. Recently the funds have mainly come from churches and some private donors. However, more funding is required to develop and advance facilities such as accommodations and workshops. In fact, COVID-19 has worsened the current condition since it increases the unemployment rate and shifts the public attention from the street children. For now, there are more than 3000 street children in Nairobi, but the space in institutions is limited. Under the current capacity, Raha can support 80 kids at once maximum.
Although street kids have long been a vulnerable group in society, their situation has not improved due to the difficulties in defining and collecting data around them. The root of this problem is complex and includes both economic and social elements, but the general push factor is mainly within the family. As expected, street children are facing great challenges from physical to mental, ranging from poverty, physical abuse, substance abuse, health problems, and social discrimination. Despite the prevalence of NGOs and other organizations founded to release their pressure, the efforts are still far from enough. The recent pandemic has exacerbated the problem and triggered more challenges for many institutions like Raha Kids. However, as long as more people and organizations stimulated by love and responsibility are trying their best to lend a helping hand, the future seems bright.
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