Children of the Twilight: 
Nature, Nurture and the Struggle to Survive
Chandra Sivakumar
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Over 100 million children currently struggle to survive on the streets of cities around the world. UNESCO, 1995]. Their tale is a humiliating testament to the degradation in moral values, respect and concern for the neediest members of the global community. Children, the most precious resource for our future, are in burgeoning numbers migrating to the streets without shelter or a job, usually to escape poverty, abuse, violence or death in their homes and communities. The forces behind this phenomenon are as varied as they are tragic, but in many instances groups and individuals are organizing themselves to bring a sense of hope and support to these children. This paper will begin by providing a conceptual definition of street children, followed by descriptions of daily conditions faced by street children, causal factors contributing to this problem and a psychosocial profile of street children. The next section deals with some sub-national data collected in the summer of 1997 in the country of Ghana. It will start with a brief overview of the street child phenomenon as it exists in Ghana, followed by an analysis of the data collected from my survey. At this point, I will detail some innovative interventions in practice today. This will set the stage for my proposed intervention, based in part upon a historical model that has inspired similar programs for the past 60 years. a rudimentary description of innovative interventions around the world will be provided, setting the stage for my proposed intervention which is based upon a historical model that has also inspired similar existing programs guiding my ideas. I hope to conclude with an attempt to analyze the conditions leading to the existence of street children, as contextualized within the transitional dynamics shaping the nations of the world.  



Names and terms for street children take on a creative array of descriptive forms, reflective of the respective culture's attitudes towards them. In Naples they are called "Scugnizzo", derived from the word for a spinning toy always on the move. "Pajaro Frutero" means fruit bird in Peruvian referring to the child watching out for police in the marketplace. "Gamin" in Colombia and "Saligoman" in Rwanda both mean nasty kid. "Moustiques" are the mosquitoes to the Cameroon police force and "Poussins" or chicks to the field workers, while in Vietnam they are the "bui doi" or dust children. In Brazil, a country notorious for its brutal treatment of homeless children, they are called "marginais" or criminals/marginals and here in America we call them homeless children. These are a brief international sampling of terms referring to children whose lives revolve around the streets of major urban centers around the world [Phillips, 1994]. Others name them according to idealistic or poetic influences. "Twilight Children" is used to signify their fragile and ephemeral nature. The United Nations Children's Fund has labeled them as "children in difficult circumstances" to avoid the stigma and negative connotations so commonly linked to the term "Street Child", though this is the term selected for usage within this paper. Still others have proposed calling them "Working Children" since the majority of children on the street must work in one form or other to survive [UNESCO, 1995]. 


Street children are classified as children between the ages of 5-18. However, abandoned babies fit this category as well, and are usually cared for by older siblings or soon die from exposure and neglect. Street children are officially defined by UNICEF as, "...those for whom the street (in the widest sense of the word: i.e. 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" [UNICEF, 1988, p.5]. This can be broken down into three categories based upon the extent of their familial ties and are as follows: Children on the Street, Children of the Street, and Abandoned and Neglected Children, [Covenant House, 1995]. 

Children on the street are those kids who still live with their families, attend school part time or not at all, and must work or roam on the streets for a period of the day. Their jobs range from prostitution, shoe-shining, and scavenging marketable scraps, to sellers of cigarettes or candy, with the proceeds going directly to the family at the end of the night. These children play a role in the economic maintenance of their families, upon whose collective salaries they all depend for survival. This group accounts for the largest percentage of street children. For example, 85% of children in the urban centers of Zimbabwe return to their homes at night, although the days are spent desperately attempting to make money on the street, [Makombe, 1992]. 

Those children who have a nominal attachment with their families, i.e. see them very rarely, are known as children of the street. Although these kids retain a remote familial connection, they still consider the street as their home, shelter, and community. They must work on the street to survive and cannot depend upon their family for support or sustenance. This form of isolation is widely apparent in both Canada and the U.S., where runaways and unwanted youth survive on the streets of major cities by their own wits, with a vague inclination of their parent's whereabouts. The parents are usually not interested in the condition of their children and will do anything necessary to keep them out of their lives (sending money periodically, bailing someone out of prison, etc.) On occasion the youth will reconcile with their family and return home. This group is also made up of those kids sold into sexual bondage, a well-developed practice in Cambodia and Thailand.  

Abandoned and orphaned children suffer many of the same tribulations as children of the street with the main difference being their complete lack of familial relations. Family or community are constructs that must be self-created from the tenuous resources on the street. Their lives are an endless struggle to get by, both physically and psychologically. Their fear, disillusionment and mistrust of adults evolve into an integral part of their identity, thereby presenting unique challenges for those attempting to help them. These children are common in Guatemala where 50,000 orphans have been created as a result of the civil war, leaving more than 6,000 kids alone in Guatemala City [Mathews, 1993]. There are 5,000 children buried in unmarked graves every year within the United States alone[Levi-Strauss,1992). This starkly contrasts our glorified and celebrated ideals of "family values" and "Leave it to Beaver" or "The Brady Bunch". 

It should be noted that the boundaries around these categories are of a flexible and permeable nature. Often, children under one subset will fall into another without much resistance. In all too many instances, a child living with their family but working on the streets will not be allowed back unless they have wages to contribute to the family. It does not take much for a child staying away for days at a time, to gradually avoid entirely the beatings and abuse suffered at home by simply not returning. As well, in areas of unpredictable political strife, the loss of one's parents or relatives is a very legitimate risk, leaving a child devoid of a family support system and forcing them to migrate to the urban centers to begin life anew on the streets. 


Anyone familiar with developing countries, or even Times Square, NYC can invoke a mental image of "the streets". The urban centers of the world share elements of a most destructive and invidious nature. The areas that attract and sustain street kids are oftentimes the dirtiest, most pernicious, and marginalized sections of a city. Life in these areas is an unstable, transitory quest for warmth, shelter, food, work, and companionship. It is a scavenger's existence, granting very few options. Some children adapt and are resourceful enough to get by, others do just enough to acquire "medicine" for a hallucinatory release, while the lucky ones are found by someone who cares or make it to an agency where they can work towards reintegrating themselves into society. Many simply expect to die on the streets after having witnessed numerous friends and acquaintances perish from a litany of nefarious forces. The most powerful of these forces affecting life on the streets are police brutality, sexual subjugation, child labor, and drugs. 


These were the last words spoken by Nahaman Carmona, a 13-yr. old boy kicked to death by police in Guatemala City eight years ago [Jeffrey, 1993:45]. Casa Alianza, an organization fighting for the rights of street children chapters in Guatemala and Honduras, sued the four police officers involved and after a year of pressure, the officers were sentenced to fifteen years in prison. However, a few months later the Appeals Court annulled the prison sentence, not surprising given Guatemala's corrupt and debased judicial system. Latin America's record is by far the worst in terms of State sanctioned homicide. Crimes committed by the police or death squads outweighs in intensity and quantity anything that street children do to each other. This fact takes on monstrous proportions in Brazil, where in the past three years 4,611 children, 3,781 of them black, were murdered by police or death squads with three to four kids continuing to disappear or die violent deaths each day. Fifteen death squads targeting children operate in Rio alone working "under the protection of the police and justice system" [Jeffrey, 1993:50]. 

Poor children wandering on the street embody a society's worst inefficiencies and faults. It is easier for the public to blame them for society's collective ills than to try and understand the macro forces propelling them to a life of begging and stealing. By eradicating these distressing signs of societal breakdown, a form of class cleansing, the respective nation's consciousness can once again ignore the inequities rampant within their country. As we have seen, this lethal violence against children has been adopted as acceptable social policy for many nations, especially in Latin America, and can only be abolished through the study and transformation of larger economic and socio-political issues governing the behavior of individuals. 


Although child prostitution is a form of labor, it will be treated separately from the issue of forced child labor due to its particularly heinous and intolerable nature. The International Labor Organization has stated that child trafficking in the sex industry is on the rise, an alarming fact in light of increased international awareness and vigilance. In Asia, the number of child prostitutes is placed at one million with slightly lower numbers for Africa. The ILO has identified sex rings that kidnap Latin American and Asian children, train them in prostitution centers, and then send them to U.S., European and Middle East countries, with children as young as four being taken [Olson, 1996]. These numbers include children as young as four years old that are bought from impoverished families, as well as kids who are kidnapped from the streets and slums. In developed countries such as America and Canada, we find children who are already on the streets and lured into the flesh trade by flashy, smooth talking pimps, who hook them on drugs and false affection, eventually pressured to sell their bodies in order to get by.  

As stated before, the majority of street children in the world are boys. Girls are very quickly appropriated by the sex industry once they are dislocated from their homes, taken off the streets and placed in brothels. However, in every country that employs girls as sex workers, there is always a market for boys as well. Some places are more notorious for this than others. Sri Lanka and the Philippines, for example, has been a favorite vacation spot for male pedophiles for decades. Nonetheless, the circumstances under which girls are forced to sell their bodies are on the whole much worse than they are for boys. Underage male street youth in Canada's cities are under the strict supervision of a pimp for a few years, but once older they either take control of the sale of their bodies, or quit altogether, whereas women of any age must almost always work under abusive male "protection" [Webber, 1991].  

The Canadian experience is reflective of the American phenomenon of child prostitution: they are not bought from their families by brothels, do not end up on the street due to warfare or natural disaster, or get kidnapped from another country. Rather, they are all the products of dysfunctional homes, the majority having suffered sexual abuse by family members or acquaintances. After running away they find themselves on the street with nothing but the stub of a bus ticket. Naive and gullible, between 12 and 18, these kids provide easy targets for pimps looking for new meat to market. Once lured into the clutches of a pimp, they are forced to sell their bodies to pay for protection from other pimps, shelter and food. If they try to escape they are beaten savagely. Running away to another city only places them in a strange environment dependent on the same skills they utilized before, thus perpetuating the cycle. Paradoxically, many of the prostitutes admit to being "in love" with their pimps, regardless of their beatings and abuse. Webber explained this as a common trait among survivors of sexual abuse who find their first friend and lover in their pimps and forgive him his periodic "rages". 


Most of the children who call the streets their home must work in one capacity or another to get by. Those children resourceful and tough enough to survive the merciless conditioning process of street life, concoct many different self-enterprising schemes to sustain themselves. Viewed with disdain bordering on contempt by most of society, they are relegated to the most insufferable jobs, as the sex trade attests to. The conditions in factories or businesses employing children are unsuitable by any standards, the pay is negligible if not inconsistent, and the hours are excessive. 

Many of these child laborers, similar to the prostitute situation in Cambodia, are the sons and daughters of impoverished families who have been sacrificed and sold into a life of bondage in the hopes of saving the family. An infamous example of this emerged in 1995 when a 13 year old Pakistani was killed by an organized carpet Mafia, while crusading against child slavery and labor. At the age of four he had been sold to carpet manufacturers for $16 [Shane, 1996]. America has seen its share of child labor too. Amidst the crowded slums and industrial factories of the early 1900's, thousands of kids were killed or injured as a result of accidents, exposure, exhaustion [Jansson, 1996]. Work equals survival, and even those begging or stealing consider themselves as legitimately employed; the harsh means to an end that is painfully insufficient at the end of a12 hour day. 

The latest projections from the UN labor agency show that 250 million five to fourteen year olds are employed around the globe, half of them full time workers. This was broken down as follows: 153 million kids working in Asia, 80 million in Africa, and 17.5 in Latin America. Many of these were bought from families and forced to work in the carpet weaving industry, where small, nimble fingers are necessary for detailed weaving and the glass manufacturing companies, where expendable and valueless bodies are required to drag loads of molten glass from glowing furnaces amid deafening noise levels. Children as young as three years old were found working in match factories, exposed to dust, asbestos, and other hazardous fumes. Environmental poisoning from dust and fumes inhalation is a daily occurrence for kids employed in repair shops, woodwork factories, and construction sites in Egypt, the Philippines and Turkey. In Sri Lanka, more kids die from pesticide poisoning than from a combination of all other childhood diseases such as malaria, tetanus and whooping cough. Up to five million child domestic servants are currently working in Indonesia, including 400,000 in the capital of Jakarta [AP, 1996].In South Africa alone 100,000 child laborers exist, with more than 10,000 children on the streets and unlike Zimbabwe's street child population, the majority of those in South Africa are truly homeless, i.e. children of the street [Makombe, 1992]. 

Suffice to say, child labor offers no recourse but continued poverty and disempowerment for its underaged participants. Working at such a young age prevents the attainment of an education necessary for long-term self-sufficiency, while further perpetuating the ignorance that molds children into non-entities. As child workers, they are forever denied the tools and knowledge base required to break free of generational poverty. Thus, they will continue to be innocent victims of a capricious society that has lost sympathy for the rights of its youngest denizens. 


The most common form of substance abuse naturally involves the cheapest form of drug. Glue sniffing is an activity utilized from the streets of Honduras to the slums of New Delhi to the reservations of South Dakota. Traveling through Central America, it was a disturbingly common sight to see boys under the age of 12 sniffing into a paper bag filled with glue, for no more reason than to escape their unloving and unjust environment. A 1991 study of 150 Guatemalan street children found that 100% of them used inhalants, glue and other solvents, as their drug of choice, with 96.5% sniffing daily and 3.5% using them weekly [Covenant House, 1995]. Glue is widely available in different forms, from rubber cement to cobbler's glue, and is thus highly accessible to children in every society, before they discover and are able to purchase alcohol. Canadian teens talked about pitching money together to buy gasoline for use as an inhalant, and in Asia the widely used drugs include opium, ganja and tobacco [Filguerias, 1992]. 

"When I sniff glue I go everywhere. I don't need to eat and I can do all the crazy things" [Filguerias, 1992:10]. Glue, as well as smoking marijuana, and injecting any kinds of drugs they can get a hold of, are in many cases the only real supports that allow them to compensate for their constant street companions of solitude, fear and hunger. Additionally, it numbs them from the pain of the cold streets and beatings from other kids and the police. However, in exchange for such temporary deliverance, these inhalants present a multitude of problems, including hallucinations, pulmonary edema, kidney failure, and irreversible brain and nose membrane damage [Covenant House, 1995]. The following quote also symbolizes the potentially comforting remedies found through drug use by street children. Jorge Mahomar, a small boy from Honduras, explained that one friend of his sniffed because, " when he inhales Resistol he hallucinates about his mother caressing him" [Griffin-Nolan,1991:51]. It is small wonder that drug use is so rampant among kids on the street, it asks no questions, makes no immediate demands, and grants a tormented child brief passage into a childhood they'll otherwise never know. 


The attitudes adopted in conceptualizing street children are as multifarious as they are biased. One version, represented for better or for worse in this paper, identifies the street child as the victim of a corrupt society, existing in a counterculture with separate values and ethics, motivated by relentless and ruthless forces. Another image strives to remain positively biased of these homeless children, especially while they are cute, pitiable and small youngsters wandering the streets, but mutates as soon as they become hardened teens with an aggressive, resentful and sometimes delinquent personality. Then these same voices cry out for their imprisonment and removal. Still other factions perceive them as mentally ill, feeble-minded contagions, or conversely, as especially clever and talented kids of above average intelligence.  

The image of a street child is an amorphous, mercurial entity, constantly shape shifting to fit the agenda of its author. For example, Lewis Aptekar, in a study on homeless kids in Columbia, postulates, "Given the poor and impoverished beginnings why did the children seem so intelligent? It may well be that street life, rather than taking away from cognitive growth, actually adds to it...." [Aptekar, 1989:6]. He goes on to quote another study indicating that street kids weighed more than their siblings at home which, "speaks to the children's ability to organize their lives productively" [Aptekar, 1989:7]. As well, his results apparently indicated that,"time on the streets did not lead to poorer emotional or neurological functioning" and that " Once on the streets, they joined a lively peer group that gave them a good deal of friendship and support"[Aptekar, 1989:7] 

It should come as no great surprise that children who have spent a majority of their lives in the street to develop a hostile and antagonistic attitude towards society. This anger, in conjunction with a need for companionship, finds a niche within ganglife. Frequently, kids are recruited by drug lords, using them as drug runners or soldiers to guard a gang's "territory" [Michaels, 1993]. Street gangs sometimes offer the only sense of belonging or acceptance ever experienced by a child. Gangs represent a vehicle through which kids can create an identity for themselves, gain "respect" for deeds accomplished, and create a family for themselves. However, the forces which unite most street gangs and cause them to assemble in the first place, lead also to violent encounters with other gangs, inspire acts of malice to garner respect, and encourages illicit behavior which in turn reinforces and justifies society's pejorative view of those living on the street. 

"Adults fear and hate kids because of the kids' relations to boundaries-the boundaries between 'good' and 'bad'. When kids 'go bad', they transgress the all-too tenuous boundary separating 'civilized behavior' from barbarism. Roving gangs of wilding youths make good news copy because they reify our fears and justify our enmity. Fear is one of the two main obstacle to dealing with the real problems of street kids. The other is empathic overload" [Levi-Strauss, 1992:754]. 

Older children, hardened and usually fallen prey to the vices of the street, provide role models for younger kids, thereby passing on a legacy of self-abuse and deleterious behavior. By contrasting his view with other accounts, we can view a sample of the empirical and attitudinal differences personified in different authors/researchers. However, more than one author spoke of the remarkable maturity displayed by many of the street children sharing their stories. Obviously, the more articulate one is, the greater their inclination to speak out, but nevertheless, in light of their respective pasts, it was a notable and touching surprise. 

If the profile of a street child seems contradictory or confused at times, it is only because of the often enigmatic and diverse array of experiences faced by street children around the world. It is futile to construct a universal conceptualization of a street child, for observation and ethnographic description will forever be tainted by personal bias. Yet, we can rely on factual information and personal testimonies to establish that children left to their own defenses, are destined to suffer. 


There exist a few different factors leading to the existence and escalation of the phenomenon of street children. 

Increased urbanization is one such element of this problem. By the year 2000, four out of ten urban dwellers will be children under the age of 18, by 2025, that number will increase to six out of ten residents [Malamud, 1996]. These children are increasingly moving to the cities due to economic hardship in the rural areas. This movement "is exacerbated by natural disasters and by the political upheavals which are a common correlate of the socioeconomic disparity that exists" [Johnston, 1995:23]. Highlighting this disparity is the lack of agrarian reform which Al Gerwing points to as the "prime breeder of street children" [Gerwing, 1995:1]. In Brazil, the richest country in Latin America where the top 20% of the population earns 26 times as much as the lowest 20%, the country has gone from being predominantly rural to mostly urban in the space of just 40 year [Michaels, 1993]. Such inequality has forced millions into the slums of the cities looking for a better living. These families for the most part are dispossessed rural workers, as plantation owners change their operations from cane to cattle raising, or begin to mechanize their ranch production [Gerwing, 1995]. In Guatemala, 3% of the population own 98% of the available arable land, also propelling thousands of families into the urban areas [Gutman, 1991]. The chief exports in Guatemala are sweet peas and coffee; in a country where 85% of the children are chronically malnourished these figures are despicable. The plantation owners manage to sell these products to the world cheaply because their workers are being paid subsistence wages, leaving 70% of the population living in extreme poverty [Gutman, 1991]. In Honduras, a similar lack of progressive land reform has resulted in 80% of its people under the poverty line, barely able to meet their most basic needs. It is no wonder then that families are forced to migrate to the slums, where the pressure for survival leads to the disintegration of many families [Covenant House, 1995]. 

James Grant, the late Executive Director of UNICEF, talked of the problem of the street child as being rooted in a gross imbalance in the distribution of resources globally. "Lines of causality can even be drawn connecting the street child to an international economic system that has accelerated impoverishment and stalled development in much of the Third World"[Covenant House, 1995:4]. This quote is supported within processes ranging from increased industrialization and urbanization, to capitalism's greedy quest for high profit margins, to corrupt governments, and the global free market consolidating wealth in a few elite families. 

War has also played a major role in breaking down family units, casting millions of children into the streets. In the past ten years, approximately 2 million children have died in wars and over 4 million have been physically disabled [Seufert-Barr, 1995]. The civil war in Peru has created 50,000 orphans and 120,000 displaced children, eventually causing 1.2 million children to take to the streets from economic hardship which devastated the ties of thousands of families. It is predicted that as a result of the internal wars, urbanization and abuse occurring in Latin America and the Caribbean, there will be an astounding 300 million street children, half of them born into extreme poverty. In many parts of the world we also see an alarming increase in child soldiers, forced to fight and kill against their will. Also in Peru are 5,000 such conscripted soldiers in the army or guerrilla forces [Mathews, 1993]. This has occurred in Mozambique as well, where children are a direct target for the Mozambique National Resistance Movement. The atrocities committed here are some of the worse known to mankind. Children are routinely forced to kill their parents or watch as their fathers are killed and mothers raped and tortured. The soldiers capture children as young as six to the military bases where the boys are trained to kill, and the girls become "wives" and domestic servants to the soldiers. Children who become free of their captors have invariable lost their parents and take to the streets. Save the Children Federation became involved with these kids through a government program, and attempts to help these traumatized children how to "relearn a moral code", and how to learn to cope with some of the horrible things they have performed or witnessed [Neustatter, 1992:27]. Economic forces also inspire war, especially when individuals or groups fighting for resources don't feel the need or desire to share such resources with others. 

Abuse in the home is another leading reason why children end up on the street. This was evident in Webber's work with Canadian street children. Additionally, a study in Guatemala of street children, found that 100% of them had been sexually abused. Fifty-three percent claimed to have been abused by family member: 64% of the girls had their first sexual relations with their mother or father, with 7.7% having their first sexual encounter with a father or mother, 22% with an uncle or aunt, and 51% other, none of them reported to have the first encounter with a girlfriend. Ninety-six percent of the had contracted a sexually transmitted disease while living on the street [Casa Alianza, 1995]. Stephen Malamud says of the study, 

"They flee their homes to escape from abuse, and once in the streets they often must submit to further exploitation and abuse to survive. Quickly they learn that, again, people who are supposed to protect them are the ones they need to fear the most. In their homes it was one or both of the parents. In the streets, the police present the biggest danger" [Malamud, 1996:2]. 

A deeper analysis of what causes sexual and physical abuse to occur in the first place would identify historical cycles of parental abuse, economic frustration, lack of a supportive network/community, and social isolation. Financial straits in North America, warfare in Africa and Central America, natural catastrophes in India, and inequitable land reform in South America, all contribute to these corrosive conditions generating abuse in the home, leaving the children fearful for their lives and sanity. 


The rights of the child were not given specific international recognition until 1924 in the "Geneva Declaration", a five point document put together by the "Save the Children Fund International Union. It was accepted by the League of Nations and eventually expanded into the Declaration on the Rights of the Child adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1959. The declaration granted special rights to children, on account of their particular needs "as especially vulnerable, essentially dependent and developing human beings"[Phillips,1994:166]. The difficulty in creating universal rules as to the treatment and rights of children stems from the divergent perceptions of children around the world. Methods of raising a child, ages for when childhood ends, and the child's role in family, community and society are all very culturally specific. Taking this into account, the international community used the "three P's: Provision, Protection and Participation" to codify a set of laws and stipulations regulating the human rights of children [Phillips, 1994:166]. The three P's, striving to avoid traditional and ethnic conflict, simply says that children must have the right to possess, receive or have access to certain things and services (education, health care), the right to be protected from certain acts and practices (torture, abuse), and the right to do things, express one's self and have an effective voice and role in conditions affecting their lives (to have their opinions valued and appreciated) [Phillips, 1994]. As more and more laws were created attesting to the human rights of children, governments decided to try and assimilate them into a more cohesive proposal. Polish authorities proposed a Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1979 and ratified in 1989. It requires however, that countries sign and ratify the Convention individually, marking a dedication to upholding civil and human rights for children in their nation. Many of the Convention's 54 articles have relevance to street children. Article 20 calls for special protection for children without families, Article 19 provides the right to protection from abuse by parents or other caregivers, Article 28 recognizes every child's right to an education, and Article 32, 34, and 36 covers the right to protection from economic, sexual and other forms of exploitation [Covenant House, 1995]. 

Of course, this Declaration has no power in terms of enforcement, making it in some cases a symbolic and useless promise to uphold children's rights. Guatemala was the sixth country to ratify it but they continue to target children for abuse, torture and murder. The World Summit for Children in 1990, witnessed the signing of the World Declaration on the Survival, Protection and Development of Children by 154 governments. Out of this Summit came the National Programs of Action (NPA) adopted by each country and designed to outline a coarse of action to be taken by the respective countries in regards to implementing development schemes. These strategies will focus upon: Health, Education, Nutrition, Water and Sanitation, Child Development Issues, and an Overall Plan to guide the strategies. Projects relating to health, nutrition, and child development issues were being jointly funded by the World Bank [World Summit, 1990]. 



I had the good fortune to serve my social work internship in the capital city of Accra in Ghana the summer of '97. Once there, my field liaison introduced me to Mr. Ataa Lartey, the founder and director of the Sports And Cultural Academy For Street Children. Mr.Lartey conceived of the idea of the school in 1992, in recognition of increasing numbers of children spending their days working or roaming about on the streets of Bukom and Jamestown, poor urban areas of Accra. Mr. Lartey decided to establish a "safe place" for the children to gather together, in the attempt to teach the children some basic academic skills while also pursuing sports and cultural activities. Since the street culture of both Bukom and Jamestown are dynamic and lively entities, the decision was made to tap some of the unreleased talent within the children who have grown up in these areas, specifically in the areas of boxing, football, traditional dance and drumming. Due to the many negative influences easily found on the streets, the school was designed as a locale where positive exchanges and interactions could take place. Literacy and math classes are held on Monday, Wednesday and Friday while cultural activities such as singing, dancing and drumming as well as sports activities such as Tae Kwon Do, football and Ping-Pong were organized on Tuesday and Thursday. The reasoning behind the non-traditional curriculum emanates from the transient and unstable existence of most of the children before they began attending school. To take a child who is used to a lack of discipline and structure and attempt to sit him/her down five days a week on a bench is not a realistic goal.  

The Academy aims to help these children break free from cycles of poverty which overwhelm their lives, by giving them some basic skills, emotional support, peer connections and opportunities for employment, in order to transform them into productive and self-sustaining citizens. The Academy is also desperately trying to feed the children attending the school as much as they can, since many of them do not get enough to eat at home, the physical ramifications of which can hinder their mental development. They hope to provide an environment where children could feel supported and nurtured, due to the many deficiencies in their homes. The school has future plans to train teachers as social workers in order to document, record and counsel abused children. The Academy is trying hard to raise funds in order to hire more teachers, buy enough school supplies for all the students, provide breakfast and lunch, fix up the facility housing the school, as well as to help support motivated and talented children go on for higher education.  


In Ghana, there are no social agencies or NGO's which focus on the hidden problem of child abuse Thus, these children have in some instances attended regular schools, but due to dislocation, poverty or parental neglect, have had to drop out of school and either work to support their family or at the very least work to support them.  

Abused children do not have a place to go to report perpetrators and most adults are not equipped to identify such occurrences. Since 70% of the adults in Bukom and Jamestown are illiterate, 30% of the women are single mothers, and 60% of the children have no permanent homes, as well as high unemployment rates and poverty, it is not hard to understand the insidious circumstances which can lead to abuse, both of one's self as well as those around you. Although primary and secondary education is free in Ghana (our equivalent of K-8), students are expected to buy uniforms, pencils, books and other small but necessary school items. While the Social Welfare Department of the University of Legon, Accra has done some excellent work in determining the street children problem as it exists in Ghana, it is the only institution in the country which was collecting reliable data concerning the lives and conditions of the poor urban child of Ghana. There were a few NGOs catering to the needs of street children but from more than one source, I discovered that embezzlement, inter-agency conflict and corruption were more of an influential factor in the daily workings of these organizations than was effective and identifiable methods for social change. Ancillary evidence of the inefficiency prevalent within NGOs was the fact that both UNICEF and Save The Children Fund had temporarily desisted in providing funds for several groups, due mainly to the discovery that thousands of dollars were found to be either "missing" or spent on non-agency materials. 


During my summer internship, I surveyed 103 students on a variety of subjects, then broke down the data by gender in a computer-generated report, which was given to Mr.Lartey as a school profile for funding purposes. Below are some basic demographic facts as well as some significant findings from the data analysis. 

  • 53.5% from Accra 
  • 35% from outside of Accra 
  • 11% from outside of Ghana 
  • 84.5% Christian 
  • 16% Muslim 
  • 92% Ga 
  • 41% English 
  • 40% Twi 
  • 12% Fanti 
  • 57%More than two 
  • 37% Ga 
  • 10% Hausa 
  • 7% Ewe 
  • 32% Football (soccer) 
  • 12% Boxing 
  • 26% Running 
  • 17% Ampe 
69% of the children said they had to stop their formal education due to poverty and 21% due to dislocation  49% of the children believed they had enough to eat every day, while 50% claimed they either were not satisfied or were sometimes satisfied with their daily food intake  80% of the children work before and/or after school  54% of the children work as vendors in the market 
33% of the children claimed they were not satisfied with their sleeping conditions  40% of the children claim to get sick very often (once or more/month) during the year  Fevers and Malaria accounted for 61% of the illnesses suffered most frequently  70% of the children stated they were unhappy at home due to beatings and insults 

There were very few correlations which proved to be of statistical significance. This can be attributed to a variety of factors, the least of which is the relatively small population size the data was drawn from. However, one interesting result which was significant at a p-value of .05, was the correlation between children's satisfaction of their daily food intake and the number of times they get sick per year. It seemed that those children who claimed they were not satisfied or sometimes satisfied with their daily food intake, were more likely to have been sick very often (once or more/month). This held true across gender and age categories. If presented with an opportunity to return to Ghana, a follow-up project studying the connections between children's eating patterns and their health would be a valuable study. It would be important to discover how often children really eat, what they eat, how much they eat at one sitting, do they like what they eat, as well as specific health information measuring their general well-being, checking symptoms they may complain of having, and beginning some kind of long-term research project beginning with the collection of baseline data. Comparing some of these findings with national data could provide us with some strong empirical evidence concerning the Academy's cohort of children.  

By taking a more generalized view of the findings, paying less critical attention to statistical significance between variables, other connections emerge which may be of importance. For example, there were connections between a child's satisfaction concerning their sleeping conditions and their choice of what they were most unhappy with at home. Chilren who said they were not satisfied with their sleeping conditions due to reasons such as too many people on the bed, discomfort from sleeping on the floor, too cold, too hot, etc., were generally inclined to be unhappiest about being beaten and/or insulted at home. This may reflect a lack of attention on the part of the parents/guardians of the child, who are either unconcerned with or unable to act upon the child's needs. Due to the poor background of the most of these children, as well as the fact that over 50% of them came from single parent homes, it is not surprising that their living conditions were less than comfortable. Again, how displeasure at home relates to health is an imporant research question to be followed up at a later point. In addition, girls were found to be more likely to work before and/or after school than boys, which is reflective of the gender constructions/roles in Ghanaian society. Other research questions I would like to explore further include: 

  • How does a child who has moved around quite a bit in his/her early years compare to his/her counterparts in terms of health and general satisfaction? 
  • Do children who claim to be unhappy at home due to beatings/insults have a harder time at school where corporal punishment is highly prevalent? 
  • How do specific living conditions such as where a child sleeps, how many people they live with, sanitary conditions of the house and what they are fed correlate with incidence of illnesses? or types of diseases? 
  • What do the children most strongly believe will allow them to rise above their current conditions? 
As is apparent, there a many questions that need to be asked and researched, involving both quantitative and qualitative research methods. A long-term commitment must be made to these children, in terms of academic interest, resource sharing and emotional participation. Without such dedication, ethnographic/research studies in the field as well as their inspired interventions will lead a very tenuous existence. More resources have to be targeted for studies such as these, whereby the results are analyzed for correlational variables, contextualized within the national statistics, and the appropriate measures are taken to follow up on community needs and problems. This is the responsibility of both the researcher involved with the study as well as those who endorse such projects. In time perhaps the academic community may realize the importance of researching the lives of street children in order to get a broader sense of their true conditions as well as to attain statistical evidence necessary for funding dollars. 


Although the situation facing the world's street children is dismal, there are many examples of unique and intelligent programs currently in practice which address this problem. One highly successful tactic used in programs in the Philippines as well as Brazil is called Peer Counseling. This methodology works under the assumption that street children are seen as the most effective listeners and counselors for other children in similar situations. They are trained by psychologists or social workers to run and facilitate groups' discussions in hopes of letting kids share their views and feelings. The solutions and insights into the phenomenon of street children that are generated by the kids in these group meetings, are as valuable if not more so than research by professionals. The ability to see the world through the eyes of a child is a precious and essential component in seeking ways to alleviate the problem. Just as importantly, it proves to children that their stories and views are valued and worthwhile [UNESCO, 1995]. 

Another effective tool has been the use of Streetworkers, also known as Street Educators. These are caring compassionate adults that the children will first meet on the street in attempts to assist them. They can be professionally trained social workers or simply ex-street children/sex workers, trying to make a difference. At an Asian conference on street children, 20 children from the streets of Manila reported their preferred qualifications in a street educator: someone who is a friend, who is sympathetic and affectionate, a source of encouragement, who knows self-defense, who is non-threatening, and someone who gives importance to what we can do [Rialp, 1991]. In Brazil, Mexico, and many other parts of the world, the street educators are the first contact to the outside world of adults that the street children will come to know and value. They are almost always trained by an external agency, such as the Khmer women who were former sex workers doing AIDS education and prevention programs in the streets of Cambodia. Similarly, Webber met ex-prostitutes in Canada who were employed by social service agencies to provide education and counseling to young kids selling their bodies. The street educators that are former street children can relate to the experiences of the children, establishing trust and confidence much quicker than others can.  


The breakdown of the family in urban centers was initially addressed by the Undugu Society in Kenya back in the seventies. This organization evolved from a residential care facility to a comprehensive urban community development program assisting slum families. Their programs consists of: an urban agricultural project which helps children who have come off the streets to learn and earn a livelihood; a community health center which teaches primary health, AIDS prevention, and family planning, and a housing assistance program to prevent families from taking to the streets. Most importantly, they have relied on cultural traditions to push for integrating kids into their communities. Ezra Mbogori, current director of the agency says, "We are trying to get the community to take responsibility for these street children in keeping with African tribal traditions. We tell them: 'You're the guardians of these children. Why on earth are you letting them live like this?' We give the responsibility back to the community" [Rialp, 1991:10].  


A consequence of the devestating economic hardship brought on by the Great Depression of 1929, was an unprecedented lack of jobs in the country. In 1933 there were 13.7 million unemployed men [Hill, 1990]. The President at the time, Franklin Delanour Roosevelt, proposed a new project under the auspices of his "New Deal" economic revitalization project. It was an ingenious plan called the Civilian Conservation Corps, designed to provide employment while at the same time protecting the nation's natural resources. The criteria for joining the Corps were strict: only single, physically fit, unemployed men from "relief families" between the ages of 18-25 would be accepted into the program. The CCC projects lasted for nine years, with a total of 3 million men, the majority of whom was white, having served their country. At the end of the nine year project, there were some remarkable achievements to mark the efficacy of Corps employees. Over 2 billion trees were planted as soil erosion controls, 40,000 bridges were constructed, hundreds of state parks were build and many other large-scale projects were undertaken and completed [Hill, 1990]. The CCC was considered a success and was heralded as a significant tool in having shaped the character, values and work ethic of millions of American men. 


In 1988, the state of New York initiated a new program with old roots. The New York State Conservation Corps was designed based on the 1930's Citizen Conservation Corps. Corps members work in teams, under qualified adult supervision, developing and completing conservation efforts to help their local communities. The New York program, unlike its' predecessor, engages both boys and girls, as well as members from all ethnic, social, economic and cultural background, in their summer programs. While working on projects aimed at introducing children to the grand world of ecology and environmentalism, corps members are required to attend classes on writing, reading, ethics, personal responsibility, employment skills, first aid as well as safety. Although the pay is low, it is enough to support the children during their summer internship, with sponsors helping to provide some grants, work projects, professional expertise and local funding. The lessons many of these children learn are invaluable, not only allowing many children to work in an organized team for the first time in their lives, but also granting them a measure of success, accomplishment and heightened self-esteem [Steele, 1988]. 

In addition, there are various case studies around the world in which organizations and individuals are attempting to bring nature to poor urban areas. This is reflected as well in the community garden movement in New York City, as well as an innovative project in South Africa. In these instances, the blight connected with urban poverty is replaced in piecemeal, by the planting of trees, shrubs and vegetable and herb gardens. If one could encourage children to become involved in such projects, using the proper/appropriate incentives and rewards, one might see some benevolent changes. Transformations can take place both in the local environment,but as well in the emotional well-being of the children, who will work towards beautifying their community, garnering the appreciation of their neighbors, and perhaps getting some kind of tangible benefit from their work, be it food, shelter or healthy companionship. 


So, can this prototype be applied to street children in a developing city where the national emphasis on environmental preservation is much less than what is found here? I believe with the right balance of financial resources, governmental support, international assistance and compassionate, energetic teachers, the project could provide an excellent opportunity for the urban poor child. 

Let us use Ghana as our test case nation. If we acquired a simple nod of approval from the president, J.J.Rawlings, a few National Service volunteers, who are required to donate a year or two to serving their country, some international donor agencies willing to commit some hefty dollars and a potential location for a camp, then this plan would be well on its way to actualization. Street children with no filial connections could be recruited from the streets by street workers who already spend their time getting to know the children. Children will not be forced into this pilot program; in fact many would rather be a part of the excitement and communality of the streets than be herded to the country for an experimental program. However, enough children will surely be found who either have lost all contact with their family, or are a long distance away from their family, in which case we can do our best to track their family down and insure they have no problems with their child participating in our group project.  

We can explain from the outset that participants will be under no obligation to stay once the project begins, that food and shelter will be provided, and that the program is an effort to help them get off the street for a set period of time, learn some employable skills, meet some caring and trustworthy friends, become as literate as possible, and have a chance to settle down peacefully in a stable and safe environment. Prior to recruiting children participants, a large number of acres would be bought or leased, teachers would be carefully trained in working with children from the street, structures would be built to sleep and dine in, and outdoor projects would be devised by pre-selected project leaders who have knowledge of hands-on skills such as carpentry, animal husbandry or construction. Hopefully, all the tools and resources and land required to create a permanent camp in a rural area would be funded by donor agencies, both domestic and international in nature. Such donations would be seen as investments into the future of a few young Ghanaian citizens. If funds had to be diverted from other NGO sources, I can honestly attest to witnessing more than a few suspicious monetary transactions where financial resources from the World Bank or UNICEF were "mismanaged" and "redirected" into personal accounts. So, with a few well-placed phone calls, I'm sure we could come up with enough money to fund this project.  

In addition, there must be a determined effort to incorporate some fundamental conservation efforts as were seen in the CCC. Rural projects involving villages or communities could provide an amazing partnership between urban homeless children and families living outside of the city. There are always various projects and plans being undertaken in rural areas and this would present an excellent chance for street children to gradually become socialized in relating to and working with other people. If the children were allowed to stay in their camp for the night but spent a large part of their days assisting in development projects around the countryside, I believe their spirits would experience a much needed boost in terms of self-efficacy, confidence and trust in others. As well, if the idea of a camp was deemed implausible, then similar development projects could be initiated within the confines of the city, employing street children and compensating them for their work, perhaps through shelter and food. Such urban projects could include revitalization efforts like garbage collection, construction of affordable housing, the digging of new ditches for better sanitation, as well as training selected children as street educators/counselors.  

Well, I have not worked out all the logistics yet, and so some questions remain, such as:  

  • How long will children be allowed to stay in the camp? 
  • What opportunities will these children have once their stay is completed? 
  • What do we do about children who present major behavioral problems while in the camp besides tossing them back on the street? 
  • How do we evaluate and measure success in order to please our funding sources? 
  • If the children are involved with urban renewal projects, how do we make sure they stay off drugs? 
  • What happens when the children run out of activities or projects to do? 
  • Can a nature-based ideology be infused into the program and if so how would that help street children? 
However, I am confident that will a little luck, some financial aid, a few capable and dedicated individuals, as well as the proper political and social environment, the CCC Street Children Prototype could provide an amazing opportunity for street children to realize their potential and regain hope for their future. 


It may be informative to our discussion to look at the phenomenon of street children within the context of transitional theory. Transitions refer to the process of changes, an ephemeral condition present within all aspects of the natural world and society. The changes which take place, be they climactic change, economic change or mortality rate changes, are the result of intertwined and synergistic relationships between different variables. Demographers attempting to explain patterns of behavior within countries developed this theory to make sense of how, why and when populations undergo significant changes affecting their population. However, while this model is highly effective in demonstrating the dynamics between life/death rates, population growth and development stages, it can also be applied to a number of other variables, also known as a "family of transitions" [Drake, p.302]. Thus, there are transitions occurring in relation to agricultural practices, deforestation, energy use, urbanization and many others. In fact, the transitional model can theoretically be applied to any phenomenon that involves multi-dimensional interactions occurring over time.  

Essentially, all aspects of our existence are affected by an unknown number of variables. Transitional theory tries to take a few distinct factors and plot them against each other, over a period of time. The concept of time is critical to this model. In order to measure changes between dynamic sets of factors, one needs to place the reactions within an overarching context (time) in order to visualize the relationship patterns that exist between them. It is also important to note that these interactions are both driven by the process of change, but as well, create change[Drake, p.303]. If we look at the production of automobiles over the last century we find that they have contributed greatly to the degradation of air quality, which in turn can cause acid rain, leading to the sterilization of lakes and the death of aquatic life. The original condition of air pollution from exhaust fumes continues on, but has now caused a change which sets into motion an infinite number of other reactions; the ripple effect so to speak. 

However, there is a dilemma faced in placing the street child phenomenon into a transitional context. The causal factors that were discussed earlier, such as urbanization, war and the disintegration of families, are ubiquitous conditions, transcending all political, economic and cultural boundaries. For instance, in the United States, cases of child sexual abuse have been on the rise over the past few years. This is due to both increased awareness and acknowledgement of such practices as well as the continuing erosion of family conditions, leading to dysfunctional/abusive behaviors. Although the country experiences high economic growth and low unemployment, there are still forces at work that contribute to an overwhelming loss of community, care and understanding between individuals.  

These tragic circumstances are reflected in the fact that 30,000 kids currently sustain themselves on the streets of New York City, with a reported 50% rate of exposure to HIV [Levi-Strauss, 1992]. The problem of runaways and prostitution is rampant among the streets of America's largest cities as well as in Canada where an estimated 200,000 teen-agers struggle to survive within urban environments. Marlene Webber, in a two year study of Canadian street children, found that over 90% of the kids prostituting themselves had been sexually abused or raped as children [Webber, 1991]. The situation of teen-aged prostitutes working for pimps in the U.S. and Canada are not too unlikely from the experience of children in Cambodia, India or Thailand sold to sex traders and forced to work in brothels. Similarly, in Brazil, the wealthiest nation in South America, the numbers of street children are on the rise as thousands of families stream into the mega-cities looking for work. Countries such as Sri Lanka and Ghana, where children are considered a precious and highly valued part of the community, are also faced with the problems of dispossessed youth that wind up on the streets for a multitude of reasons. As you can see, countries with stable governments, nations with booming economies as well as countries that have strong moral codes all share the common condition of lost and lonely children forced to create a precarious niche on urban streets. 

So what are the conditional patterns which are apparent in countries where street children are not a reality? The few countries whose name escape the list of nations facing thousands of children living on the streets for survival include the Scandinavian countries such as Sweden and Finland, Costa Rica and Fiji, as well as places like Saudi Arabia. It is important to distinguish between individuals who are employed in the sex trade, which is a response to a market for sex that exists everywhere, and youth who are relegated to working and living directly on the streets. This distinction distinguishes between situations like the red-light district of Amsterdam and girls prostituting themselves on the streets of Toronto. The former is a semi-institutionalized form of sexual labor, while the latter represents a less stable and structured form of survival.  

To aid our understanding of transitional theory and its relationship to the condition of homeless children, it is important to identify factors that drive the transition forward. We can do this by analyzing some of the underlying pressures which contribute to the causal factors mentioned before. The chart below help illustrates this relationship: 

Causal Factors
Driving Forces
  • Rural Migration: Ecological Devastation, Natural Disasters 
  • Population growth 
  • Consolidation of Capital: Build-up of Corporate Institutions 
Violent Conflict 
  • Cultural/Ethnic Passions 
  • Dictatorial Rule 
  • Economic Inequality: (Land/Resources) 
Breakdown of the Family 
  • Economic Instability Social Isolation 
  • Substance Abuse 
  • Cycles of Abuse 
Subsequently, by viewing countries through the matrix above, we can get an idea of their transitional stage, the key variables driving the transition and the timing of events within the various populations/sectors of the society. Some of the opposing qualities of countries that have progressed beyond this transition include the presence of stable governments, strong economies, a well-preserved sense of nationalism devoid of land, ethnic or religious conflict, homogeneous populations and a rigid tradition of either socialism, monarchy or cultural preservation. Although this analysis may lack supporting data, it helps us realize that street children provide a vivid and dramatic indicator of a nation's well being. In other words, the welfare of a particular nation's children, symbolize the collective conscience and compassion of that nation. Let us call this process the "Moral Transition", whereby countries develop and evolve into compassionate states. This can be determined by a country's commitment to actualizing a conceptual model which does not accept the presence of suffering, exploited children living on their streets. For example, I had the good fortune to spend two weeks in Fiji a few years ago. My most indelible memory of my time there was hearing multiple sources claim that Fijians as a society and country simply did not accept the condition of homelessness, especially when children were involved; such people were taken in by various families or provided with shelters.  

The same is the case with Sweden or Norway, socialist states that have made a national commitment to provide for those individuals unable to care for themselves. Perhaps exceptions exist within these countries or conditions have changed recently which create an environment where homelessness will secure a foothold, but nonetheless, these few countries are in a transitional state where equality and social justice are more than shallow buzzwords. Obviously there exist a great number of conditions in countries such as the U.S., Kenya or Brazil that defy the logics of democratic participation and social welfare for all. Either their populations are too large, or there are internal conflicts or the nation is devoid of a unifying ideology / political philosophy which would serve to create a safety net for its less fortunate citizens. Whatever the reasons, the state of the respective countries' children will always be a telltale sign of their moral transitional stage. 


I hope the reader comes away from this paper with a better understanding of the multidimensional nature of the street child phenomenon, as it is currently perceived around the world. As well, the reader should have a basic idea of the social conditions existing in the country of Ghana, both through some of the charts I have included and via the survey results of one small cohort of children on the street. Finally, the reader should be able to visualize some of the innovative and progressive methods currently being utilized by groups concerned with the well-being of street children. I have included a preliminary model for an intervention that I feel may be effective in addressing the needs of street children as well as the communities in which they exist. My model was based in part upon the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930's, which has also spawned similar projects over the past 60 years. The idea of Moral Transitions was presented, embedded within a larger framework of the transitional dynamics that countries undergo as part of their evolutionary development. These transitions can occur with almost any scenario, and in this case I have attempted to portray the existence of street children as an indicator of a country's stage within a "moral transition", whereby the flux of social conditions within the country either allows for or simply does not accept the presence of homeless children. 

The lives of street children are unimaginably difficult, their childhoods are stolen from them forever and many die a premature death. But, there are concerned individuals and groups in many different countries who are striving to conceive of and apply effective interventions designed to get kids off the streets, provide them with some basic amenities and plot a healthy course for their future. Although the underlying forces giving rise to the problem are as diverse as they are persistent, there may come a day when humanity considers the welfare of a child, any child, to hold greater worth and value than profits, land or political power. 



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