The epic movie ‘Everyone’s Child’ was a reality check for Zimbabweans, and provided a unique opportunity to communities to understand why young people opt to leave the seeming ‘comfort’ of their homes and go onto the streets. It told the story of a family of orphaned children who were thrown into perilous waters after the death of their parents and grandmother and the neglect of their relatives and community. One of the older children, ‘Tamari’ was forced into relative sex work and her brother left to look for work in the big city, a quest that landed him destitute and living in the streets. This story touched hearts and generated compassion for orphaned children, who sometimes find themselves living in the streets, and it called every individual to understand that the welfare of these children is everyone’s responsibility.
It’s sad to note that over a decade after the production of this film, the stories of these same fictional characters are being rewritten and experienced by children in communities today. Children are still being forced into sex work and more often than not, find themselves living in the streets. According to Streets Ahead, an organization based in Harare working with young people in the streets, there are approximately 750 young people living in the streets of Zimbabwe. These young people live in poverty, are exposed to high levels of sexual abuse, are largely isolated and subject to neglect and the rejection of society. It seems that our country is still yet to realize that the child on the streets is everyone’s responsibility and that they are the result of our failure as a nation to provide a safe and healthy environment for our children to live in.
The 2011 Day of the African Child theme was ‘All Together for Urgent Action in Favour of Street Children’ and we need to take stock of what still remains to be done for these young people before we move on to this year’s commemorative campaign. As part of the commemorations for the Day of the African Child last year, the Young People’s Network on HIV and AIDS carried out an advocacy campaign to address the sexual and reproductive health challenges of young people living in the streets. As part of the campaign, youth in the streets were engaged in an effort to understand what drives them onto the streets, what sexual and reproductive health challenges they face and what they wanted different stakeholders to do to address their plight.
One of the challenges that were constantly mentioned was that both girls and boys were victims of rape, and were forced into sex for accommodation, food, safety and release in the case of arrest; with the main perpetrators being gang members, exploitative business people and some unscrupulous law enforcement agents. Other difficulties encountered included lack of access to health services, food and protection as well as constant stress and vulnerability to all sorts of exploitation. They asked stakeholders to help protect their well being by providing medical services to them, giving them information on how to prevent HIV and maintain they sexual and reproductive health as well as to enforce punishment on perpetrators of sexual violence against them regardless of their social standing. In addition to these recommendations, all young people said they didn’t want to be on the streets and called on families and communities to take preventive action and stop other vulnerable young people from getting onto the streets.
In view of the final recommendation, it is undoubtedly up to every parent, guardian and community member in general to ensure that children don’t get onto the streets and in order to do this, we must understand what drives them onto the streets in the first place. The young people engaged as part of the campaign highlighted that they were driven out of their homes due to broken families, economic hardships, child abuse, conflict with their parents or guardians and the desire for independence amongst others. They cited that they were stranded when parents died or divorced, with the situation worsened by the neglect of their relatives and community members. These young people were forced into parental roles, resulting in immense economic pressure and psychological strain that drove them onto the streets. Other children said they experienced sexual abuse, physical exploitation, and emotional torture from the derogatory remarks of their caregivers as well as child labour in poverty stricken families. An additional number of the participants said they had failed to meet the moral and academic expectations of their parents due to early pregnancy, low school grades and drug and alcohol abuse. All these young people were looking for a way out, they sought independence from their circumstances and our city streets gave them a ready welcome.
Let me bring this home to us, to you; when you meet a child living in the streets sitting on the pavement with a group of peers how do you feel? Often times we’re irritated by their presence and cast the blame on them for putting themselves in that situation and rebelling against their parents. We feel afraid about what their hunger will drive them to do and are quick to shrug off their pleas for assistance for fear of harassment. When we don’t blame the children, we point an accusing finger at their parents for failing to restrain their children and letting them run wild. Only a few people have ever looked close enough to see the pain in these children’s hearts at the sacrifice of their dreams, the isolation from society, the deep need for love, shelter, food and another chance at life. We need to ask ourselves how grave a situation would drive a child to thrust themselves into a life of danger, poverty, uncertainty, vulnerability and such loss; its sadly a case of desperate times calling for desperate measures.
I remember a song that Oliver Mtukudzi sang titled ‘Street kid’ and he made striking statements in it verbalizing the thoughts of children on the streets. He sang: “Only strangers all around telling me things I don’t know, there are strangers all over calling me names I don’t like, street kid!”, “Will I ever know what it feels to be loved, I have never known how it feels to be a family”, “I remember looking down at dirty dustbins, looking for what can be a meal for my day in these places I call home”. His song was a call to the conscience of every citizen, just as the movie ‘Everyone’s Child’, a call for a change of perspective in relating to children living in the streets. It’s time we invested focus on ensuring the welfare of orphaned and vulnerable children in our families and communities so that they’re not forced to make destructive life-altering decisions. Whilst we do this, let’s work collectively or as individuals to share love and hope with children in the streets through providing food, shelter, health services and legal covering for them. Let’s also channel this support through organizations that are already carrying out interventions for them so that our efforts are more comprehensive in meeting the needs of these young people. Young people in difficult circumstances should also get in touch with youth serving organizations or the Social Welfare department so that they get assistance and don’t have to turn to the streets. Life on the streets isn’t easy, nor is it necessary; all stakeholders including children must work to stem the tide of young people who find themselves on the streets, we need to collectively realize that this is our nation, these are our children and they’re our responsibility.