By Rasak Musbau
Throughout the world, there are children whose habitation is on the streets and since they domicile in the streets, they are generally referred to as street children. Children are supposed to enjoy love, care and overall protection from parents, but this is not the case with the street children. These children are denied their basic rights and are exposed to physical, sexual and all sorts of harm and abuses and also live in inhumane and deleterious conditions.
The United Nations Children Education Fund distinguishes between two different groups of street children based on their family situations but both have a common characteristic in that they spend their lives on the streets. The first category is of children “on” the streets. These are children who work and maintain regular relationships with their families. The second category is of children who are “of” the streets and consider the street their home. The streets are where they eat, sleep, play and make friends. Children in both of the categories have much in common; they have unstable emotional relationships with the adult world, a negative self image, social stigma, violence, exploitation and uncertain futures.
The street children have historically been labelled and considered as delinquents, vagrants, juveniles exposed to delinquency, street urchins, Almajiris. Some of these children are neglected and abandoned to fend for themselves and learn to survive. Some missed their way and couldn’t find their way back home; some were driven from home because of maltreatment by mothers, step mothers, fathers, and step fathers, as a result of death of either of their parents or as a result of broken homes. Some left home due to harsh situations at home or due to misunderstanding with parents or peer influence. The main activities of these vulnerable children are selling goods on the streets, hawking in markets, motor parks, under bridges and some even loiter the streets or motor parks, doing odd jobs, fighting, playing, stealing and pickpocketing. It has also been established that juvenile delinquency and violence is a mirror reflection of what happens in the life of street children from their mistreatment at home and how they are abused by their peers on the streets.
In Nigeria, the prevalence of street children in urban centres has been a growing concern as rehabilitation efforts by government agencies and non-governmental organisations evidently have not achieved much. In the light of this reality and the general insecurity in the country, it has become necessary to tackle this problem from the family angle to prevent children from coming out or running away from homes in the first place. One would be happy to see the recent national security summit held in the country yield a positive result. But the reality is that without institutional framework and commitment to eliminate those factors that predispose children to leave home for the streets, government efforts might amount to throwing money into the ocean.
It is important while striving to free our nation from the menace of street children to understand where we are coming from and what we are currently doing so as to be viably armed with possible solutions to the street children phenomenon. Unlike in the past, parental roles in child upbringing have nose-dived. Common mistake in many homes today is that of dysfunctional relationships between parents and children. Our value system has been traded away. Parents expect schools to do it all alone for them. The strong point here is that most of the problems we expect governments and others to solve for us will never be solved if at the home front we refuse to buckle-up.
On the government side, employment opportunities as pledged in manifestos should be created so as to overcome poverty. At all tiers of government it must be seen to be committed to the enforcement of the Child Rights Act and the provision of social welfare that guaranteed the protection and safety of every child, particularly the rights of the vulnerable, such as street children, trafficked children and children living with disabilities.
A lot of NGOs are already working in the area of returning the street children back home. We need more of these efforts rather than labelling and tagging of the children. We should know that some of these are innocent and vulnerable children who need love, affection and care. These children are supposed to be reached and given special attention.
They are children, who have parents or guardians, and did not fall from the sky. Unfortunately, it is generally assumed that they are bad children, who absconded from home because they don’t want to be useful to themselves or as a result of bad peer association and that they make their parents to go through heartache and pain. This is not always true. These children are pushed to the streets due to varied reasons. Some of them want to join the armed forces so as to defend our dear country; while others want to be footballers, TV/Radio presenter and producers, studio manager, accountants, lawyers, bankers, doctors, actors, artists and many more. These children if not rescued from the streets will tomorrow haunt the country.
Our collective efforts should be geared towards rehabilitating them and making them better citizens. Building relationships between street children, the police and the community may be a way forward towards alleviating the grievances each group has with the other and thus the society will not view the street children as social misfits and the children will feel they are part of the community that is protected by the police.
In this country, the mass media has been a powerful voice of the oppressed and downtrodden. But the institution has focused more on the political scene. The mass media must be used effectively in order to bring about sustained assistance for those children presently on the streets, as well as to convey prevention messages targeting children contemplating going to the streets.
The problem of street children has to be collectively addressed by the family, policy makers, religious leaders, educators and social scientists, individuals, governmental and non-governmental organisations. One will, therefore, conclude with the words of Wilmot: “Like other peoples of the world, Nigerians have the right to life, liberty and happiness. But they also need jobs, food, housing, health care, education, stability, a secure future for their children”. How apt! If these things are not put in place, such children will develop into future armed robbers, political thugs and other desperadoes that will make Nigeria hell on earth.
Rasak Musbau is a Public Affairs Analyst.