By Rasak Musbau
In many countries, there are children whose habitation is on the streets. And since they domicile in the streets, they are referred to as street children. Children are supposed to enjoy love, care and protection from parents, but this is not the case with the street children. These children are denied basic rights and are exposed to physical, sexual and all sorts of harm and abuses. They also live in inhumane and deleterious conditions.
United Nations Children Education Fund (UNICEF) distinguishes between two different groups of street children based on their family situations. The two groups however have a common characteristic in that they spend their lives in the street. The first category is of children “on” the street. These are children who work and maintain regular relationships with their families. The second category is of children “of” the street and they consider the street their home.
The streets are where they eat, sleep, play and make friends. Children in both 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 labeled 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 from mothers, step mothers, father, and step father, as a result of death of either of their parent 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 along the street, hawking in the market, motor parks, under the bridges and some even loiter the streets or motor parks, doing odd jobs, fighting, playing, stealing and pockets picking. It has also been established that juvenile delinquency and violence have become reflection of what happens in the life of street children from their mistreatment at home and how they are abused by their peers in 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 Organizations (NGOs) evidently has not achieved much. In the light of this reality and 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 to the street 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 onto the streets, government efforts might amount to throwing money into the ocean to appease gods for fortune one has not worked for.
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 of overcoming the street children phenomenon. Unlike in the past, parental role in child upbringing has 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 should be created so as to overcome poverty. At all tiers of government it must be seen to be committed to enforcement of child rights act and provision of social welfare that guaranteed the protection and safety of every child, particularly the rights of the vulnerable, such as street children in question as well as trafficked children, children with disabilities.
A lot of NGOs are already working in the area of returning the street children back home. We need more of this effort rather than labeling and tagging the children. We should know that some of these are innocent but vulnerable children who need love, affection and care. These children are supposed to be given special attention.
They are the unreached children who are not yet reached because when other children are in these places they are in the street. We know that 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. They make their parents to go through heartache and pain.
This is not always true because they are pushed to the street due to varied reasons. They are children who yearn to be loved and cared for. Some of them want to join the armed forces so as to defend our dear country, some footballers, TV/Radio presenter and producers, some studio manager, some accountants, lawyers, bankers, doctors, actors, artists and many more. These children if not rescued from the street will tomorrow hunt 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 in alleviating the grievances each group has towards the other and thus the society will not view the street children as social misfits and the children will feel as part of the community that is protected by the police force.
In our country today, the media have 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 street, as well as to convey prevention messages targeting children contemplating going on to the street.
The problem of street children has to be collectively addressed by the family, policy makers, religious teachers, educators and social scientists alike, individuals, governmental and non-governmental organizations. One will, therefore, conclude with the words of Wilmot that: “Like other peoples of the world, Nigerians have the right to life, liberty and happiness.
But they also need jobs, food, housing, healthcare, 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.
•Musbau is a Staff of Lagos State Ministry of Information and Strategy, Alausa, Ikeja – Lagos