The Worldwide Phenomenon of Street Children: Conceptual Analysis

By Roux, Johann le | Adolescence, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview
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The Worldwide Phenomenon of Street Children: Conceptual Analysis

Roux, Johann le, Adolescence


The scene is common and painfully familiar; a busy street lined with shops displaying the latest in fashion and electronic equipment, well-dressed people going in and out, the sound of vehicles whizzing by, expensive cars, the flash of neon lights. At night big cities come alive and urban life reaches its peak. But, in the background, children huddle in corners, or walk about aimlessly, dirty, dishevelled - a pitiful sight. Some are selling cigarettes, peddling lottery tickets or flowers; some are just loitering and others are asleep in city arcades. As night progresses, these children are seen gambling, smoking, sniffing solvents, taking up with locals or tourists for a night of "big money," taking on odd jobs to get some money to ease their grumbling stomachs or to take home to starving family members (Childhope, 1993).

Street children, the offspring of today's complex urban realities worldwide, represent one of our global family's most serious, urgent and rapidly growing socioeducational challenges. No country and virtually no city can escape the presence of these so-called street children. In some parts of the world, they have been a familiar phenomenon for many years. In the last decade this phenomenon has grown at an alarming rate throughout Asia and Africa.

Contrary to popular belief, street children do have a function in society (Baizerman, 1990): Their ongoing presence functions to reaffirm each person's pre-existing prejudices about families, substance abuse, street crime, and birth control. They reaffirm usually unstated notions about the incorrigibility of children or their inherent resilience. They contribute to the affirmation of theological notions of sin, corruption, and other evils. They define moral boundaries and in part, the unsympathetic nature of contemporary society. They are part of modern life as it is organized today: a street culture of petty crime, drug selling and prostitution. They are part of the job market as unskilled, energetic, available, low-cost and short-term employees. They are used as runners or "gofers" to deliver packages as well as perform other services. The street child phenomenon is therefore sustained by the functioning of modern society.


The term street children was aptly coined sometime in the eighties to identify children who have chosen to spend most of their time on the streets in various "occupations." Ranging in age from 5 to 18 years, they ply the sidewalks in a desperate attempt to eke out whatever they can to bring home to their families for food, medicine, or whatever is needed. Most of them are the children of poor parents who migrated from the rural areas in hope of making a life in the city, but whose lack of education rendered them ill-equipped for survival in the urban jungle. Different countries describe street children in different ways. However, three categories have been identified in the Philippines (Childhope, 1993):

Children working on the street, with regular family contact. Comprising about 70% of street children in some countries, these children have family connections of a regular nature. Most of this group still attend school and return home at the end of each working day. They are referred to as children on the street.

Children living and working on the street. These children see the street as their home and from it they seek income, food, shelter, and a sense of family among companions. Family ties may exist but are viewed negatively, and their former home is infrequently visited. In some countries, about 20% of street children, and in others like Thailand, the majority are in this category; they are referred to as children of the street.

Completely abandoned and neglected children. Having severed all ties with a biological family, these children are entirely on their own, for material and psychological survival.

Several countries in the Asian region recognize the three categories, agreeing on a common denominator: the children, with or without family, are at high risk.

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