Causes and Characteristics of the Street Child Phenomenon: A Global Perspective

By Le Roux, Johann; Smith, Cheryl Sylvia | Adolescence, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Causes and Characteristics of the Street Child Phenomenon: A Global Perspective


Le Roux, Johann, Smith, Cheryl Sylvia, Adolescence


The phenomenon of street children, an offspring of the modern urban environment, represents one of humanity's most complex and serious challenges. No country and virtually no city anywhere in the world today is without the presence of street children. Both developed and developing countries face a broad spectrum of problems posed by these children, yet few steps have been taken to address the issue (Le Roux, 1994).

CHARACTERISTICS OF STREET CHILDREN

A review of the literature reveals a number of characteristics of children who take to the streets (Taqon, 1991; Forrest et al., 1986; Richter, 1988, 1991a, 1991b; Cockburn, 1991; Drake, 1989; Keen, 1990; Swart, 1990a; Griesel et al., 1990; Aptekar, 1989; Ross, 1991; Hickson & Gaydon, 1989). These characteristics are summarized as follows.

Street children often seem younger than their chronological age, due to acute and chronic malnutrition, which stunts their growth. However, their furtive, hunted expressions and devil-may-care attitude toward the world reveal a maturity beyond their years.

Males predominate among street children, although females are also represented, especially in Asian countries. Females who have been sexually abused often turn to prostitution, while males are prone to violence, such as rape. There is an alarming acceptance of male violence by female street children.

They fear being harmed, incapacitated, arrested (most report being subjected to police intimidation or brutality), and getting sick. They also are concerned about loneliness and being unloved. They desire respect and "yearn to become someone." Street children tend to see themselves as nice people who behave badly: the ones everybody loves to hate.

Contrary to popular belief, street children are not necessarily society's dropouts, but rather victims of unfortunate circumstances. Most come from the lower socioeconomic strata.

Children merely working on the street in order to supplement family income - who return home regularly - predominantly are loyal to, and have a positive relationship with, family members, in contrast with permanent children of the streets. Most street children have unfavorable family histories in common. They often come from nuclear families, especially single-parent households headed by the mother. Frequently, they have had no positive father figure and suffered parental rejection and physical hardship. Consequently, they are reluctant to trust adults and find any authority or control imposed upon them irksome. Yet most yearn to return home, provided that the familial factors that drove them away change.

Although dropouts, most would also like to go back to school in order to secure a better future. However, the longer they spend on the streets, the worse their prognosis for educational rehabilitation.

When street children band together, they represent an exceptional companionship system, which replaces the family as a source of emotional and economic support. The group offers protection, support, friendship, and solidarity. Its members generally show strong loyalty to each other. In addition, their use of street jargon gives them a special identity.

Nevertheless, they place a high premium on personal freedom. They live by their wits and survive by begging or performing "pseudo-services," such as carrying shopping bags and directing motorists into parking spaces. However, these dirty and badly neglected children are often condemned by the indifference or hostility of others; they struggle to support themselves and have low self-esteem as a result of their negative experiences.

The longer children spend on the streets, the more likely it is that they will become involved in criminal activities; but the popular beliefs that the streets are "schools of crime" and that all street children inevitably become criminals are not true. However, they are often guilty of antisocial or self-destructive behavior. …

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