A commonly recognised defintition of a streetchild is ‘any girl or boy who has not reached adulthood, for whom the street (in the broadest sense of the word, including unoccupied dwellings, wasteland etc.) has become his or her habitual abode and/or sources of livelihood and who is inadequately supervised or directed by responsible adults’.
There is a further split of children ‘on the street’ and children ‘of the street’; the former being seen as working on the street but returning to his/her family at the end of the day whilst the latter actually live on the street, maintaining only a minimum of contact with his/her family.
Of course, both these definitions grossly oversimplify the lives and circumstances of individual children. Many street-living children actually do maintain close relationships with various family members despite being ‘of the street’.
Recent debates have moved from feeling that all street children should be ‘rehabilitated’ to fit in with perceived wisdom, i.e. be rehabilitated and reintegrated in to their family units to understanding that groups of street living children actually create very strong bonds between themselves that can replace and surpass anything offered by families.
Street Children in Rwanda
No one can accurately put a figure on the number of street children anywhere in the world.
Unsurprisingly, the children are suspicious of any official counting and so may hide or provide false information when asked rather than risk ending up in an institution that has no understanding of their needs.
We do know that there are probably thousands of children who are living on the streets and that there are thousands more spending all day on the street and returning home only to sleep.
We know that there are over 40,000 child headed households in Rwanda. We know that over 40% of children under five are malnourished and that over 600,000 children under the age of 14 are orphans. We know that children don’t make the decision to leave home easily and that they leave for a variety of reasons: familial poverty; neglect, violence, abuse; or the remarriage or death of a parent.
We also know that for many children moving on to the street was an active choice and should be respected as such. Children living on the streets form their own peer-group families: they protect each other and rely upon each other for support. They work for a living (whether begging, stealing or actively labouring) and many consider themselves to be successful. In order to work with street-children successfully this must be understood.
Life is certainly not easy for children living and working on the streets of Rwanda. They have to contend with abuse, uncertain access to food, medical care and education; there are frequent run-ins with the police, community structures and other street-child gangs or families; the rains, malaria, the threat of HIV/AIDS and the disdain of community members and the stigma of the ‘street child’ label or ‘maibobo’ as they are derogatorily known in Rwanda.