A toddler sleeping on a bicycle in Kunming, China while his parents work at a near-by street market
What to some may seem like a disgusting place that one hastens to pass is a suitable sleeping place for others. Drainage pipes, train stations, garbage bins, house entrances and really any little ledge not claimed by anyone else are turned into makeshift beds by millions of homeless children every night.
UNICEF distinguishes three types of street children: street living children, street working children and children from street families.
1) Street living children are those who ran away from home and live alone on the streets.
2) Street working children are those who spend most of their time on the streets, fending for themselves but who return home on a regular basis.
3) Children from street families live on the street with their families.
Street children in Manila sleeping in drainage pipes:
Image via hobotraveler
Homeless street children, i.e. those without any contact with their families who live, work and sleep on the street, are at the highest risk as they share don’t share a familial bond with anyone and have no one to take care of them. Murder, abuse and inhumane treatment are unfortunately what await most of them.
This picture of a homeless boy was taken at the Kota central train station in Jakarta during the morning rush hour. Hundreds of people went about their business while the boy sheltered himself from the rain and caught a few winks.
Street boy in Jakarta:
Image: Danumurthi Mahendra
Paradoxically, despite most of these children eating, sleeping, working and living so publicly, they are the most invisible of all citizens. This is because in most cases, they are no citizens at all. Not registering a child’s birth is denying it its basic right – that to become a citizen and to take advantage of basic care.
A country’s low levels of birth registrations are directly linked to poverty, malnutrition and higher mortality rates. Of all children born in 2006 alone, 51 million did not have their birth registered. In one in three developing countries, birth registration rates are less than 50 per cent.
Treated like garbage – children left to sleep in a rubbish bin in Cambodia:
Image via Your Cambodian Street Children Organization
Children whose birth is not registered do not appear in official statistics and are not acknowledged as members of the society they live in: they do not exist. Without a registered identity, children cannot avail themselves of healthcare and other basic services that are crucial for their childhood development and future. Education is as much closed to them as most schools require at minimum a birth certificate before granting a child admission.
Four sleeping boys squeezed into a house entrance in Guatemala:
Image via mekong
According to UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children 2006 report, another reason for this invisibility is that children without parental care like street children, orphans and children in detention who grow up without family or parents are not treated like children at all. Deprived of a childhood, they take on adult roles – as workers, prostitutes, combatants – way before their time and again become invisible as children.
This boy in Dili, East Timor may almost be an adult but probably never had a childhood:
Image: Neil Liddle
Of the almost two billion children living in the developing world, an estimated 143 million have suffered the loss of at least one parent – that’s 1 in every 13. Maternal and neonatal health is closely linked to this, with having a child remaining one of the biggest health risks for women worldwide. According to UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children 2009 report, a shocking 1,500 women die while giving birth every day.
A homeless woman and child begging in Budapest:
Image: Mathew Hunt
There is a health divide though in terms of pregnancy risk depending on where a woman lives. The report found the following differences: “A woman in Niger has a one in seven chance of dying during the course of her lifetime from complications during pregnancy or delivery. That’s in stark contrast to the risk for mothers in America, where it’s one in 4,800 or in Ireland, where it’s just one in 48,000.”
Street family shelter in Africa:
Image via ecmafrica
Children sleeping on school benches in an orphanage in Tanzania:
Image via transitionsabroad
It would be easy to point fingers only at the developing world but though basic needs may be met better in the developed world, homelessness is on the rise and so is child poverty. As the chart below shows, child poverty has risen in almost all OECD countries – except Norway, Canada, UK and USA – in the decade from the late 1990s to early 2000s (light blue bar) as compared to the previous decade (dark blue bar).
Figure 2.4 “Child Poverty in OECD Countries” taken from State of the World’s Children 2006:
Child poverty has more than doubled in Belgium, Germany and Austria and has increased significantly in Luxembourg and Poland. Interestingly, the US and Mexican child poverty rates were on par in the late 1980s to early 1990s at 24.3% and 24.7%, respectively. Whereas the US rate has decreased slightly to 21.9%, it is now 27.7% in Mexico. Currently, 1.5 million American children don’t have a home and live on the streets – that’s 1 in 50. A long road lies ahead for most countries.