LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The number of street children will “go through the roof” in coming years as economic growth fuels inequality, said a leading advocate for children living on the streets.
Contrary to the common perception that poverty drives children onto the streets, it is rapid urbanisation and rising inequality that have stoked their numbers.
“We tend to think this is a poor country phenomenon, but this is not a problem of being a poor country, not a problem of being a weak country,” Sarah Thomas de Benitez, chief executive of Consortium for Street Children told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“It’s part of what happens when you industrialise and urbanise and you go through political change.”
As countries industrialise, rural areas are often left behind. Families hoping for better opportunities migrate to the city in search of work.
But without their networks of relatives and neighbours they become more vulnerable, and often struggle to care for their children in the new environment.
The growth of inequality during rapid development in Latin America in the 1960s created large populations of street children; and it is one of the main reasons why so many children are still living on the streets of Brazil and Mexico.
The same worrying pattern is likely to follow in Africa, Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe, where urbanisation, inadequate legal protection, conflict and instability are a recipe for the emergence of big numbers of street children, Thomas de Benitez said.
“I predict, in 10 years time, the number of street children in Africa will go through the roof,” she said in a phone interview ahead of the International Day of Street Children.
Street children are usually undocumented and are often on the move, making their numbers difficult to estimate. In 2005 UNICEF said their numbers almost certainly ran into the tens of millions, or higher, but experts say it is impossible to count with any accuracy.
From families to governments, everyone should share responsibility for the plight of children living on the street.
“We all bear responsibility,” said Thomas de Benitez. “Children end up on the streets for reasons caused by governments, business practices, the international community not paying enough attention, and by families and people in the street”.
Street children are not a problem confined to developing nations experiencing booming urbanisation. Even in wealthy countries such as Britain, the United States and Canada, there are thousands of children living on the streets.
“We call them different things maybe: we call them runaways or we call them homeless, or the young in shelters. But in effect these are young children who do not have the connections in the family, the community or the support from government policies to strengthen those bonds,” Thomas de Benitez said.
Young people in America or Canada often choose to live on the streets because of stigma associated with their sexuality, and perhaps because of rejection by their families.
“Their time in public spaces is helping them to create their own identities,” she said.
Violence, neglect, or their parents’ substance abuse or mental health problems can also push children onto the street – despite the dangers it may be their only option.
The solution, said Thomas de Benitez, is in the hands of the governments, which should implement policies to tackle economic inequality and earmark more government money for programmes to help children. In the long run, it would be a sound economic investment.
“We know it makes economic sense,” she said. “The few studies that have been carried out on looking at the cost of helping children to recover from a long time on the streets (show) that the cost of that is considerably more than the cost of preventing a child going onto the street.”
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