"I am not just a sex symbol" - street girls battle stigma

by Leonora Borg
Saturday, 12 April 2014 13:30 GMT

An Indian street girl performs in New Delhi, India, in this 2005 file photo.REUTERS/Desmond Boylan

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For street girls, sexual violence is a recurring theme in their lives, perpetrated by adults in the community, those in positions of authority and other street children

I am not just a sex symbol but a human being with thoughts, feelings and ideas that are important and matter,” a street girl from the UK answered when she was asked “If the whole was listening,what would you say?”, an initiative for International Day for Street Children 2014.

Street girls are less visible than street boys. They are often trafficked into brothels or domestic work as soon as they reach a city. When on the street, girls face specific challenges based on their gender. Perhaps most shocking is the high levels of sexual violence reported from street girls. Sexual violence is a recurring theme in their lives – violence from adults in the community, those in positions of authority and other street children. 

More than half of the boys interviewed in a Rwanda study and more than three quarters of the girls, including 35% of those under ten, admitted they were sexually active; 63% of the boys said they had forced a girl to have sex with them; and 93% of the girls reported having been raped. The findings from this study are not unique. 

Many street children adopt behaviours to survive day-to-day, such as begging, stealing, rough sleeping, or drug taking. And many girls take up or are coerced into sexual exploitation and prostitution. In the Ukraine, 65% of street girls provided commercial sex services or ‘sex for reward’. Girls may also need to adopt submissive roles in gangs to obtain some degree of protection. In the DRC, newly arrived street girls (and boys) undergo a ‘baptism’ of servitude for older street boys, in which physical and sexual violence has been reported.

Due to their frequent exposure to sexual violence, street girls are particularly at risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases and of becoming pregnant. There are young mothers on the streets as young as 11 years old, and in many countries there are now a second or third generation of street children who are born on the street. 

The psychological impact of these experiences includes a higher risk of depression, self-harm and emotional dependency on substances. And yet, street children have limited or no access to health services, partly because of the transient nature of their lives but also because of the discrimination that they face from health care providers.


In countries where gender discrimination is prevalent, the challenges that street girls face are heightened. There is greater stigma associated with the behaviours that they adopt. And girls who have been on the streets, especially those involved in sex work, are less likely to be accepted back into their families and communities. 

But by being on the streets, girls challenge gender stereotypes: they are often living independently, using survival skills usually attributed to boys including fighting, substance use, begging and/or stealing. 

For the last two years, I have been privileged to work with street-connected girls and the organisations that support them. I have researched, written and piloted a new toolkit "Nothing about us without us" for organisations working or wanting to work with adolescent street girls. The toolkit is a response to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ study on street children. Members of the Consortium for Street Children have also expressed the need for support to overcome the challenges they face when working with adolescent girls.

Whilst working on the toolkit I have met some inspirational girls, who, despite facing some of the toughest daily challenges, are determined to achieve their dreams. 

In Zambia, I met Liz, aged 15, who had lived on the streets since she was 11. Liz has 2 children and is HIV positive. She told me she experienced sexual violence three to ten times every day. On the streets, Liz had a ‘boyfriend’ who gave her food, clothing and drugs. 

He hadn’t wanted her to go to school, so she had stopped. One day, she made the brave step of leaving him and the streets and going to a dcentre for street girls. She has battled addiction and ill-health, developed her confidence and parenting skills and is now ready to go back to school. In the future she wants to buy a house for her and her children so that they can grow up in a safe and loving environment.  

"Nothing about us without us" will enable organisations to include girls in their programme planning and in shaping the organisation, so that it can truly support their needs and dreams. 

Leonora Borg is network development director at the Consortium for Street Children.

For more stories about street children visit trust.org's spotlight "Street children - the hidden crisis"