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Identifying the world’s ‘invisibles’

by Davinder Kumar

They have no twitter army, no righteous war being waged for their rescue. They are visible; they are out there on the streets. From ruthless lanes of Dhaka to dangerous dark alleys of Rio, tens of millions of children the world over are daily fighting hunger, violence and abuse just to survive and scratch a living on the streets.

As the world marked the International Day for Street Children on April 12, children in street situations served as a grim reminder of how one of the most marginalized and vulnerable groups in the world continues to be deprived of their basic rights; failed by governments, institutions and societies.

The overwhelming neglect of street children is evident by the fact that we do not even know how many of them exist. There has never been a credible assessment of street children’s numbers nor any collective effort to address the issues that continue to blight the lives of millions driving them onto streets.

The frequently cited United Nations global estimate of 100 million children growing up on urban streets is now outdated and widely disputed. Many believe the real number to be much higher and rising due to rapid urbanization, migration and general growth in world population. Add to these socio-economic, political or cultural factors that also push children on the streets.

According to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, children in street situations are at high risk of suffering violence, particularly torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. You only need to ask.

“No one treats us like human beings — they are always trying to punch and kick us,” says 11-year-old Opu who ended up on Dhaka’s streets when he was 8 to escape beatings from his stepmother.

His friend, 13-year-old Jafur, loads bananas onto trucks in a fruit market. On a good day he makes about $2 for an entire day’s hard work.

“One night when I was sleeping at the railway station a person approached me. He said come with me, I said no I can’t go with you because I don’t know you. He hit me on my face.”

Girls, though less in number than boys, often face far worse conditions on streets.

“I regularly get harassed by boys and men on when I go rag-picking on the streets,” says 6-year-old Nisha who supports her family and lives in a slum cluster near Delhi’s busy Nizamuddin Railway station.

A U.N. report on violence against children refers to a study in Rwanda where three-quarters of interviewed girls in street situations — a third of them under the age of 10, admitted they were sexually active. A shocking 93 percent of such girls reported having been raped.

A recent report of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights on street children says in addition to economic poverty and family breakdown or abandonment of children, harmful practices such as early and forced marriages, natural disasters, war and internal displacement are also some of the reasons that children end up on the streets.

Almost 9 out of 10 children on the streets of Akwa Ibom State in Nigeria have been stigmatized as “witches” and abandoned to live on the streets by their own parents.

Contrary to popular belief, street children are not restricted to the developing world alone. They are present in all countries. In the United Kingdom, an estimated 100,000 young people run away from home each year and a sixth of them sleep rough.

It is believed that there are up to 16,000 working street children in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the majority of them are under the age of 13.

The particular problems children in developed countries face might differ from those encountered by street children in a developing country, but they all still have connections to the streets and their hostile environment.

They are so many and so prevalent, yet the street children have merged like lifeless features into the landscapes in which they exist. Street children around the world go unnoticed, uncared for and worst still — they remain unaccounted for. With no registration and identity documents, they often have no access to basic services such as schooling and health care to which all children are entitled. They suffer routine violation of their fundamental rights and are left vulnerable in situations that risk their survival and infract their dignity.

Child rights organization Plan believes that registration of every child is a key first step in addressing the complex issues affecting the lives of children, particularly those in challenging circumstances such as the street children.

It is a robust, credible argument that all children must be registered as their right and thus accounted for by their governments. If the children are not recorded, they remain invisible to authorities and thus the causes that drive them to streets and factors that severely compromise their rights in a life connected to streets remain uninvestigated and unmitigated. A formal identity thus establishes every child’s legal existence and creates a solid starting point for realization of other rights.

As governments and the world in general ignore their plight, for most children extricating themselves from the morass of street existence is a lonely, losing battle. They are up against all odds.

There is traction in waging a war for the invisibles, but there are not many takers for the visible street children whom few want to see.

Davinder Kumar is a development journalist and global press officer of child rights organization Plan International. He is also a Chevening Human Rights Scholar.