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Street children is a term used to refer to children who live on the streets of a city. They are basically deprived of family care and protection. Most children on the streets are between the ages of about 5 and 17 years old, and their population between different cities is varied.

Street children live in abandoned buildings, cardboard boxes, parks or on the street itself. A great deal has been written defining street children, but the primary difficulty is that there are no precise categories, but rather a continuum, ranging from children who spend some time in the streets and sleep in a house with ill-prepared adults, to those who live entirely in the streets and have no adult supervision or care.

A widely accepted set of definitions, commonly attributed to UNICEF, divides street children into two main categories:

  1. Children on the street are those engaged in some kind of economic activity ranging from begging to vending. Most go home at the end of the day and contribute their earnings to their family. They may be attending school and retain a sense of belonging to a family. Because of the economic fragility of the family, these children may eventually opt for a permanent life on the streets.
  2. Children of the street actually live on the street (or outside of a normal family environment). Family ties may exist but are tenuous and are maintained only casually or occasionally.

Street children exist in many major cities, especially in developing countries, and may be subject to abuse, neglect, exploitation, or even in extreme cases murder by "cleanup squads" hired by local businesses or police.

In Latin America, a common cause is abandonment by poor families unable to feed all their children. In Africa, an increasingly common cause is AIDS.


The question of how to define a street child has generated much discussion that is usefully summarized by Sarah Thomas de Benítez in, "The State of the World's Street Children: Violence."
‘Street children’ is increasingly recognized by sociologists and anthropologists to be a socially constructed category that in reality does not form a clearly defined, homogeneous population or phenomenon (Glauser, 1990; Ennew, 2000; Moura, 2002).
‘Street children’ covers children in such a wide variety of circumstances and characteristics that policy-makers and service providers find it difficult to describe and target them.
Upon peeling away the ‘street children’ label, individual girls and boys of all ages are found living and working in public spaces, visible in the great majority of the world’s urban centres.
The definition of ‘street children’ is contested, but many practitioners and policymakers use UNICEF’s concept of boys and girls aged under 18 for whom ‘the street’ (including unoccupied dwellings and wasteland) has become home and/or their source of livelihood, and who are inadequately protected or supervised (Black, 1993).


Street Children is a widely used term in the English language and has analogues in other languages such as French (les enfants des rues), Spanish (niños de la calle), Portuguese (meninos da rua), Hungarian (utcagyerekek), Romanian (copiii străzii) and German (Straßenkinder). Street kids is also commonly employed although it is sometimes considered pejorative.
In other languages children who live and/or work in the streets are known by many names. Some examples are listed below:

"gamín" (from French gamin, kid) and "chinches" (bed bugs) in Colombia, "pivetes" (little criminals/marginals) in Rio de Janeiro, as "pájaro frutero" (fruit bird) and "pirañitas" (little piranhas) in Peru, "polillas" (moths) in Bolivia, "resistoleros" (glue sniffers; Resistol is a major brand) in Honduras, "scugnizzi" (spinning tops) in Naples, "беспризорники" (persons without supervised living) in Russia, "Batang Lansangan" or "Pulubi" in the Philippines, "Bụi Đời" (the dust of life) in Vietnam, "saligoman" (nasty kids) in Rwanda, or "poussins" (chicks), "moustiques" (mosquitos) in Cameroon and "balados" (wanderers) in the democratic Republic of the Congo and the Congo Republic.

The term Street Arab came to the fore in the mid-19th century, first appearing in 1848, according to the OED. Horatio Alger's book Tattered Tom ; or, The Story of a Street Arab (1871) is an early example; it is about a homeless girl lives by her wits on the streets of New York. Charles Dickens likewise propagated its early use in 1855 but in a more clearly derogatory sense when he declared "a wretched, ragged, untaught street Arab boy is ugly." In 1890, Danish-American journalist Jacob Riis described street children in New York in an essay titled "The Street Arab". The Victorian association of street children with Arabs is probably reflected in the nomadic tradition of Arabs who were wanderers; the 19th century notion that non-Europeans from less civilized cultures were like children; of European and American travelers who saw many "street children" in Arab countries during the period; and a xenophobic tendency to scapegoat social problems. The term has fallen out of favor.

Numbers, distribution and sex


Estimates vary but one often cited figure is that the number of children living independently in the streets totals between 100 million and 150 million worldwide.

According to a report from the Consortium for Street Children, a United Kingdom-based consortium of related NGOs:

Estimating numbers of ‘street children’ is fraught with difficulties.
In 1989, UNICEF
estimated 100 million children were growing up on urban streets around the world. 14years later UNICEF reported: ‘The latest estimates put the numbers of these children ashigh as 100 million’ (UNICEF, 2002: 37). And even more recently: ‘The exact number ofstreet children is impossible to quantify, but the figure almost certainly runs into tensof millions across the world. It is likely that the numbers are increasing’ (UNICEF, 2005:40-41). The 100 million figure is still commonly cited, but has no basis in fact (see Ennewand Milne, 1989; Hecht, 1998; Green, 1998). Similarly, it is debatable whether numbersof street children are growing globally or whether it is the awareness of street childrenwithin societies which has grown.


Street children may be found on every inhabited continent in a large majority of the world's cities. The following estimates indicate the global extent of street child populations.

  • India 11 million
  • Egypt 1,5 million
  • Pakistan 1,5 million
  • Kenya 250,000 - 300,000
  • Philippines 250,000
  • Congo 250,000
  • Morocco 30,000
  • Brazil 25,000
  • Switzerland 1,000
  • Germany 20,000
  • Honduras 20 000
  • Jamaica 6,500
  • Uruguay 3000


Although there are variations from country to country, 50% or more of street children are boys.


Children making their home/livelihoods on the street is not a new or modern phenomenon. In the introduction to his history of abandoned children in Soviet Russia 1918 -1930, Alan Ball states:
Orphaned and abandoned children have been a source of misery from earliest times.
They apparently accounted for most of the boy prostitutes in Augustan Rome and, a few centuries later, moved a church council of 442 in southern Gaul to declare: “Concerning abandoned children: there is general complaint that they are nowadays exposed more to dogs than to kindness.” In tsarist Russia, seventeenth-century sources described destitute youths roaming the streets, and the phenomenon survived every attempt at eradication thereafter.
Long before the Russian Revolution, the term besprizornye had gained wide currency.For a brief survey of changes over the centuries in the tsarist government’s response to besprizornost’ and juvenile delinquency, see:

Krasnushkin et al.. Nishchenstvo i besprizornost’. pp. 116–122.

For a bibliography of works published prior to 1913 on besprizornost’ and juvenile delinquency, see:

Gernet M. N. (1912). Deti-prestupniki. Moscow. prilozhenie 3.

For more on homeless children and juvenile delinquency in prerevolutionary Russia, see:

Neuberger Joan (1985). Crime and Culture: Hooliganism in St. Petersburg, 1900–1914. Ph.D. dissertation. Stanford University.

Ryndziunskii G. D.; T. M. Savinskaia (1932). Detskoe pravo. Pravovoe polozhenie detei v RSFSR. 3d ed. Moscow-Leningrad. pp. 273–274.

Liublinskii. Bor’ba. pp. 46–50.

Madison Bernice Q. (1968). Social Welfare in the Soviet Union. Stanford. chap. 1.

Kalinina A. D. (1928). Desiat’ let raboty po bor’be s detskoi besprizornost’iu. Moscow-Leningrad. pp. 18–21.

Ransel David L. (1988). Mothers of Misery: Child Abandonment in Russia. Princeton.
In 1848 Lord Ashley referred to more than 30,000 'naked, filthy, roaming lawless and deserted children', in and around Londonmarker.

By 1922 there were at least 7 million homeless children in Russia as a result of nearly a decade of devastation from World War I and the Russian Civil War. Abandoned children formed gangs, created their own argot, and engaged in petty theft and prostitution.

Examples from popular fiction include Kipling's “Kim” as a street child in colonial India, and Gavroche in Victor Hugo's Les Misérables. Fagin's crew of child pickpockets in "Oliver Twist" as well as Sherlock Holmes's "Baker Street Irregulars" attest to the presence of street children in 19th-century London.


Children may end up on the streets for several basic reasons: They may have no choice – they are abandoned, orphaned, or disowned by their parents. Secondly, they may choose to live in the streets because of mistreatment or neglect or because their homes do not or cannot provide them with basic necessities. Many children also work in the streets because their earnings are needed by their families. But homes and families are part of the larger society and the underlying reasons for the poverty or breakdown of homes and families may be social, economic, political or environmental or any combination of these.

In a 1993 report, WHO offered the following list of causes for the phenomenon:
  • family breakdown
  • armed conflict
  • poverty
  • natural and man-made disasters
  • famine
  • physical and sexual abuse
  • exploitation by adults
  • dislocation through migration
  • urbanization and overcrowding
  • acculturation
  • Disinheritance or being disowned

The orphaning of children as a result of HIV/AIDS is another cause that might be added to this list.

Street children in Russia

In Russiamarker, street children usually find a home in underground pipe and cable collectors during the harsh winter. These underground homes offer space, shelter and most importantly of all, heat from hot water and central heating pipes.

Russia has 1 million street children, and one in four crimes involves underage youths. Officially, the number of children without supervision is more than 700,000. However, experts believe the real figure has long been between 2 and 4 million.

Street children in India

Indiamarker is home to the world’s largest population of street children, estimated at 18 million. The Republic of Indiamarker is the seventh largest and second most populous country in the world. With acceleration in economic growth, India has become one of the fastest growing developing countries. This has created a rift between poor and rich; 22 percent of the population lives below the income poverty line. Owing to unemployment, increasing rural-urban migration, attraction of city life and a lack of political will, India now has one of the largest number of child laborers in the world.

Street children are subject to malnutrition, hunger, health problems, substance abuse, theft, commercial sexual exploitation of children, harassment by the city police and railway authorities, as well as physical and sexual abuse, although the Government of India has taken some corrective measures and declared child labor illegal.

Street children in Vietnam

According to data by the Street Educators’ Club, the number of street children in Vietnam has shrunk from 21,000 in 2003 to 8,000 in 2007. The number dropped from 1,507 to 113 in Hanoimarker and from 8,507 to 794 in Ho Chi Minh Citymarker. In the meantime the number of migrant children is increasing. This number is, however, unconfirmed owing to varying definitions of street children. Some experts mention several different categories of street children in Vietnam: "children who have run away from home or who have no home, and who sleep on the street; children who sleep on the street with their family or guardian; children who have a family or guardian and who usually sleep at home, but work on the streets; economic migrants who rent rooms with other working children; and bonded laborers".

There are almost 400 humanitarian organisations and international non-governmental organizations providing help for about 15,000 children, who live in especially difficult conditions.

Street children in Bucharest, Romania

A report of the Council of Europe of year 2000 estimated that there were approximately 1,000 street children in Bucharestmarker, Romaniamarker.

Some Romanian street children are preyed on by sex tourists, mainly from Western Europe, and many can be seen inhaling aurolac (an aluminium-based paint traditionally used for painting a type of wood-burning stove) from plastic bags, the substance of choice for those of limited means.

Romania has made much progress, allowing the number of street children drop to low levels, which is lying at or below the European average. Given that socio-economic conditions continue to improve in Romania, the number of street children is expected to diminish.

Street children in Brazil

The Federal Government estimates that 31,992 adults live on the streets in major cities. There are no national statistics for minors. An NGO, putting together various local government counts and other estimates, arrived at c. 9578 street-dwellers younger than 18, in state capitals; it estimates they number 25,000 nation-wide. It has also been pointed out that most minors living on the streets are adolescents, rather than children.

The main means of surviving in Brazil's streets include: finding food in garbage bins or on refuse tips; being financially exploited by street sellers as shoe shiners, thieves, prostitutes, drug runners, and street performers.

Street children are known to receive beatings and death from the police or members of the public and also can face imprisonment, malnutrition, disease and AIDS.

Underlying causes

Brazilmarker is the fifth largest country in the world with a population of approximately 190 million people. The disparity between the rich and the poor in Brazilian society is one of the largest.

Street children are an urban problem which has roots in rural poverty, neglect and the enforced, even violent displacement of large numbers of people from the land.

This problem is accentuated by the fact that the urban population is becoming younger. In Latin America alone, projections for the year 2020 point to 300 million urban minors, 30% of whom will be extremely poor [Ref: Independent Commission on International Issues]. 78% of the Brazilian population live in cities and towns.

The persistent poverty, rapid industrialization and the burgeoning of urban shanty towns (favelas) generate massive social and economic upheaval. Profound poverty means that family disintegration, violence and break-up become more prevalent.

Death squads

Most of Brazil's street children expect to be killed before they are 18. Between 4 and 5 adolescents are murdered daily and every 12 minutes a child is beaten. Conservative figures put the number at 2 killings every day.

There are reports that some children have been executed and/or mutilated. In July 1993, eight children and adolescents were killed in a shooting near the Candelária Church in Rio de Janeiro. This event was widely publicised around the world, and the routine killing of street children in Brazil was harshly criticised. As a result, the death squads moved underground. However, corrupt officials are still reputed to be involved - In São Paulo, 20% of homicides committed by the police in the first months of 1999 were against minors.

Drug gangs

Drug gangs now account for roughly half the child murders in Rio de Janeiro [Rio de Janeiro State Legislature]. Since the 1990s, a pervasive drug culture has been burgeoning. Today, Brazil ranks as the second biggest consumer of cocaine in the world, after the USA. In favelas (where 25% of the city's population lives) drug gangs control extremely violent areas. Some street children are recruited by such drug gangs and given guns for protection. They then traffic drugs and messages between sellers and buyers. A child's chance of dying in the drug areas of the favelas is "eight to nine times greater than in the Middle East". [Ref: Save The Children]

Government and non-government responses

Responses by governments

Because they have not reached the age of majority, street children have no representation in the governing process. They have no vote themselves nor by proxy through their parents, from whom they likely are alienated. Nor do street children have any economic leverage. Governments, consequently, may pay little attention to them.

The rights of street children are often ignored by governments even though nearly all of the world's governments have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Governments are often embarrassed by street children and may blame parents or neighboring countries.Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) may also be blamed for encouraging children to live in the streets by making street life more bearable or attractive through the services they provide.

When governments implement programs to deal with street children these generally involve placing the children in orphanages, juvenile homes or correctional institutes. However, some children are in the streets because they have fled from such institutions and some governments prefer to support or work in partnership with NGO programs. Governments sometimes institute roundups when they remove all the children from city streets and deposit them elsewhere or incarcerate them.

In the most extreme cases, governments may tacitly accept or participate in social cleansing operations that murder street children. In Brazil, for example, "Police say the death squads earn $40 to $50 for killing a street kid and as much as $500 for an adult. In January, Health Minister Alceni Guerra said the government had evidence that 'businessmen are financing and even directing the killing of street children.'"

NGO responses

Non-government organizations employ a wide variety of strategies to address the needs and rights of street children. These may be categorized as follows:
  • Advocacy - through media and government contacts agencies may press for the rights of street children to be respected.
  • Preventive - programs that work to prevent children from taking to the streets, through family and community support and education.

  • Institutional
    • residential rehabilitation programs - some agencies provide an environment isolated from the streets where activities are focussed on assisting children to recover from drug, physical or sexual abuse.
    • full-care residential homes - the final stage in many agencies' programs is when the child is no longer in the streets but lives completely in an environment provided by the agency. Some agencies promote fostering children to individual families. Others set up group homes where a small number of children live together with houseparents employed by the agency. Others set up institutional care centers catering to large numbers of children. Some agencies include a follow-up program that monitors and counsels children and families after the child has left the residential program.

  • Street-based programs - these work to alleviate the worst aspects of street life for children by providing services to them in the streets. These programs tend to be less expensive and serve a larger number of street children than institutional programs since the children still must provide for themselves in the streets.
    • feeding program
    • medical services
    • legal assistance
    • street education
    • financial services (banking and entrepreneur programs)
    • family reunification
    • drop-in centers/night shelters
    • outreach programs designed to bring the children into closer contact with the agency
  • Conscientization - change street children's attitudes to their circumstances - view themselves as an oppressed minority and become protagonists rather than passive recipients of aid.

Many agencies employ several of these strategies and a child will pass through a number of stages before he or she "graduates". First he/she will be contacted by an outreach program, then may become involved in drop-in center programs, though still living in the streets. Later the child may be accepted into a halfway house and finally into residential care where he or she becomes fully divorced from street life.

See also


External links

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