In the opening scene of the critically acclaimed 2008 movie “Slumdog Millionaire,” a young boy named Jamal plays cricket on an airport runway. Jamal and the other children wear rags, lack shoes and use sticks and rocks to play their game. Suddenly the local police appear and aggressively chase the boys through the streets of Mumbai, past massive garbage dumps and into the vast slum in which they live. For many of us, these depictions are all we know of the millions that the United Nations considers children in street situations.
April 12, the International Day for Street Children, gives kids like Jamal a voice. Danny Boyle, the director of “Slumdog Millionaire,” is one of several high profile supporters of the Consortium for Street Children (CSC) which sponsors this globally recognized day. The CSC, a network of NGOs and researchers across the globe, was launched in 1993 by then prime minister of Great Britain, John Major. It advocates for committing to equality, protecting every child, providing access to services and creating new solutions. (1)
The four steps stem from the 2017 U.N. general comment on children in street situations. The purpose of the general comment was to demand that governments pay attention to their most vulnerable surviving in the streets and ensure that these children have the ability to access their rights.
Before publishing their statement, a UN commission studied the issue by interviewing 327 children and young people from 32 countries. Some of these children depend on the streets to live and work either with or without family members. Others were children who formed connections with public spaces; the streets played a significant role in the children’s lives. The overwhelming majority of the children interviewed asked not for a material change in their lives, but instead for respect, dignity and human rights. (2)
In Tanzania, an estimated 437,500 children survive on the streets. (3) According to a 2002 study in a Tanzanian urban center, the government policies in Tanzania have failed because they have dealt with the symptoms rather than the causes. What are the causes? This same study suggested that poverty is the main reason. A survey by NGO Mkombozi states that for 22% of street children, their situation is a result of school exclusion and an inability to pay school fees. (6) UNICEF has reported that 75% of these children have experienced physical violence and 25% have suffered emotional abuse, driving them to the streets. (3) Others have suggested that the orphaning of children as a result of AIDS and other lethal diseases has led to a large population of street children.
Whatever the cause, the results are pernicious. The children lack safe and hygienic sleeping areas, a lack of safe drinking water, and rancid food leftovers. Vulnerability to poor health is one outcome. These ailments include malaria, diarrhea, respiratory problems, scabies and other skin-related infections. The children are also at a higher risk for physical and sexual abuse. (4)
In addition, the children, like Jamal in “Slumdog Millionaire,” suffer from and are targets of harassment by law enforcement. The authors of an in depth study of street children in Dar-Es-Salaam in 1994 and 95 noted the mindset. “The official government attitude towards street children has been very negative. Street children are considered to be hooligans, vagabonds and prone to commit crimes.” (4)
The researchers concluded that practices that would help these children included keeping the pavement clean and public bathrooms working. The availability of clean drinking and washing water in public kiosks would go a long way. The researchers added that it was addressing larger social and economic issues more aggressively that would bring about a stronger long-term outcome. (4)
Photo by Chinh Le Duc
The ability of impoverished children to access education is one such way to do that. A 2014 Tanzanian survey by an international labour organization documented that 5 million children aged 5 to 17 worked outside the home, and 3.1 million of these children worked under hazardous conditions that increased their risk for injury and disease. (5) An education would empower these children to be engaged in a productive activity off the streets or in a dangerous working situation and potentially pull them out of a cycle of poverty.
Saving Grace School in Arusha attempts to do just that. Because many Tanzanian children cannot afford school fees, uniforms and supplies, Saving Grace covers all of the costs. With more schools such as Saving Grace, perhaps the number of children endangered on the streets would begin to decrease.
Though “Slumdog Millionaire” had a Hollywood ending when Jamal competes and wins India’s version of Who Want to Be A Millionaire, most street children are left with only their wits and survival instinct. The day set aside to bring attention and dignity to these children also calls out government to participate in finding solutions.