Street Children: “Rubbish is Only Matter Out of Place”

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One question that I was often asked about the lives of street children was why they would sleep on the street instead if going back to the “comfort and safety” of their own home: concepts that us, privileged few automatically associate with the word home.

When I heard the horror stories of the street, I often wondered similar things. But when I started visiting where these children’s families lived, often answer was found in the photos I took. Sometimes the stories of emotional, financial, verbal, physical and sexual abuse, violence and neglect inside the home were the reason. But often, less sensational reasons presented themselves. The physical structure of “home” was so small that they often had to sleep outside it anyway, under the staircases, in the building entrances, outside altogether.

So I started answering that question with one of my own: “what would make a child want to travel for miles back to an area that is often dirtier, scarier, lonelier, often more abusive and less comfortable than the street corner or under the bridge where they had spent their whole day, made friends and learned to survive in?”

There is dirt, danger and discomfort in both places… One was just miles away and not worth the effort of the journey back… But what makes us ask the question is rarely the state of the alternative place the child has to return to, but mainstream society’s absolute distaste and discomfort for seeing private life routines taking place in public spaces. The reminder of our failures as a society to protect the vulnerable by ensuring we provide them with safe alternatives. That’s what’s ugly about the street and children out of place – not the children and their practices, but society and it’s apathy towards the lack of alternative care.

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The title of this blog quotes Mary Douglas who argues that rubbish is nothing more than something out of place and so becomes dirty and dangerous. That would apply to children out of “place” the place we (again, the privileged few) would see suitable for children: home or school etc. and so what of child soldiers, child prostitutes, street children? And this of course leads to the problems with definitions.

So many working with street children are so concerned with the politically (and sometimes academically) correct definitions and we see terms like “street connected children”, “children of the street”, “children in the street”, “children in a street situation”. I find them all unhelpful. So when I went out working with street children I thought I would focus on finding another definition and I chose to look at what the slang for street children in different countries was… here’s a summary of what I found:

  • India – Without root or roof or carrying the stamp of the street
  • Brazil – A younger child of a slave or an individual with no word of honour
  • Egypt – A  small insect that destroys grains and crops
  • Columbia – The plague
  • Ethiopia – Vermin
  • Cameroon – Mosquitoes

The biggest problem with these definitions is that they dehumanise the victim. When you start referring to children as pests, then it becomes more acceptable and justifiable to mistreat them. It is acceptable for the police to run after a mosquito and abuse the vermin and try to get rid of the plague.

The one slang word that moved me to tears and perhaps summarises the plight of street children the most came from Vietnam, where the children are referred to as “bui doi” which translates to “The Dust of Life”.

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