Challenging inhuman perceptions of street children

By Hannah Kowszun
April 12, 2012

Today (12 April 2012) marks the second International Day for Street Children. The day is celebrated across the world to give a voice to street children. This year the focus is on ‘challenging perceptions’ to encourage people to think about what they know about street children. Sadly, we know the answer is not enough.

As we think about challenging people’s perceptions of street children, Street Action’s founder Joe Walker reflects on what the International Day for Street Children means for street children, development practice and how practitioners in the global South can begin to shape a new direction.

He writes: Child rights have come to form an explicit aspect of the human rights agenda, outlining why children should be protected from political, economic and social hazards. However, too many policies and interventions fail to take into account children's own views, and therefore fail to address the holistic context in which street children live and experience their vulnerability. Our partners in Burundi, Kenya and South Africa, like countless others around the world are seeking to fight for the rights of street children and to ensure that their voices are heard. Our partner Umthombo Street Children has become well known for its campaign against police round-ups. In 2010 as South Africa celebrated hosting the World Cup, Umthombo won a major battle with the city authorities to end round-ups and a new era of positive engagement with Durban’s street children was welcomed. This example shows how the most transformative and sustainable models of changing societies perception of street children have occurred, when the commitment to change has come from within, driven and led by the local practitioners, activists and communities, and supported by the international community.

On the inaugural International Day of the Street Child in 2011, I wrote an article for the Guardian’s Global Development arguing “too often, international days like these fail to capture a collective call to action”. We hope that this one will draw attention to an issue that has largely been ignored by governments, the development sector and civil society, and that it can also form an important part in developing a political discourse around it. But where are we a year on? Progress has been made. We have seen the resolution adopted by The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva and the publication of the OHCHR report on street children. These are important developments, but the question is whether they will bring about lasting sustainable change and to ensure that street children are included in the child rights discourse. Street children remain on the margins of child centred development priorities. Practitioners recognise that these children are a difficult group to conceptualise on a global scale, which results in a limited capacity to inform policy-makers and the donor community.

Shaping the next direction requires experimentation, openness and innovation that should not be simply the job of ‘development professionals’ from the West, but must arise from the work of practitioners and activists and street children from the global South. This must reflect both a moral and value-based framework that sees current practice and ideas driven by those on the grassroots, and recognition that street children hold vital knowledge around their experiences and are therefore the greatest agents of change and best resource to better understanding the issue.

As we look for new leadership from the global South, we must strive towards a movement where we are building new partnerships. These should require adapting to new circumstances, with new ideas that do not always fit the euro-centric way of thinking. We have become driven by overly technical and managerial approaches that have come to dominate the development praxis, designed to create efficiency and accountability. These practices have their part of play and shouldn’t be entirely discredited, but at the same time we should not dismiss the need to look for fresh approaches. I fear that the status quo can sometimes pacify our conscience instead of inciting the collective will to pursue radical change within a culture of challenge and achieving social justice.

The International Day for Street Children is an important day to mark and should be a call to action. South Africa’s liberation hero Steve Biko often talked about one day bestowing upon South Africa the greatest gift possible – a more human face. Our hope is that government, policy makers, NGOs and civil society will begin to change their perceptions of street children and begin to see them with a more human face.

* International Day for Street Children -

* For more information visit Street Action at - @streetaction

* Follow Joe Walker on Twitter: @JoeWalkerUK

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