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Causes and characteristics of the street child phenomenon: a global perspective.

The phenomenon of street children, an offspring of the modern urban environment, represents one of humanity's most complex and serious challenges. No country and virtually no city anywhere in the world today is without the presence of street children. Both developed and developing countries face a broad spectrum of problems posed by these children, yet few steps have been taken to address the issue (Le Roux, 1994).


A review of the literature reveals a number of characteristics of children who take to the streets (Taqon, 1991; Forrest et al., 1986; Richter, 1988, 1991a, 1991b; Cockburn, 1991; Drake, 1989; Keen, 1990; Swart, 1990a; Griesel et al., 1990; Aptekar, 1989; Ross, 1991; Hickson & Gaydon, 1989). These characteristics are summarized as follows.

Street children often seem younger than their chronological age, due to acute and chronic malnutrition, which stunts their growth. However, their furtive, hunted expressions and devil-may-care attitude toward the world reveal a maturity beyond their years.

Males predominate among street children, although females are also represented, especially in Asian countries. Females who have been sexually abused often turn to prostitution, while males are prone to violence, such as rape. There is an alarming acceptance of male violence by female street children.

They fear being harmed, incapacitated, arrested (most report being subjected to police intimidation or brutality), and getting sick. They also are concerned about loneliness and being unloved. They desire respect and "yearn to become someone." Street children tend to see themselves as nice people who behave badly: the ones everybody loves to hate.

Contrary to popular belief, street children are not necessarily society's dropouts, but rather victims of unfortunate circumstances. Most come from the lower socioeconomic strata.

Children merely working on the street in order to supplement family income - who return home regularly - predominantly are loyal to, and have a positive relationship with, family members, in contrast with permanent children of the streets. Most street children have unfavorable family histories in common. They often come from nuclear families, especially single-parent households headed by the mother. Frequently, they have had no positive father figure and suffered parental rejection and physical hardship. Consequently, they are reluctant to trust adults and find any authority or control imposed upon them irksome. Yet most yearn to return home, provided that the familial factors that drove them away change.

Although dropouts, most would also like to go back to school in order to secure a better future. However, the longer they spend on the streets, the worse their prognosis for educational rehabilitation.

When street children band together, they represent an exceptional companionship system, which replaces the family as a source of emotional and economic support. The group offers protection, support, friendship, and solidarity. Its members generally show strong loyalty to each other. In addition, their use of street jargon gives them a special identity.

Nevertheless, they place a high premium on personal freedom. They live by their wits and survive by begging or performing "pseudo-services," such as carrying shopping bags and directing motorists into parking spaces. However, these dirty and badly neglected children are often condemned by the indifference or hostility of others; they struggle to support themselves and have low self-esteem as a result of their negative experiences.

The longer children spend on the streets, the more likely it is that they will become involved in criminal activities; but the popular beliefs that the streets are "schools of crime" and that all street children inevitably become criminals are not true. However, they are often guilty of antisocial or self-destructive behavior. This self-destructive behavior frequently results from a lack of knowledge, rather than from negative and fatalistic attitudes.

The consumption of drugs serves as a temporary escape from their harsh reality. The use of intoxicants, such as the inhalation of glue, petrol/gasoline, and benzene, is widespread.

The more time these children spend on the streets, the greater the likelihood that they will show signs of cognitive or emotional dysfunction. In addition, AIDS is spreading at an alarming rate among street children.


The following causes of the phenomenon of street children have been found worldwide.

The dramatic increase in the number of street children has been linked to societal stress associated with rapid industrialization and urbanization. Conversely, in industrialized countries, inner-city decay and chronic unemployment accompanying economic downturns are held responsible. In agricultural societies, drought and famine may be to blame.

Economic and social upheaval have led to the breakdown of traditional family structures and values. The reduction in family size, from extended to nuclear, has led to the availability of fewer child-support resources. Family disruption, in the form of death, desertion, separation, and divorce, has shrunk family size still further, often resulting in poor, single-parent, mother-headed households. This leaves children vulnerable, and with the general absence of community and governmental support, they have few options in times of crisis other than life on the street.

In circumstances where there is family pathology, such as alcoholism, child abuse (physical or sexual), or neglect, children are motivated to leave home, or may even be driven out. Other reasons for turning to the streets include overcrowding, social disruption caused by frequent relocation (migrant labor), as well as parent-child friction in reconstituted families. Contrary to popular belief, only a small percentage of street children have been orphaned.

Poverty is another cause. Some families could not survive with another mouth to feed, or without the financial contributions of working or self-supporting children (which sometimes involves prostitution).

Many children reportedly run away from home to escape the boredom, humiliation, and failure they experience in school. Others are drawn to the streets to be "part of the action," or are motivated to seek a better life than the one to which they would be destined if they remained at home.

Political factors have also played a role. In South Africa during the 1980s, black youths left home to participate in the political struggle to end apartheid, as well as to hide from the authorities.


The phenomenon of street children is global, as findings from several countries indicate. An investigation in Kathmandu, Nepal (Pradhan, 1990), revealed the following characteristics of street children: little or no contact with families; left alone without adult care; peer group is most important support system; involved in various antisocial activities, including theft (e.g., pick-pocketing); basic needs left unfulfilled; beg for food and money; exploited by employers; work at odd jobs; and street smart, especially in outwitting the authorities. In Nepal, 60% of the population lives below the poverty line. Thus, the reasons for becoming a street child are predominantly economic and social: maltreatment by stepmother, 23%; father's death, 28%; family abandoned by father, 5%; mother's death, 16%; family abandoned by mother, 9%; lack of home/food, 12%; neglect or abuse, 83%; abandoned by family, 5%; attraction to city life, 62%.

Silva (1991), in a review of research in Indonesia, found poverty to be the dominant factor behind the emergence of street children. Poor parents cannot meet the needs of a growing family. This forces children onto the streets to work, with the aim being to increase family income and to maximize the purchasing power of existing income by reducing family size.

In the Philippines, more males are found on the streets, due to the fact that females are generally more protected and are used for domestic work around the house. Most street children are between 6 and 17 years old and work to supplement family income. Forced onto the streets because of economic difficulties, they become involved in cleaning cars, peddling, prostitution and, to a lesser extent, drug dealing. Children also end up on the streets because of family violence and abuse (Mid-Term Review Project Document, 1990).

Filipino street children experience loneliness, neglect, abuse, drug addiction, and various medical problems. They face constant harassment and arrest by the police, as well as abuse from other street children. They desire educational opportunities to improve their chances of obtaining a stable job, but their prospects are dim. They also hope to return home, provided the factors that drove them away have changed (Mid-Term Review Project Document, 1990).

A study of street girls in metropolitan Manila confirms that they are there to earn money with which to feed themselves and their families. They generally have suffered more violence from the male parent than from the mother. Most have lived with only one parent and the live-in partner, in an environment where wife- and child-battering are common. Unlike street boys, they are tied down to housework at the same time. Most of them do not go to school ("Manila's Street Girls," 1989).

The plight of street children in Thailand has also been called "alarming" ("Meeting Targets, Addressing Needs," 1991). The situation has been attributed to rapid urbanization and economic crises.

In India, nearly one out of every three persons in urban areas lives below the poverty line. Poor, marginalized street children are a common sight. Rootless, they exist without education, care, affection, and guidance. These children experience abuse from nearly everyone: the community treats them with contempt, they are harassed and arrested by the police, and they are even brutalized by older street children. They fall easy victim to drug dealers, who turn them into addicts and force them to peddle drugs. They are exploited by parents and employers alike. In short, street children in India are inadequately clothed, fed, or loved; they are victims of family violence, including physical and sexual abuse (Panicker, 1993).

In Colombia, which is considered to have one of the highest street child populations in the world, research indicates that living on the street may be a phase in the life cycle of a large percentage of poor children (Swart, 1990b). Poverty, overpopulation, a high rate of abandonment by husbands, and political unrest are some of the major causes of the phenomenon in Latin America. Family pathology, which is linked to socioeconomic factors, also drives many children from home. According to Swart (1990b), street children in Guatemala, as in Peru, may have been abandoned, or left home because of physical or sexual abuse, poverty, or general parental neglect.


There may be as many as 100 million street children in the world, unloved, undernourished, and uneducated (Agnelli, 1986). Society often tries to forget them, or ignore them, or sometimes even deny that they exist. The problem will not go away by itself, however, and unless addressed soon, may lead to more dire consequences.


Agnelli, S. (1986). Street children: A growing urban tragedy (Report for the Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues). London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Aptekar, L. (1989). A culture of the streets. The Child Care Worker, 7(7), 12-13.

Cockburn, A. (1991). Street children: Characteristics and dynamics of the problem. Child Welfare, 17(1), 6-7.

Drake, E. (1989). Street children in other countries. The Child Care Worker, 7(7), 14-15.

Forrest, B., Tyler, S. L., Tyler, J. J., & Echeverry, M. C. Z. (1986, August). A preventative psychosocial approach for working with street children. Paper presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association, Washington, DC.

Griesel, R. D., Jansen, P., & Richter, L. M. (1990). Electro-encephalographic disturbances due to chronic toxin abuse in young people, with special reference to glue sniffing. South African Medical Journal, 78, 544-547.

Hickson, J., & Gaydon, V. (1989). Counselling in South Africa: The challenge of apartheid's "twilight children" - The street children of Johannesburg. Journal of Multicultural Counselling and Development, 17, 85-89.

Keen, J. (1990). A window on the inner world of street children. The Child Care Worker, 8(5), 11-12.

Le Roux, J. (1994). Street children in South Africa and Thailand: A comparative study. Pretoria: University of Pretoria.

Manila's street girls: A closer look. (1989). Street Voices, 3(2), 5-7. (Publication of the Joint Project on Street Children of DSWD, NCSD, and UNICEF.)

Meeting targets, addressing needs. (1991). Street Voices, 5(3), 10-11. (Publication of the National Project on Street Children.)

Mid-Term Review Project Document. (1990). Meeting the needs of street children in the Philippines. UNICEF.

Panicker, R. (1993). Study on the situation of street children in six cities of India: Major findings. Street and Working Children, 8, 1-2.

Pradhan, G. (1990). Street children of Kathmandu. Lost Childhood, 6, 1-18.

Richter, L. M. (1988). Street children: The nature and scope of the problem in South Africa. The Child Care Worker, 6(7), 11-14.

Richter, L. M. (1991a, April). Street children in South Africa: General theoretical introduction-Society, family and childhood. Part 1 of a paper presented at the First National Workshop of Street-Wise, Johannesburg.

Richter, L. M. (1991b, April). Street children in South Africa: Street children in rich and poor countries. Part 2 of a paper presented at the First National Workshop of Street-Wise, Johannesburg.

Ross, C. (1991). The street children: Survival strategies. Indicator SA, 8(4), 69-72.

Silva, T. L. (Ed.). (1991). Indonesia to work with family, child and peers in its efforts for street children. Childhope Newsletter, 1(1/2), 3.

Swart, J. M. (1990a). Street children: Their health and welfare. Chasa, 1(1), 5-12.

Swart, J. M. (1990b). Street children in Latin America, with special reference to Guatemala (Unisa Centre for Latin American Studies, 6(1), 18-41). Pretoria: University of South Africa.

Taqon, P. (1991, March). Survey on street children in three urban centres of Namibia. Coordinated and carried out by the Ministry of Local Government and Housing of the Republic of Namibia.

Cheryl Sylvia Smith, Ph.D., University of Durban-Westville, Faculty of Education, Durban, Republic of South Africa.
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Author:Le Roux, Johann; Smith, Cheryl Sylvia
Date:Sep 22, 1998
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