United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) identified street children as children in difficult circumstances whose rights and welfare remain a growing concern for national and international institutions. There is no exact number of street children across the world, but in 2003 alone UNICEF estimated at least 100 million street children are scattered worldwide. They range from beggars, homeless, ‘parking boys’ and so on. These children include those who are abandoned by their parents due to poverty or disabilities, separated from their families because of war or natural disaster, or runaways from dysfunctional families, abuse, or force (such as arranged child marriage).
Without protection and adult supervision, the lives of these children became vulnerable and risky. They are prone to child trafficking, abuse and illness. Drug use is also common for street children as they use it to numb their pain which derived from the harsh life they have to live everyday. No shelter, they would live or sleep on the sidewalks, under flyovers and bridges, bus stops, marketplaces, et cetera.
Isolated and hidden, reaching out for them is no easy task. They are constantly suspicious of strangers as most of them are traumatized from having their rights violated: protection, shelter, affection, support, guidance. Being free from adult supervision does not mean that they have the privilege to play all day. Instead, they are forced to work to survive and is a common subject to harassment by goons and even officials like the police.
The work they do includes collecting rubbish, scavenging, shoe shining, newspaper sales, prostitution, theft to, the most ‘effortless’ and common, begging. Child beggars gives more emotional engagement to people and thus people are more likely to give them money than adult beggars. This is an ‘advantage’ taken by street gangs and powerful goons to obtain cash.
Unprotected, powerless and somewhat innocent, these street children are coordinated by a group of adults to beg. At the end of the day, they have to give all the collected money to the adults and are given inadequate compensation like a small part of the sum or food. If they try to hide some of the cash and the goons find out, they’ll be abused severely. If they don’t meet the ‘targeted’ sum of money, they will get beaten. More often than not, these children try to escape and fail miserably. The goons know they need the children, so they supervise the children ‘at work’ intently.
Adults would go even farther on using these street children with scamming. Take the Baby Milk Scam in a tourist spot of Siem Reap, Cambodia. Children of 9 or 10 years old would carry babies around (not their own) and beg tourists for, not money, but milk for the babies. This trick shed tourists’ suspicions of giving their money straight to street adults. Thinking that these children are ‘genuine’ and somewhat ‘independent’ from the goons network, the tourists would go to the nearest shops (which are also cooperating in the scam) that sells milk formulas. The shops charge them double the price and the child would then sell the formula back to the shop, retrieving half the money paid by the tourists.
In Jakarta, Indonesia, infants are rented out by criminal syndicates to adult beggars. They even drug the babies to keep them quiet. Women beggars with their ‘rented’ babies usually make use of the rush hour on the main roads. During rush hours, some main roads in Jakarta are regulated (no longer prevailing by now) to only allow at least two passengers on motorbike and three passengers on cars. So, they rely on “jockeys” or passengers-for-hire to avoid fine. Often, these young women carrying a child touches the heart of drivers as they stood on the sidewalks under the burning Jakarta sun, hoping some drivers would hire them in exchange for a small fee. Then the government suspended the carpooling rule, leaving the jockeys out of work, once again.
So, you see children with innocent, sad faces begging for money or food. Babies carried by young helpless mothers. You feel sorry for them, but simply giving them money isn’t going to solve their main problem. If they earn a lot, the goons or maybe the family who sell them would continue the cycle and even force the children to work harder. As for the children, they would probably be treated as ‘the special child’ but it will never meet up to the sacrifices they made and their violated rights. Imagine them growing up to be adults as ‘the favorite child beggar’. With no education and having spent all their lives on the streets, they are much more likely to pass this ‘tradition’ to their future children and other children they meet on the streets as adults.
What can we do? There must be at least a few established social organisations or community in every country or city, where they provide support and protection for such children. Seek them out and support them, so they will continue to shelter more street children. This is a long term and sustainable solution for the children, instead of instantly giving the children what they ‘appear’ to be needing the most.