Life on the streets
I’ve talked a lot about why children end up on the streets – the poverty, violence and witchcraft accusations that mean they see it as a better option. I’m also often asked - what’s life actually like for a child on the street?
For children who live on the streets, it’s scary, threatening and hazardous. They experience things that no child should to go through.
Many are there because they faced such terrible violence and abuse at home, but this usually continues on the street. Criminal gangs – ‘cults’ as they are known in Nigeria – are very common, and street children often end up joining them. Some choose to do this because they think it will provide them with protection and because they just want to belong to something. They are hugely excluded from the rest of society, so being part of a community – even a criminal, violent one - seems better than being on their own.
Others don’t make a choice, but are forced. I met one boy who was made to join a gang on threat of death, and then forced to commit extremely violent acts – again under threat of being killed. Once a child has pledged their allegiance to a particular gang, they have to do whatever the gang wants – stealing, violence and drug dealing are all common. This in turn leads to even more marginalization from wider society.
Street children are associated with gangs, violence and crime - whether they are actually involved with it or not is irrelevant.
For the children who don’t live on the street, such as those who have to ‘hawk’ (sell) goods because their family lives in such poverty, but do have a home to go back to, spending this time on the streets still means they are vulnerable to danger and abuse.
Our partners have told me about children being kidnapped, and murdered for body parts. Child trafficking is also a huge problem. It’s far too easy for people to just take children from the streets – after all, who cares what happens to street children?
But what does happen to trafficked street children includes forced prostitution, effective slavery and ‘baby-farming’, where girls are imprisoned, forcibly made pregnant, and then have the babies taken away to be sold to people who want to adopt a child.
Yet despite the many horrors that children face on the streets, I’m constantly amazed just how determined and resilient they can be. Rick’s talked about John, who was so determined to go to school and have a successful life. The children in our shelter in Calabar have aspirations to be lawyers and doctors – and with them doing so well in school this is a real possibility.
We must never write these children off, or abandon them to their fate. Sometimes the tiniest thing can help turn a child’s life around – paying their exam fees or buying them shoes so they can continue with school. What we in the UK might spend on a cinema ticket, or a couple of drinks after work, could make the difference between a child having a life of danger and fear, or being safe, happy and able to look forward to the future.