This year’s theme…identity

I’m just waiting for some photos to come through from our International Day event in Calabar – working in a country with very unreliable electricity and phone and internet networks means we often have to wait a few days for information. It can be pretty frustrating as we are so used to instant communications these days, but I know our Nigerian team finds it equally infuriating!

Every year the Day has a specific theme, and this year it is identity. It’s a very interesting and important issue, because street children often don’t have the chance to express their own individual identities but are just lumped together as ‘street children’ – simply criminals or victims. We also have to remember that children develop identities connected to the street – they can become involved with gangs, or become parents or wage earners – often meaning it’s easy to forget they are still children. And being labelled a street child means a child suffers all sorts of exclusion and discrimination, which often continues even after they’ve left the streets.

‘Street child’ becomes their defining characteristic, over and above the many other things that are also part of their identity.

One of the problems many street children face is that they have no formal identity as they were not registered at birth. This causes all sorts of problems – how do they get back into school when there is no formal proof of who they are? How do we, or they, even know that they are legally still a child, when they don’t have a record of their birthday?

We also need to remember that for many children, the street is seen as a place of security and safety. So many children go to the streets because they face such terrible abuse at home. Many children feel like they have more power and freedom on the street than they would at home, because there is no-one to control them and force them to do things that they don’t want to do. For some, being a street child means people are scared of them because they are seen as dangerous.

So a ‘street child’ identity can also mean a child feels greater power over their life – one reason why some children don’t want to leave the streets, and why offering them the right kind of home, where people understand all that they have gone through, is so important.

Thinking about identity shows that seeing the streets as a purely negative place for a child can be too simplistic. Yes, they are a place of danger, vulnerability and abuse. But street children also show incredible resilience and resourcefulness. I ran a workshop a few years ago with a group of street boys from Port Harcourt, and one of the things that really struck me was that the one thing they wanted above all else was to be able to go to school. Not food, not shelter, not even safety, but education – this was what was most important to them, even though they faced hardship and violence every day. When I asked them why, I found that most of them found ways of getting food and money, but they had no means of getting back into school while they were on the streets. For me, this just shows the importance of not making assumptions about who street children are and what they need, but of listening to the children themselves.

We need to remember that every child is an individual, and so we can’t have a ‘one size fits all’ approach. While this is harder, more time-consuming and more expensive, I know it is what’s best for a child and it’s something we centralise in all our projects.