Street urchins, street kids, moineaux (“sparrows”): those are some of the pejorative terms used in the mainstream media to refer to young people connected to the streets – young people for whom the streets play a significant role in their everyday lives and social identities. They are seldom referred to as talented young people with the potential to thrive, nor the promising future of the next generation. Contrary to what terms may have met your eyes and ears, however, they are both of these things.
You may have seen them offering to carry luggage, helping to navigate parking places, or asking for money. You may also have seen them gathered in wastelands, under awnings or bridges, or in slums, sometimes carrying all their belongings in a single plastic bag. To survive each day takes a tremendous amount of resilience, yet their image has been stained by stigma and fear, perpetuated by harmful policies and human rights violations.
Millions of street-connected young people navigate life on the African continent, although the exact number is unknown and is difficult to quantify. For one, the pursuit of survival often demands transiency, and their exclusion from social services render them invisible to both national statistics and the public eye. Birth certificates and national identification cards, for instance, are often phantom objects to young people in the streets. Not only does this make enumeration difficult, but it means that healthcare, education, legal support, psychological support, housing, and opportunities to enter the formal job market, become entities beyond their reach. They become stuck.
Young people enter street life for many reasons, with poverty, family conflict, and child abuse being some of the most common. They may have come looking for opportunities to make money, for freedom from an unsafe or abusive household or community, or simply because they felt they had no other choice. Unfortunately, however, once on the streets, life can get even harder.
Everything becomes about survival. Physical survival, economic survival, social survival. Choices are constrained by the need to simply live. Lack of reliable housing renders them vulnerable to violence: physical, sexual, and emotional. Violence from others in the streets, violence from partners, violence from the wider community, violence from authorities. Violence is omnipresent; it is a symptom of living in the shadows. Within such an unforgiving environment, young people also become susceptible to health conditions (e.g., parasitic diseases, pneumonia, and HIV) and exploitation (e.g., transactional sex and child labour). Compounded with this is the mental health impacts of both past and present trauma, and the unsafe coping mechanisms that develop in the absence of alternatives. Drugs become an escape – a way to forget – and can quickly descend into addiction.
Policies across the African continent have taken a punitive approach to addressing young people in the streets. In Kenya, for instance – a country with over 46,000 street-connected young people – ‘street sweeps’ have been undertaken by municipal police and County governments to ‘cleanse’ cities and towns of young people, by jailing them, re-locating them across County borders, and pushing them outside city centres. These acts have proven to be violent and incontrovertible violations of human rights, with injury and death as a frequent and avoidable consequence. The same is true for many other countries.
Yet cleansing the streets will not clean the streets. And in fact, with proliferating conflict plaguing the continent; a sharp rise in orphanhood stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, and inflation and living costs far outpacing what families can afford, the presence of young people on the streets has an ominous trajectory.
There are, however, other solutions – ones that are grounded in a strong and growing body of research. In Kenya, for instance, a recent and ongoing study at Moi University and the University of Oxford is exploring how parenting can be a launching pad for breaking the cycle of street-involvement. Young parents in the streets view their children as motivation to pursue a better life, and a parenting program created with and for the street community in western Kenya has shown to improve familial relationships and reduce violence against children, one of the very drivers of young people to the streets. This research is now expanding to test how it can also prevent intimate partner violence and its risk factors, which has the potential to strengthen the resilience of families and their ability to achieve a good life.
Another intervention trialled in Kenya by Moi University and the University of Toronto was an HIV prevention, gender and livelihoods program, after which participants improved HIV knowledge, gender equitable attitudes, and were able to increase their earnings and secure housing, all of which may reduce their street-involvement. A combined parenting and microfinance program in Meru County similarly found positive benefits, including increased social supports, reductions in child abuse, and improved mental health.
Not only are these interventions grounded in evidence, but they have cascade effects. In many of these listed initiatives, street-connected young people are employed on the projects; they have leadership roles and take ownership over the programs. Peer Navigators, for instance, are former street-connected young people employed by AMPATH in western Kenya to help young people in the streets navigate the healthcare system, among other supports, and these very individuals are supporting other projects as well.
This is far from trivial. It means they share what they learn, and importantly, they serve as positive role models to others in their community; a success story for others to aspire to. By and large, young people in the streets want to help others in the streets; they want a better life for each other, their children, their families, and their peers. And they are very capable of doing that.
But just like Eliud Kipchoge needed a team to run a marathon in under two hours, young people in the streets also need a team. Programs that support behaviour change serve an important role, yet in the absence of structural changes, such as better access to housing, education, justice, and healthcare, they can only go so far. We need to build bridges across sectors, and work as a team to create supportive communities for these young people. Imagine the mountain one must climb to exit a life on the streets. Let us not push them off when they reach the top. Let us instead extend a hand.
There are millions of street-connected young people in Africa, all of whom have ambitions, dreams, skills, and abilities. They are the next generation, and it is time to invest in their future.
Kathleen Murphy, MPH, PhD Candidate, Department of Social Policy and Intervention, University of Oxford.
Fiona Ondara, Advocacy officer, University of Oxford working with Kenyan civil society.
We would also like to acknowledge the contributions of Dr. Lonnie Embleton, Arnhold Institute for Global Health, Mount Sinai.