“I lost my parents three years ago and since then I have been living in the streets without shelter and assurance of having food every day. Nobody cares about me; whether I live or not,” said William Githira, 15, who lives in the streets of the Kenyan capital.
“People don’t want to look at me. I’m trash. I don’t want to live in the streets, but I have nobody. My uncle beat me hard when I lived there, and so I ran. Living in the street is the only way to survive”, he added.
In the past decade, the number of street children has increased in many African countries due to deepening poverty. The situation described by William is not uncommon in big cities like Nairobi and elsewhere in the developing world.
As half of the total population of Kenya is under 18, the living conditions of street children is one of the greatest challenges facing the government of President Mwai Kibaki.
Experts estimate that there are 250,000-300,000 children living and working on the streets, with more than 60,000 of them in Nairobi. Kisumu, on Lake Victoria, and Mombasa, on the coast, also have large populations of street children.
Street children face endless cruelties. Their rights have been violated many times by the adults who were supposed to protect them. In many cases these children are subject to sexual exploitation in return for food or clothes. Often, police detain and beat them without reason.
“Kenya is a mess! The conditions for street children are terrible,” said Miriam Ndegwa, programme associate of Youth Alive Kenya.
Geoffrey, 23, described his experience in a police station: “I was sleeping one night in the street when the police came and took me to the police station. I did nothing wrong. In the police station I was beaten to confess a crime I did not do. [The police officer] wouldn’t stop until I agreed to what he said. He beat me everywhere with his cane.”
Definition of street children
The United Nations has defined the term ‘street children’ to include “any boy or girl… for whom the street in the widest sense of the word … has become his or her habitual abode and/or source of livelihood, and who is inadequately protected, supervised, or directed by responsible adults.”
Street children are also divided into two groups: those who live IN the street (spend all their time in the street), and those who live ON the street (those who return home at night).
Meanwhile, The Cradle and The Undugu Society of Kenya - two organisations working to improve the life of children and youth - divide Kenyan street children into four categories.
The first is children who work and live on the street full-time, living in groups in temporary shelters or dark alleys.
The second category is children who work on the streets by day but go home to their families in the evenings. This category constitutes the majority of street children in the country.
The third category is children who are on the streets occasionally, such as in the evenings, weekends, and during school holidays.
The fourth category is known as “street families”, children whose parents are also on the streets.
The scavengers or “chokora”
Nairobi’s street children are easily recognised with their trademark sacks slung over their backs, searching through dustbins. They are branded “chokora” or scavengers.
In order to survive on the streets, young people often beg, carry luggage, or clean business premises and vehicles. Others earn some money by collecting waste paper, bottles, and metals for recycling.
The children sometimes assist the city council cleaners in sweeping and collecting garbage.
Eddy Omondy, a 15-year-old orphan who has been living in the streets for four years, told IRIN that he used to collect garbage, and help load and unload market goods, earning him up to 80 KSH (US $1) a day.
Some earn their money in less honest ways, pick-pocketing or violent robbery.
Girls are forced to resort to prostitution in order to get clothes or food. According to a 2004 report from The Cradle and The Undugu Society, they earn as little as 10 or 20 KSH ($0.30-0.50) for each client.
In recent years, experts have raised concerns about the health of street children. Besides the lack of shelter, sanitation, and nutrition, these children, particularly in Nairobi, are substance abusers.
Sniffing glue, petrol or smoking bhang (the slang name for marijuana) are their escape from poverty, homelessness, violence and abuse at home or on the streets.
Ndegwa told IRIN: “Sniffing glue helps them to eat rotten food for survival or to suppress their hunger, simply because glue is cheaper than food.”
Some children said they use glue and other drugs to heighten their senses to alert them of possible violence, facilitate sleep during the cold nights, or to numb their physical or emotional pain.
“Watoto wa siku hizi,” - the children of today in Swahili - are mostly ignored or avoided by the community. People tend to associate street children with criminality, solely on the ground of their appearance.
Experts claim that many street children have been accused of crimes simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“My friends and I were just sitting in Uhuru Park when the police came and put us in a lorry and brought us to a police station. They accused us of sniffing glue or smoking bhang,” said Godfrey, 16, from Meru, Kenya.
Experts believe that juvenile justice in Kenya is still one of the main problems the government needs to address, as ill-treatment in prison is in violation of child and youth rights.
Verbal and physical abuse from the community and the police are some of the most common problems the street children face every day.
The police make arbitrary arrests of children for various reasons: loitering, carrying illegal weapons, refusing to give in to sexual demands, or being rude to police officers.
Once in police custody, the harassment of these children continues and sometimes worsens. Abuse ranges from being insulted, beaten, kicked, and detained, to sexual abuse and rape.
“The detention centre is often so crowded that there is no separate cell for adults and children. The food they give is not enough or dirty. And there is only one bucket as a toilet for everybody,” said Ndegwa.
Omondy was arrested by the police for the possession of a pen knife.
“At the police station I was beaten so many times. I was forced to make a false statement for a crime I didn’t do. There was no mattress or blanket to sleep on. I slept on the cold floor in my t-shirt and my shorts only. We were not allowed to go to the toilet, there was only one bucket for everybody if we need to go to toilet,” he told IRIN.
“I’m scared of the police because I’ve heard many children have gone through very bad experiences while they were in detention,” he added.
Children are held in detention in remand homes or detention centres before receiving a trial. If they are subsequently found guilty they are sent to rehabilitation schools, for children who are under 15, or to borstal or prison if they are above 15-years-old.
“Conditions at the remand homes or at the approved schools are sometimes as bad as in police cells. But at the prison or borstal the situation is far worse. In some cases, children are put together in the adult prison due to lack of space, or because they were assumed to be adults by the judge,” said Ndegwa.
“There are reports of children being handcuffed to beds, stripped naked and beaten. Sometimes children are not allowed to eat, or their food is withheld as a form of punishment. They are often subject to sex abuse or sodomy by the guards or older youth,” she added.
In the past few years, the conditions for street children may have shown some improvement. However, experts say that there are still many aspects that need to be improved by the Kenyan government. These include the juvenile system, infrastructures at police stations and police cells, remand homes, rehabilitation schools, and especially prisons.
Ndegwa told IRIN: “For the whole country, there is only one children’s court which is located in Nairobi. Children from other cities who need to appeal in court need to travel far to get to Nairobi. Often the magistrate has to see 150 children in one sitting. This should change in the future.”
There are approximately 250 organisations in Kenya which are working with street children. However, according to Ndegwa, it seems that the UN has not done much in relation to this particular issue.
“The UN is a big organisation and can influence the government to improve the life of street children. Big organisations like the UN are often focused on refugees, ethnic minorities, health, and less attention has been paid to street children. Maybe this is the time for a change,” she concluded.
[This article is part of a special IRIN series that looks at how conflict, poverty and social alienation are affecting the lives of children and teenagers. Read more: Youth in crisis: coming of age in the 21st century]