NGOs concerned at "society failing street children"

Although the Kenyan parliament last year passed a new law to protect children from neglect and abuse, a combination of economic and social factors is forcing more and more children to continue pouring into the streets throughout the country, according to local nongovernmental organisations (NGOs).

John Gathungu, head of the Victory Free Area Self-Help Group, an indigenous NGO based in Nakuru, in Rift Valley Province, told IRIN on Wednesday that the new law, to come into effect on 1 March 2002, placed little emphasis on the plight of street children, and would therefore do little to solve their problems.

"Kenya, like many other African countries, is becoming a habitat for street children, whose numbers are increasing day after day. But the government, churches, organisations and the public have neglected them. They have been left to roam and sleep in the cold as if they are not part of the society," the NGO said in a statement released on Tuesday.

"Though we cry of a poor economy, lack of resources and illiteracy as some of the hindrances that prevent us from taking care of the so-called street children, we feel that those are just excuses being used not to help them," Gathungu said.

"We believe that the government, organisations, churches and the public in general can join hands and utilise the little resources that we have so that we can make Kenya free of street children."

Official figures suggest the presence of between 150,000 and 200,000 street children in Kenya, of whom 60,000 are in the capital, Nairobi, alone.

However, according to the Nairobi-based African Network for the Protection and Prevention against Child Abuse and Neglect (ANPPCAN), up to 3.5 million Kenyan children of school-going age are out of school, a "good number" of whom are on the streets.

"I think the figures given by the government are misleading," Phillista Onyango, who heads ANPPCAN, told IRIN on Wednesday.

According to Onyango, a recent study conducted by her organisation indicated that most street children in Kenya were the product of overcrowded slums, where the environment was hostile to their survival.

"The children will pour into the streets as long as they don't have a place to sleep and someone to cook their food. The slums are also where most of the abuse and rape of children take place," she said.

The new children's law has outlawed various forms of child abuse and neglect, and provides for free primary school education for all children.

However, a section of the new Act which provides that children born out of marriage are the "sole responsibility of their mother unless the father made a formal application seeking responsibility for the child" has drawn criticism from children's rights organisations, which claim that it exempts men from taking responsibility for their offspring.

"We shouldn't be mincing words here. Society should take responsibility for its children, - nd fathers are part of that society. A child has a right to a name, and that means a father has to take responsibility from very early on," said Onyango.

While the Children's Act will be of little use in the short term, as it has failed to put in place mechanisms capable of solving the problem of street children, its provision for free primary education for all children will, in the long run, serve to confront the government with the task of dealing with street children, according to Onyango.

"The government will have to mobilise all its resources. That would be the best way to protect these children," she said.

Gathungu, meanwhile, stressed his belief that the phenomenon of street children was contributing to the general insecurity in the country, the spread of HIV/AIDS, rising levels of illiteracy, and a general "decay of morals in society".

He also said that programmes aimed at resolving the problem of street children would also have to address the burgeoning upgrowth of street families.

"What we are after is to let the public know [about] the dangers these children pose to society. In order to do this, we have to create awareness and conduct workshops to enable us establish the main cause of the problem," Gathungu said.

"After that, we can get lasting solutions that will ensure that no more children pour into the streets. Rehabilitation [of individual children] alone is no solution," he added.