All names have been changed as to protect the identities of the research participants.
Samira (16) spent most years of her life on and off the street. Samira’s sister, Fatima (20), is older than Samira and she has a mental disability. The sisters’ first encounter with the street took place at a very young age, when Samira was still an infant, and when the girls’ parents had already been divorced.
“Mama left me in the street when I was a baby. […] When she left me, she called my father. She told him that he could have me now because he always wanted me. Both my parents wanted me but they didn’t want my sister. So she left us in the street and told him where to find us.”
Samira’s father came to pick the girls up, and what followed were many years of living in numerous different homes. After having lived at their father’s house for a while, Samira and Fatima moved to their grandparents’ apartment, and later to their uncle’s house. Their uncle was against Fatima living in his apartment. He found her annoying and exhausting, so he left her at a mosque and told Samira her sister had moved back to their father. Samira went to her father’s home, believing she would meet her older sister, and when she found the truth, she took to the streets to find her.
“She [the uncle’s wife] didn’t want to let me go because she was worried about me. She said she couldn’t let me go because I would get in trouble and I told her that I didn’t care, that I wanted to get in trouble, but that I didn’t want my sister to be alone. I was looking for ways to leave. I left to the street.”
Samira found Fatima, and lived in the street with her for years, sometimes interrupted by short stays at her uncle’s or her father’s house. But the same pattern repeated itself again and again. The sisters’ uncle was violent, and so was their father.
“When I was young, my uncle would always beat me and spit in my mouth and lock me up in the bathroom. He made me lie down on my stomach and he hit me with a wooden stick. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I took my sister and left. We stayed in the street. We didn’t know where to go or what to do. Then, my father came and we stayed at his house.”
The family was fine with keeping Samira but nobody wanted Fatima, whose disability stood in the way of her becoming an accepted member of the family, and so the older sister was thrown out to the street time after time, with Samira escaping home and looking for her. One day, Samira, who found it increasingly difficult to protect her sister from violence in the street, begged her father for help.
“My dad came and picked me up. He took me to the drop-in centre [of a street children NGO] and told me to go upstairs. He told me he would wait for me. When I went back downstairs, I realised he had left […] I felt that he left the place and that he left me.”
Samira and Fatima had once again been abandoned by their father. However, their turbulent street life found its end this day. From the drop-in centre, they were taken to a shelter for street girls, where I interviewed both girls several times.
There are different ways to tell and deal with Samira’s narrative. When hearing her accounts of endless abuse and violence and of the never-ending responsibility for her sister, one feels sorry for this girl who was abandoned as a baby and who grew up without any stability whatsoever, without ever knowing a caring and loving home. Samira did not go to school like other girls or have the normal problems a teenager has at her age. Instead, she was constantly violated and abandoned, and had to witness the cruelty her sister was exposed to. Her story arouses pity. This girl was born into a life that was harmful to her. She became the victim of her life circumstances, an abandoned child, an orphan.
This view on Samira’s story has consequences on the way she is perceived and dealt with. From the perspective of others, Samira’s victimhood makes her helpless, and her aloneness makes them think she is in need of rescue. She is pitied for the circumstances of her life.
But this pity dominates one’s idea of Samira, and it blurs one’s vision, because pitying her means ignoring so many relevant factors. It means not taking into account the remarkable decisions she has taken in her life, or her courageous actions, and it does not consider the maturity with which she was and still is protective of her sister.
As a matter of fact, Samira took decisions and acted upon them. She was not simply and solely the victim of her life circumstances but became the agent of them. She decided to be responsible for Fatima and she was. To her, at some point, it was intolerable to live in the street any longer, so she left. She exerted agency in every step of the way, and this agency must by all means be acknowledged. This does not mean that she did not go through terrible experiences or that one should never feel sorry for a child who has been abused in the most horrid way. It rather means that pitying a street child must never overshadow the rest of the story. It is necessary to give children the respect due to them, to try and understand how impressive their actions in the street are in so many ways.
It does not mean to glorify street children, or to be negligent of their very real problems in any way but to try and understand the children’s lives as holistically as possible, and not just within one’s pre-built idea of how miserable they must be.