There are children living in the urban streets of developing and emerging countries. They play in the street, they eat there and fight, they fall in love. There are many facets to their lives that are invisible to the eye of the pedestrian, or to the person driving by in their car. When we see children in the street, we can only identify their most obvious characteristics: They are in the street, they are dirty, they beg. Since these are the only features of street children that are visible, the children are often reduced to these factors. As dirty beggars in the street, they lose their individuality and become a homogeneous mass people pity, despise or are indifferent about.
As a matter of fact, street children have extremely different backgrounds and living circumstances. A six-year old boy who lives in the street with a group of other street boys, who earns a living through pickpocketing and who may even return to his home from time to time is a street child, and so is a 15-year old girl who lives with her boyfriend in the street, who sells housewares in the metro and who at some point becomes pregnant. Both the boy and the girl are street children, although they do not share anything except being in the street.
Children choose to live in the street for various reasons. They have different experiences and they have different needs. For the work of NGOs as well as governmental institutions, this means that a standardised approach to working with street children is of little use. After all, the homogeneity of ‘street children’ is constructed through the use of this overarching term. It is us who call the children ‘street children’ and by doing so, we label them in a generalising way, viewing them as equal (or at least very similar) where in fact, the only thing they have in common is a certain connectedness to the street.
This approach to studying and talking about the children is absurd. Street children are called street children because they do not live in a house, while people living in a house are called people and not ‘house people’. This illustrates the artificiality of the term that is in fact only constructed for ‘house people’ to be able to distinguish between what they consider normal, and what they consider abnormal. This imprecision is harmful to nuanced discussions about street children. In fact, it does not allow them.
If NGOs as well as street children activists and other institutions truly want to gain knowledge about the lives of children in the street, the ‘street children’ discourse has to become much more differentiated. Being aware about the diversity amongst street children and studying the various facets of their living circumstances will help to understand the needs of the children, and not our own perception of what these should be.