All names have been changed so as to protect the identities of the research participants.
During my research with (former) female street children in Cairo, I did not just ask the girls about their own experiences on and off the street, but also about their opinion on the street children discourse itself and about their own conceptual understanding of ‘street children’, ‘street boys’ or ‘street girls’. By doing so, I tried to do more than simply listen to the children’s ‘stories’ (I have a problem with this term since it suggests the existence of one linear story that can be told and listened to, whereas the outcome of my interviews with the children painted a very different image). My objective was to include them in the research process itself. They were the experts on a topic I was interested in, and by consulting them, discussing with them and benefitting from their expertise, the children became research participants, even co-researchers, in the actual sense of the term.
The first question I would typically ask was “What does ‘street child’ mean?”. After having read numerous definitions for ‘street child’ by experts who themselves were not and never had been street children, I was interested to understand how the children themselves would define the term they are affected by, deal with and also shape on a constant basis. The girls’ responses were very nuanced and often different from what I had read in the academic and non-academic literature, and they added a great deal to my own understanding of what ‘street child’ means.
The child who is alone
For some of the girls the most important thing about being a street child was the lack of support by the family. Samira (16) at first seemed reluctant to explain the meaning of ‘street child’ but then found a concise way of formulating it:
A: What is a ‘street child’?
S: I don’t understand.
A: What does ‘street child’ mean?
S: Somebody who has no family and no home and no brothers or sisters and no nothing. Somebody who’s always living in the street. An orphan, you feel he’s an orphan.
Samira only considers the aloneness of the child relevant to her or his status as a street child. To her, a street child is a child without a family and without any familial support whatsoever. Although she also points out that a street child lives in the street, the street does not seem as relevant as the aloneness a child experiences living in it. Samira spent years in the street, and although she went through many different experiences as a street child in the street, she did not name any of these for her perspective on ‘street children’. To Samira, the street child is above all the lonely child.
Souad (16) emphasised that it is only the familial support (or lack thereof) that matters when trying to define ‘street child’:
A: What is a street child?
S: A street child doesn’t have a mother or a father and lives in the street. Maybe his parents are dead, maybe they left him.
A: What if the parents don’t want the child and the child lives with his uncle. Is he a street child?
S: No, he is still with family.
A: What if the parents don’t want the child and the child lives in a shelter?
S: Yes, that’s a street child.
A: Even if he never lived in the street?
S: He’s still without a family.
Souad (who you can read more about here) explained to me that any abandoned child is a street child, with or without actually being in the street. This means that although ‘street’ forms part of ‘street child’, it was quite irrelevant in her own understanding of the term. I later understood this better when we talked more about her life as a street child. Souad had lived in the street with her father for seven years before she lived in the street alone for one week. When asked about her experiences in the street, Souad always referred to this week, thinking that I would not be interested in the seven preceding years in the street, since she had not been a street child then.
Both Samira and Souad described the ‘street child’ as a child who feels alone. As long as they were not alone, they were not street children. To them, it was not the street that mattered, the dirt or the begging, or not going to school. None of the things that usually come to mind when describing street children were of any relevance to them. I could not have read about that in the literature. I could not have understood it without hearing it from Samira and Souad, presented as the most self-evident fact: You are only a street child when you are totally alone.
The child who behaves like a street child
Dalia (14) did not focus on the child’s familial support or lack thereof. To her, a street child does not have to be alone or abandoned. When explaining the term to me, she did not regard the child’s familial background or the reasons for which she or he went to the street. In fact, she did not even explicitly refer to the child’s presence in the street but to her or his actual experiences and behaviours:
A: What do you think is a “street child”?
D: A street child is a child who steals, who can’t afford food, who smokes cigarettes, who gets beaten. This is a street child. […] They beg. Some girls steal, and some do wrong things.
Dalia described the life of a street child as many people imagine it and named some of its components, such as stealing, starving and assault. To her, the physical presence in the street is not sufficient to turn a non-street child into a street child. It is the child’s affiliation with certain behaviours that are typical for the street that make a street child. And indeed, whenever asked about her own life as a street child, Dalia would share stories of when she stole or smoked, when she had to beg and when she was in physical danger. Being abandoned in the street, or lonely, was not emphasised in her accounts as much as being a street child because she was behaving like one.
There is no such thing as ‘street children’
Malak (16) and Nadia (15) did not use the term ‘street child’ during any of my interviews with them. Malak called them “those who they call street children” or “children who sleep in the street” while Nadia usually referred to them as “children in the street”. When asked about the meaning of ‘street child’, they responded by rejecting the legitimacy of the term in the first place.
A: Malak, what does ‘street child’ mean?
M: They say ‘street child’ because this child sleeps in the street.
A: What do you call them?
M: When I was in the street and I met a lot of people, I used their names.
Malak consciously and intentionally avoided and opposed the term ‘street child’. The fact that “they” who do not sleep in the street have chosen to give the children a generalising label did not suffice for her to accept and use that name. To Malak, people in the street are individuals who cannot be categorised for the sole reason of their presence in the street (“I used their names”). Malak also pointed out that every person can become a person who sleeps in the street arguing that “they” who say ‘street children’ would not want to be labelled that way if they were in the position of the children.
Nadia also vehemently rejected the use of the term ‘street child’ and its social significance.
A: What does street child mean?
N: That’s what the ignorant people say. What does ‘street child’ mean? Does the street give birth? What does ‘raised by the street’ mean? Does the street raise children? Ignorant people. […] There is no such thing as ‘street children’, no ‘street boy’ or ‘street girl’. The street doesn’t give birth, it doesn’t raise children, it doesn’t do anything. The street is made of concrete and it has houses on both sides. The distance between the two rows of houses is called street and we walk on it. That’s what the street is.
Nadia’s criticism of the use of ‘street child’ goes beyond Malak’s idea of the term as inadequate, since children who sleep in the street are not a homogeneous group. In fact, Nadia objects any legitimate social meaning of ‘street’ in the first place. ‘Street child’, which could also be translated as ‘child of the street’ in Arabic, made no sense to her. Since the street does not give birth or raise a child, a social connection between ‘street’ and ‘child’ is incorrect and illegitimate. Nadia explained that the street merely functions as part of the infrastructure without any social meaning . To Nadia, it is not and cannot be connected with the upbringing and behaviour of a child.
During the analysis and comparison of the girls’ responses, I noticed that they all highly differed in their content and wording. In fact, there was no real consensus amongst the girls regarding what ‘street child’ means. While some focused on the aloneness of the child in a variety of ways, others emphasised her or his activities or even rejected the legitimacy of the term. The statements also differ in their tone. I felt that the girls often described their very own situation in the street rather than formulating a general definition. This brought me to think that maybe there is no such thing as a general definition because there is no such group as ‘street children’, and that in order to try and understand the lives of ‘street children’, one has to accept and work with this (sometimes confusing) heterogeneity, instead of trying to summarise and categorise how street children define ‘street children’.