“…in serving the best interests of children, we serve the best interests of all humanity.”
A child as the Age of Majority Act (Cap. 33 of the Laws of Kenya, Section 2) defines a minor as a person below the age of 18 years. A street child is a term for homeless children who live alone or with families on the streets of a town or city.
In a study commissioned by the Consortium of Street Children (CSC) it was estimated in 2007 that there were 250,000-300,000 children living and working on the streets across Kenya with, with more than 60,000 of them in Nairobi.
The infringement and violation of the Rights of a street child is immediate. The street child unlike others in marginalized groups is most susceptible to most if not all the vices the dark side of the human population has to offer. Being children, with insufficient mental, physical, psychological or emotional maturity to fight these vices, very few get to enjoy the protection of the Bill of Rights in the Constitution.
The child is protected by the Bill of Rights in the Constitution as well as other laws that put the importance of a child’s interest as paramount. Internationally, in 2014 the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) decided to develop a General Comment on street children. The General Comment on street children was first proposed by the UN General Assembly over two decades ago and is set to be published in 2017. The General Comment on street children will serve to facilitate by improving the implementation of rights as well as helping individual governments meet their mandate in ensuring the rights of the children are safeguarded. With the excess of estimated 100 million street children in the world and an estimate half a million in Kenya, laws to safeguard the rights of the street child are direly needed.
Street Children should generally enjoy all the rights as enjoyed by other citizens such as the highest attainable standard of health, food, water, shelter, primary consideration of the interest of the child, freedom from all forms of violence, the right to be heard, protection from cruel or degrading forms of treatment among others. The main hindrance to them accessing and enjoying these rights lies in enforcement.
The general perception of the street children especially in Kenya by the various communities that they live in is that of a people lost in despondency and hopelessness. Sometimes if not all the time they are perceived as an eyesore to the general population and often they are beaten and harassed for real or imagined misdemeanors. Their glue sniffing habits coupled with always outstretched hands begging in the street and rugged appearance causes many people to shun rather than help them.
Most rights of the child especially the right to education, food, shelter, clothing, health, legal services among others require money. Although there are a few organizations and individuals that cater to a small extent for these, the need is far much bigger than the provisions. Most are only able to feed for a meal and they are left to fend off for themselves. It is to be noted that unlike other internationally recognized and marked days, the International Day for Street Children on 12th April went largely unnoticed and unmarked in the country. It shows the extent of neglect that the issue of the street child attracts.
The street child must hence make ends meet. While the older children can sometimes fend for themselves through more honest means such as hawking, cart-pulling, touting and doing manual jobs; the society mostly frowns on the idea of employing them. Further hawking requires licences which the children cannot afford. They thus resort to illegal hawking which often lands them on the wrong side of the law and in extreme cases injured or killed in efforts to evade the law. Most engage in illegal trades such as drugs, alcohol brewing and selling, and crime. The girls and sometimes boys find themselves at the mercy of sexual predators and often in the worst form of child labour, as sex workers. It is not surprising that they are a big target for child traffickers.
The young street children are on the other hand, and in total disregard of any right that they have, left at street corners and along busy streets in Nairobi and other urban centers for days on end to beg from the public. It is common sight for children as young as 3 years in street corners notwithstanding harsh weather elements with hands outstretched.
Kenya has ratified most international conventions that concern child labour. The Government has also established relevant laws concerning child labour. The Employment Act (Cap. 226) provides that a person under 16 years of age is a child for the purpose of being engaged in gainful employment in any industrial undertaking.
The society and the government has turned a blind eye in regards to street children and labour regardless of there being in place laws preventing child labor, the Bill of Rights and other laws that provide for the Rights of the Child. Street children find themselves in the worst forms of child labour including but not limited to sex workers, chang’aa and other illicit brew brewers and are often trafficked.
The circumstances which street children find themselves in is a perfect breeding ground for juvenile delinquency. Unlicensed hawking, illicit alcohol brewing, soliciting, criminal activities drug peddling and general misdemeanors are some of the crimes street children engage in.
The Government in conjunction with the society should come up with ways that would teach these kids how to survive lawfully thus avoid juvenile centers. The 2015 National budget did allocate 300 million under a street families vote head and I hope some fund will be allocated to initiatives geared towards this.
When incarcerated children are committed to centers such as the borstal institutions, juvenile remand centers etc. For most street children it’s different; most face police and city-askaris (kanju) brutality, physical and sexual abuse and rarely have their day in court to plead their case. There is need to enforce existing laws to protect children and come up with laws geared towards protection of rights for all members of the society. Juvenile centers should be essential for rehabilitation not necessarily detention centers. The government should ensure that a child’s right to education is furthered in these institutions. Of importance is the treatment of juvenile while in the centers as this determines how they will live in the society after juvenile detention. Are the centers correcting their criminal ways and giving them a new lease to life or otherwise?
Helplessness induces hopelessness and hopelessness is the main cause of war. The world of a street child is a constant battle zone. Fighting hunger, predators, weather elements, the law and other things is their constant war. They sniff glue and other drugs to evade momentarily the harshness of the reality, a reality that the society chooses not to see. They fight a losing battle for their Rights. To them the Bill of Rights is just words on a paper. It is upon the Government and society to make sure their rights is also protected.
Mankind owes to the child the best it can give.
Bridah N. Kimathi