EVERY child deserves a stable, caring and happy upbringing that lays the foundation for their journey into adulthood. Not all children receive this.
There is a commonly unseen problem in our midst and by this I mean the ‘street children’ - boys and girls who have not yet reached adulthood, but for whom the street has become their effective ‘home’ and often their source of livelihood.
That this tragedy is mostly ‘unseen’ does not mean that it is not real and that its effects are not incredibly damaging.
Securing the safety, permanency and wellbeing of these vulnerable children and young people is a significant area of responsibility for our community and it is one where the Government needs to ensure it is providing adequate protection.
The size of the issue is immense. In Tanzania, on any given night, there are an estimated 437,500 street children and young people without a place they can call home. Unpublished data indicates that in Dar es Salaam, an estimated 3000 to 5000 children live permanently on the streets.
Sadly, these children are vulnerable to wide and extreme violations of their rights. Why has this come to be? A child has the right to parental guidance; parents have joint responsibility for raising a child, and a child has the right to live with his or her parents.
However, if any child is vulnerable and at risk of physical or sexual harm then the responsibility widens to aunties, uncles, grandmas and grandpas, and cousins, who are expected to step in. If that fails or is unavailable, then the government of the day must be the last resort of protection.
It is important to remember that there is a United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) adopted by the General Assembly in 1989, stating that any child who is permanently or temporarily deprived of her or his family environment for any reason is a street child and is entitled to special protection and assistance (UNICEF, 1999).
The Convention recognizes that children need to grow up in a family where there is happiness, love and understanding. Children need peace, tranquillity, dignity, acceptance, freedom and support. As a community, let’s picture life for these vulnerable young kids, constantly moving from street to street with no permanent home from one night to the next.
Sniffing glue and petrol is a common way to dull hunger pains and blot out the violence and sexual abuse they face on a daily basis. These children have not become homeless by choice. Sometimes they are even homeless along with their mum, dad or family. Most are kids just like our own children.
Nonetheless, it is an undeniable truth that the street children, particular in Dar es Salaam, face daily abuse on the streets with no opportunity to live and act as children in a loving family environment.
As a child growing up, I was constantly reminded by my parents, school teachers and religious leaders that the family is a basic unit of a community and the bedrock of children’s welfare and protection.
However, today the ‘family’ is itself often a major cause of the problem of street children, as these children need to find for themselves the means to secure not only their own welfare, but often the welfare of the whole family.
I ask ‘What is happening here’? Have we moved to another planet? Have we lost sight of the fact that the street children of today are a vital part of Tan zania’s future? Traditionally, a child was normally a member of a village and could not be separated from it.
This meant that the entitlement’s that a child deserves was a matter for the whole community. A truth that is captured in the phrase that, ‘it takes a village [or community] to raise a child’. This phrase meant that there was no need for children to fend for themselves, as their upbringing was the responsibility of each individual member of community.
The children were loved, fed, and cared for by village. Today, unfortunately, children are seen as exclusively the responsibility of individual parents and essentially are ignored by the rest of the community. In what ways are the effects of street children damaging?
Tragically, research shows that children experiencing homelessness have poorer physical and mental health and have lower educational outcomes than their peers. They also suffer more developmental delays, behavioural stress, and lower self-esteem, often causing them to come to the attention of the justice system.
However, the problems associated with street children extend well beyond the plight of the children themselves. The entire society is impoverished by the lost potential of homeless children and youth. In the long term, street children end up unskilled and jobless, often resorting to crime and eventually playing their part to fill our prisons.
As a society, the whole community pays the price for this lost production and taxation income, and for the costs associated with judicial incarceration. So, what has gone wrong in Tanzanian society to bring us to this point? Do we have to accept that the community now appears to see street children as simply hooligans or ruffians who are just to be avoided?
It can never be right to perceive any of our children, even if they are homeless, in such rigid stereotypes. Rather, it is important to focus on how we can help to eliminate this tragic blight within our community. The ‘push’ factors that lead to the existence of street children will to some degree always be unique to an individual child’s situation.
Nonetheless, frequently it is a combination of multiple factors that drive children to a life on the streets; including domestic violence, poverty, alcoholism, neglect, the loss of one or both parents to HIV/AIDS or to other prevalent diseases. These are all factors that society can do something about.
Following the United Nations CRC mentioned above, Tanzania established the Education Training Policy (1995) that provided equal access for all children to basic education, and the Child Development Policy (1996) that emphasizes the need for co-ordination and collaboration between ministries to ensure that all school age children are enrolled in primary school and that alternative programmes are set up for older children.
However, previous governments have shown themselves to be very good at taking legislative measures, but less successful at delivering programmes that translate rights into reality. Why have social policies of previous governments so far failed to solve this problem?
I believe it is because these policies have been consistently dealing with symptoms rather than with essential causes! I commend the 5th Government of United Republic of Tanzania, led by His Excellency President Dr John Pombe Magufuli, for showing better leadership on this matter.
Since primary and secondary education was made free in 2015, the abolition of school fees has prevented 22 per cent of children from migrating to the streets.
The truth is that, previously there were many reports of children excluded from school for non-payment of fees; in one school at some point more than half of the older children had been excluded for non-payment (USAID, 2002).
Now, the Ministry of Health, Community Development, Gender, Elderly and Children – MoHCDGEC - is tasked to promote children’s rights through the formulation of policies, strategies, and guidelines, in collaboration with stakeholders who are active in the country, to ensure that children and young people grow up safe, happy, in good health, and that they are nurtured to reach their full potential.
Saving them from the street! Based on extensive experience as an expert in Child Protection, it is obvious to me that the MoHCDGEC is too large portfolio, with substantial conflicting priorities within itself. The Health portfolio for example, is enormous in its own right and when combined with others like child protection it is very easy for the Ministry as a whole to lose the focus on this component of its work.
There is a strong sense that Health staff will naturally focus on their core business of health provision and arrangements such as the amalgamation to form a ‘super’ ministry that widened this focus are not in the best interests of child protection.
However, it is my firm belief that the 5th Government led by His Excellency President Dr John Pombe Magufuli has the potential to set up a clear vision for the nation that all children and young people can grow up safe, happy, health and be nurtured to reach their full potential.
I believe that the time is now right for the government to establish standalone, ‘Ministry for Child Protection’ with a refreshed leadership to create a much improved system for keeping children safe from harm.
The new Ministry would naturally include early support and assistance for families struggling to care for their children, in order to keep as many children as possible from needing the ongoing intervention of the child protection system.
This is not just about a change of Ministry name and responsibility, but rather is a committed, serious, and profound shift in leadership and culture that will help to minimize the number of street children and restore public confidence in the area of child protection.
The new Ministry should have a strong clinical governance system to ensure that everyone at all levels of the Ministry is accountable to children, young people, their families and to the community for providing services that are safe, effective, integrated and continuously improving.
The new Ministry should coordinate and collaborate with all other relevant ministries, departments and organisations, both government and non-government, to give children better outcomes.
It must also be proactive and engage the community in playing its part in engaging meaningfully with programmes and systems that ensure all children have the best chance possible to develop to their full potential.
This will ensure that the Government will have every chance of achieving the key aims of the Convention on the Rights of a Child, especially Article 9 which states that government must ensure that children are protected from all forms of physical and mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or neg ligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation.
The issue of street children is at a ‘tipping point’ and we face a stark choice: either we continue the status quo by essentially burying our head in the sand and pretending not to notice the plight of destitute children begging on our streets; or the government and the community in general comes together to put in place viable policies and strategies that will ensure that their plight is urgently addressed.
With each passing day, it is becoming increasingly clear that the existing responsible ministry has not been able to give this matter the attention it deserves and has thereby unintentionally contributed to its continuation. The time is now for the Government to establish a standalone Ministry for Child Protection with a refreshed leadership.
In conclusion, a young girl was once heard to complain, ‘The trouble with parents is that by the time we get them they are too old to change their habits’! If it ‘takes a village to raise a child’, then as today’s adults, we are all part of that village. We all have default parental responsibilities for all our children and we are stakeholders in all their futures.
While not all of them may grow up to become the key decision makers of the future; whatever their backgrounds those who survive to adulthood will be the citizens of tomorrow’s society and will play a role in influencing and determining the nature of that society - a society in which we might ourselves hope to grow old.
Let it not be said of us that we are ‘too old’ to learn and change. Structures of government matter in determining future outcomes. A standalone Ministry for Child Protection is crucial for the health and prosperity of that future – I commend the idea to you all!
• Dr Joseph Masika OAM is a Public Health Consultant specialized in Child Protection, Child Marriage and Domestic violence against Women.