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close this bookOutreach N° 96 - Children in especially Difficult Circumstances - Part 1: Working and Street Children (OUTREACH - UNEP - WWF, 68 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentOUTREACH information packs
View the documentAcknowledgements
View the documentLocation map
View the documentHow to use OUTREACH packs
View the documentOUTREACH packs on Children in Especially Difficult Circumstances
View the documentHow to use OUTREACH pack no. 96
View the documentArticle: Street children
View the documentFacts and opinions: Street children: the numbers
View the documentEducational resources: In the shadow of the city
View the documentClass activity: Who is a street child?
View the documentQuestions and answers: Where do street children come from?
View the documentClass activities: Urban and rural life
View the documentArticle: Child labour
View the documentClass activity: The causes of child labour exploitation in poor countries
View the documentArticles, interviews and activities: Lives of children in especially difficult circumstances: Part 1: street children and child labourers
View the documentArticle and activities: Street educators
View the documentArticle: Informal education for Nairobi's street children
View the documentEducational resources: A comic about street children
View the documentQuestions and answers: Questions children ask about sexual exploitation
View the documentPractical guidelines: Practical advice for AIDS educators working with street children
View the documentArticle: Helping street children
View the documentArticle: A self-help project for street children in India
View the documentActivities: Child-to-Child activities for children who live and work on the streets
View the documentArticle and activities: Convention on the Rights of the Child
View the documentArticle: Empowering children
View the documentEducational resources: African jigsaw
View the documentArticle: The children's movement in Brazil
View the documentSuggestions for action: How city mayors can help
View the documentRadio spots: Life is harder in the city
View the documentVideo resource: The Karate Kids project
View the documentPublications: Innocenti Studies: the urban child in difficult circumstances
View the documentFilm, video and radio resources: Children in difficult circumstances: street and working children
View the documentOrganisations: The Consortium for street children
View the documentOrganisations: CHILDHOPE

Articles, interviews and activities: Lives of children in especially difficult circumstances: Part 1: street children and child labourers


Who are the street children? a UNICEF Development Education kit prepared by Rita Somazzi (UNICEF, Geneva 1990). Other sources are indicated in each section. If reproduced, please acknowledge appropriate source(s).


teachers, youth leaders: As exercises for students to help them identify with children in especially difficult circumstances, and so consider their problems in an empathetic way.

radio broadcasters, journalists: As examples to cite in a radio programme or article on children in especially difficult circumstances.

On the following pages are profiles of children in especially difficult circumstances. These profiles indicate how the children survive, and describe some of the children's feelings. More profiles of children in especially difficult circumstances are in Part 2 which appears in OUTREACH issue no. 97.


Americo, a 13-year old from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil


Where do you live?

“I live in the street, in Copacabana. I live alone because my mother does not want me around any more.”

How can that be?

“My parents are separated and my mother is now living with another man who cannot stand me. She told me to go away or else she would kill me. I cried and screamed in the street. She shouted too and since I wanted to stay with her, she started running after me, threatening me with a knife.”

Where is your father?

“He does not live here. He is in Minas Province, a long way away from here. Dona Maria wrote to him, asking him to send me money for my bus ticket. I would like to go and live with him. I am waiting and waiting, but he has not written yet.”

What do you live on?

“That depends. Sometimes I find work, sometimes I come here [to a centre for street children]. I used to sell ice cream on Copacabana Beach. I worked for somebody who had a kiosk there.”

Did you make a lot of money?

“No. I did not earn anything. He gave me just enough money to eat, and at night, I could sleep in a stall, near the beach.”

Did you like your work?

“Yes and no. It was nice because I met friends and I could chat a bit with them, but the work itself was hard. You know, the ice cream box is heavy when it is full and it's even worse, in the hot weather. You have to walk for hours all over the place, calling out so people can hear you: “Picolé, picolé...”. There are days when nobody wants to spend money, even for an ice cream.”

Is it hard to live in the street?

“I would like so much to have a home of my own, to keep my things there, to sleep in peace. You know, it is cold at night, especially in winter.”

But in Rio, it is never really cold...

“Oh yes, it is. In winter, it is damp, and you freeze in the street.”


SOURCE: Interview by Rita Somazzi from Who are Street children? A teaching kit for 10- to 17-year old students (based upon TOMBO, a UNICEF educational game) produced by UNICEF Geneva Office Palais des Nations, CH-1211 Geneva 10 Switzerland.


* Would you like to live like Americo? Why or why not?

* Like Americo, many street children have been abandoned or driven away by their parents or step-parents. Imagine what life was like for Americo leading up to the time he was driven from home.

* Do you think Americo is ever lonely or afraid? Do you ever feel lonely? Or afraid? In what situations? Try to illustrate your loneliness or fear by a sketch or a painting. Ask your friends if they are ever lonely or afraid. Then, ask adults if they are ever lonely or afraid. Are the situations described by children and adults similar?

* Find out what kind of jobs children have who work on the streets in your city. Are any of these jobs dangerous? What skills are required to do the jobs? Are these jobs solely for youngsters or do you know of any adults who have these jobs, too? If you had to start working, what type of job would you do? Why? Could you earn enough money to survive?

* Americo's dream is to have a home of his own, and to sleep in peace. What dreams do you have?

* What might Americo's life be like in 20 years? What might your life be like in 20 years?


Beatrice, a 16-year old prostitute from Nairobi, Kenya



“I have been on the streets since I was 11 years old. I had to drop out of school when I was [eleven] because there was no money for school fees, and I had to look after all my younger brothers and sisters when my mother went out to work.”

Home then for Beatrice was a one-roomed shack in Mathare Valley, one of Nairobi's shanty-towns, which she shared with her mother and five younger brothers and sisters. Her three older sisters had already left home. So Beatrice was in charge of her younger siblings while her mother worked hard as a housemaid, leaving the house before dawn and returning after dark.

The going was tough for the 11-year old, and there never seemed to be enough money. “Even food and clothes were a problem.” In the end, Beatrice left home. “I couldn't stand it. So I left to come to this place.”

“This place” is chuom Kadude, a big patchwork tent of plastic in one of the shadier alleys of the city of Nairobi. In the plastic shacks that make up the chuom, furniture is made of cartons, sacks and paper. The tents are overcrowded, filled with youngsters who have fled from problems at home. Here they live by their own rules. They fight and snatch things from each other, but for many this jungle discipline is better than the harshness of the homes they come from.

And there is camaraderie in chuom Kadude. Children form small groups to share what they have, and sleep together in their own alternative 'families'. When the police try to arrest them - for loitering, begging, glue-sniffing, stealing - the children drive them away by hurling faeces at them.

With her friend Njoki for a tutor, Beatrice quickly learned the tricks of the oldest trade in the world. By day she would sell sexual services to older men, and then at night return to the chuom for the company of street 'boys' in their mid-twenties and early thirties. Beatrice made little money from prostitution. Sometimes the only payment was a bag of potato chips. She contracted gonorrhea, for which she receives treatment at a clinic.

She quit home for a better life, but the streets offered little comfort. Beatrice owns up to sniffing glue “sometimes”. She used to smoke bhang (marijuana), but she claims to have given it up.

Four years after she began this street life, Beatrice discovered she was pregnant.

“I decided to go back to my mother,” she says. Back at home, Beatrice found not much had changed. Three of her younger siblings were dividing their time between school and working on the streets. She joined her younger brothers and sisters at the market, picking up food from the street when the wholesalers unloaded their wares from the trucks to the stalls. While home provided security during the last few months of pregnancy, three months after the birth of her son, Beatrice took her child to the chuom to join the growing ranks of street families. She sometimes talks optimistically about quitting the street life and finding sponsorship to be trained as a tailor. “I want to help myself and my mother,” she says.

From: KENYA: Child newcomers in the urban jungle by Dorothy Munyakho published by UNICEF International Child Development Centre, Italy (1992). This publication is one in a series of Innocenti Studies entitled The Urban Child in Difficult Circumstances.


* Imagine what a day in the life of Beatrice was like when she was (a) 11 years old and still living at home; (b) 13 years old and living in the chuom, and (c) 16 years old and living on the streets with her child.

* Street occupations are hazardous to children's health. The risk of catching AIDS and other sexually-transmitted diseases, such as gonorrhea, is a serious - even deadly - one for street children trying to survive by prostitution. Scavenging on garbage dumps carries the risk of tetanus and skin diseases. If you have a job, what health risks are you exposed to when you work?

* Spending their days and nights on city streets exposes children to lead poisoning and noise pollution, and the risk of accidents with vehicles. Poor water and sanitation facilities carry health risks, too. Describe the health hazards in your neighbourhood.

* Beatrice dropped out of school when she was eleven years old. How do you think you would feel if you had to drop out of school? Write a poem that describes what your life would be like without a school education.

* Drinking alcohol, inhaling petrol and glue, smoking bhang (marijuana, a mixture of dried leaves and flowers of the Indian hemp plant, used as a drug) and chewing miraa (an intoxicating leaf) are all part of the culture of Beatrice and other street children in Nairobi and other city streets.

Does anyone in your family smoke? Carry out a small survey by asking persons who smoke why they started. Is there a drug problem in your community? Try to find out if there is and why some people take drugs. With your teachers and parents, discuss the consequences of taking drugs.


Roger, a 12-year old gang leader in Manila, the Philippines



Roger is twelve, but experience-wise he could be 21 years old. He is already a leader, a kuya (older brother), of a group of children who live off Manila's streets, supporting themselves from begging, scavenging, pushing carts or peddling. Junjun, 9, who is in Roger's gang, says a leader is the oldest and biggest gang member who provides and protects the others.

Under Roger's rough leadership, the children are able to survive the hassles of the street - and even enjoy it. Junjun says they play a lot, running and skipping and going after cars. Junjun says his friends help him earn money.

Roger's gang doesn't believe in pilfering, but begging is an art to be learned. Through his friends, Junjun says that he has learned to use his eyes, his voice even his body posture, to hopefully evoke pity from a passer-by. The children learn a set of codes and words that an outsider to that group may not understand, giving them a sense of belonging and unity.

Roger has learned how to deal with the fights among the group, being both a judge and a carer to the other children.

Many children, like Roger, have grown up in the streets and don't know any other life. Life has dealt them a raw deal, but a number have responded with zest, determination and creativity.

When asked, many would say they would rather be off the streets. But it seems like society has thrown them out and slammed the doors shut. They might as well learn how to live with the harsh reality - and survive, says Roger, a child who knows what he's talking about.

Text from: Philippines Daily Inquirer, 9 May 1993; illustration by Elaine Nipper from Who are the street children? an exploration of the lives of children from poor families in Brazil produced by The UK Committee for UNICEF, 1993


* Street children often join together to form gangs. Belonging to a gang is a strategy for survival. It is also a way of satisfying the need for emotional ties and protection. Have you ever been a member of a “gang”. If so, what did your gang do? What was your role in the gang?

* Roger is the leader of his gang. Why do you think this is so? Who was the leader of your gang? Why was he/she leader? Do you think a group or gang should have a leader? If so, what should the leader be like?

* Members of street gangs often meet in the evenings to play and sleep together. Each gang has its own special place or territory which other gangs respect. Where and when did your gang meet? What contact, if any, did your gang have with other gangs?

* When you joined your gang did you have to prove yourself before you were accepted? Do you think proving yourself to other gang members is a good idea? Why?

* Many street children depend upon petty theft to pay for their needs. So people assume all street children like Roger and his friends are hoodlums or a criminals. They do not try to understand why these children might break the law or why they are poor. They often humiliate and even beat street children. Have you ever been in a situation where you have felt humiliated? Describe it. Do you know people who are discriminated against? What are the causes of this situation? How can you help someone who is humiliated or excluded by others?


Marie's story



Marie is 17 years old and lives in Calca, a town in Peru. She is the youngest of 12 children. When she was small her mother became a widow. Life for the family was very difficult. Then, her mother ran off with a man, and abandoned her children.

“An older sister looked after us, but because we were so many, I was left to get on with things on my own. The work I was doing was looking after animals, and it was difficult because there were a lot and sometimes nobody gave me food, so I was usually hungry.”

When Marie was 8 years old, her older brother, a baker with a house and family in Calca, said he would take Marie because she wanted to learn to read and write. She was helped at school by her teachers, but life for Marie was still very tough.

“My brother and his wife didn't bring me here as a gift though; they brought me to work. After school, I worked in my brother's house, washing, selling bread and looking after the kids, as well as studying. My brother made me work till about midnight, then at 1 o'clock I had to get up to make the dough for the bread, so I only slept for an hour. At 4 o'clock I went out to give the bread to the schools. School started at 8 o'clock, but I used to come in late as I was still working giving out the bread.”

Then, Marie's sister-in-law took her to work in the kitchen of a house in Lima. She had to wash and iron clothes and cook. She had one day free every week, but she was not paid much:

“I had only a few bits of clothes and I couldn't really afford to buy anything. I was very innocent, very young, I knew nothing.”

The man who owned the house got sick and went into hospital, so I was left alone in the house with another employee who was a man. The lady of the house used to come in very late and so we were always left alone and my bedroom door didn't lock. The man used to smoke drugs. One night he raped me. I couldn't tell anyone because he threatened to kill me if I told anyone. I got pregnant. I stayed in that house until I had the baby.

“Then I got a letter saying that my mother was very sick. When I got to Calca, I found out that my mother wasn't sick at all, but my brother had found out that I had a baby and he was afraid that if I stayed in Lima I would have more. That is why he sent a letter to me to come.”

“I was in my brother's house for a while until they threw me out. They said it was because my baby didn't have a recognised surname. They said that I shouldn't have brought a kid like that into the house.”

Marie stayed in Calca and worked hard doing such jobs as washing clothes for teachers to feed her baby, Coco and herself. Then she joined a handicraft centre which gives women work and teaches them. At the centre, which was run by nuns, Marie was given a small allowance and every day she worked on the looms while Coco was looked after. Now Marie plans to set up a weaving cooperative with others from the centre:

“We have no money but we are all agreed that we are going to do it!”

Marie's mother died a year ago. She hardly ever sees her family because they live in the mountains. She never sees her brother in Calca because he treated her so badly.

Adapted from a case study that appears in Keep Us Safe. One of three books designed to introduce the UN Convention on The Rights of the Child to 8-13 year olds, this book covers Protection of the child from abuse and exploitation. The series is published by UNICEF-UK (55 Lincoln's Inn Fields, London WC2A 3NB United Kingdom) and Save the Children Fund (Mary Datchelor House, 17 Grove Lane, London SE5 8RD, U.K.), 1990.


* Who do you think treated Marie well and who treated her badly?, Give reasons for your answer. In your work experience, can you give examples of people who have helped you and people who have exploited you?

* Often people view parents, family and teachers as children's protectors, and police and employers as children's enemies. Do you agree with these stereotypes? Talk to children in your neighbourhood about their work experiences. Ask them who they consider to be champions and exploiters of children.

* When Marie was 8 years old and started working for her brother, she was expected to work long hours as well as study. Work out how much of your day is spent studying, doing household chores, earning money, playing, eating and sleeping. Compare your day to that of Marie when she was your age.

* Discuss what kind of education you think Marie has received.

* Marie was sexually exploited. How do you think she felt after she was raped? What do you think she should have done? (See page 31 for some questions and answers about sexual exploitation.)


The life and death of Samroeng



Source: Samroeng, a young worker from Thailand published by the Centre for Protection of Children's Rights Foundation for Children and Child Workers in Asia Support Group, 1985

Samroeng was 17 years of age when he died of malnutrition, poor treatment and the plastic and wire he had swallowed while working in a “hell factory” in Bangkok, Thailand. The factory produced low cost electrical fittings for neon tubes.

Samroeng and his sister were recruited for the factory by a person who came to the village in Surin Province in northeast Thailand, where Samroeng lived with his family. Farming people in this area are very poor, and the situation had been made worst by the failure of the rice crop. Samroeng's parents were offered a lump sum wage paid in advance for a year's work, and so Samroeng, along with other children in his village, were taken to Bangkok.

At the factory Samroeng and the other child workers were forced to work up to 15 hours a day with no holidays for very little pay and no benefits or welfare. They lived in their workplace, and were often beaten. The food was very poor.

All day the children sat on the floor. Their work was to peg the electrical cord on wooden bases with screws. They were told by their employer to use their mouths to bite off the electrical cords. The work was monotonous and the children were often so exhausted they forgot to spit out the wire and plastic. So they swallowed them accidentally.

After six months of working in the factory, Samroeng complained of acute chest pains. His legs were swollen, and he developed chronic nausea. He became weaker and weaker. One girl reported:

“He could not even walk when he was sent home alone on the bus.” Samroeng collapsed unconscious in a marketplace in Surin Province. He died on his way to the hospital.

A doctor at the hospital who tried to force the boy's heart into action did not know why he had died so suddenly. Curious, the doctor decided to trace Samroeng's life history. He found out about the factory in Bangkok where Samroeng had worked. At Samroeng's village he also found two more children who could not walk. They had just returned home from the same factory. Villagers told him that six more children from the village had written home complaining of bad health, but they could not return because their parents could not afford to give back the deposited annual salary to the factory owner.

The doctor and police raided the factory, and rescued 20 more children. The Child Rights Protection Centre in Thailand later took up the case to demand wage compensation for the children. The court finally ordered the factory owner to pay the children for their working hours during holidays, and overtime during weekdays and holidays, with a small deduction for food and boarding. The minimum adult wage was taken as the standard for calculating the compensation.

This decision is a landmark in the history of Thai labour because it was the first time that a child slavery case had been sent to court and children awarded compensation.

Samroeng's family did not get any compensation from the court's decision, but his death has pointed the way to a better deal for thousands of other unfortunate children.

From: Bangkok Post, February 1984 and Samroeng, a young worker from Thailand published by the Centre for Protection of Children's Rights-Foundation for Children and Child Workers in Asia Support Group, 1985


* How do you think Samroeng felt when (a) he was “bought” by the factory owner in Bangkok and had to leave his family and home in northeastern Thailand; (b) when he arrived in Bangkok to begin living and working in the factory. Make up a play about his life in the village and in Bangkok.

* Discuss the difference between being employed and being exploited. Give examples.

* In Thailand, the law states that no child under 12 years may work. Children between 12 and 15 years of age may work only in conditions which are not dangerous to their health or prevent their physical growth. They may not work between 10 pm and 6 am or on holidays. Restrictions are also placed on the types of work youths between 15 and 18 years of age can take. Samroeng's story demonstrates that there is a wide gap between the law and practice. Discuss why you think this is so.

* The legislation governing the age limits for employment varies according to the country and the type of occupation. In general, the minimum age for light work (not likely to harm the child or prevent him/her from going to school) is 12 years old. For hazardous work, the limit is between 16 and 18 years. Find out about the legislation governing age limits for employment in your country.

* Interview child workers from your neighbourhood. Find out their age and why they are working. Ask about the type of work they are doing, how many hours they work a week, and what they like and dislike about the job. Have them list 5 improvements they would like to see in their workplace. Brainstorm how these improvements might take place. Would you like to do any of their jobs? Give reasons. Do you think they are being exploited?

* Samroeng had no choice in the decision to work in the factory in Bangkok. If it was your decision, would you choose to work? If so, what kind of work would you do? Why?

* Decisions about whether a child should work and the kind of work he should do are often made by the parents or other adults responsible for the child. Interview some parents of child workers. Find out why they think children should work. (Answers might include: “We need the money to survive.” “The child is learning skills of a trade that will benefit him when he is older.”; “Working in a factory is safer for a child than leaving her alone at home.”; “It keeps the child from loafing around doing nothing.”; “Domestic chores frees us adults to work outside the home.”) Ask the parents what they think are the disadvantages of children working. (Answers might include: “There is less help at home.”; “A child is unable to attend or do well in school.”; “A child is treated badly at work.”; “A child has had to move away from the protection and care of her family.”; “No training is provided to the child.”)

The implication of the court's decision in Samroeng's case is that children should receive the same minimum wage as adults. Opinions are divided on whether a minimum wage for children would hurt or benefit a child. What do you think? Here are some reactions:

“By making child labour more expensive, employers will turn more to adult workers, and so reduce adult unemployment. The cheapness of their labour is the main reason for the use of children and consequently child exploitation.”

“Like the prostitution crackdown, it will cause the employers to be more secretive. That will result in more abuse and detention of child workers.”

“No-one has been able to stop exploitation of child workers completely. So a minimum wage will be beneficial at least to those children who are rescued to be able to get compensation legally.”

“A minimum wage will only legalise what is illegal. Children should not work in the first place. We should give them what they want most. Education.”

Do you agree with any of the above statements? Discuss in class other ways to help prevent child exploitation.