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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...)
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View the documentAcknowledgements
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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

Facts and opinions: Street children: the numbers


Various Fact Sheets on Street Children prepared by Gary Barker and Marilyn Rocky, Executive Director, CHILDHOPE USA, c/o U.S. Committee for UNICEF, 333 East 38th Street, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10016 U.S.A. If reproduced, please give credit to the original source.

Specific references are provided at the end of the section.


teachers, youth workers: As background information on street children; as the basis of an introduction to project work on the topic.

radio broadcasters, journalists: As background material for an article or programme on street children.

In Rwanda, they are called saligomans, or “nasty kids”. In Peru, they are pajaros fruteros, or “fruit birds”, earning their name by snatching produce from market stalls. Elsewhere they are considered hooligans, juvenile delinquents or simply “brown dust”. These are the world's children who spend much of their time on city streets. Numbers on the population of street children are hard to come by. Quipped one child advocate, “Who bothers to count non-people?” Although estimates differ on the magnitude of the problem worldwide, all experts agree that the number of street children is growing.

The figures below are from CHILDHOPE:

On street children...

* An estimated 100 million children live and work on the streets in the developing world, a number equivalent to the entire population of Mexico. Approximately 75% of these children live at home, but spend the bulk of their lives on city streets, without access to education or health systems. UNICEF estimates that one-third of all children in the developing world are forced to drop out of school by the age of 10, primarily to help with family income. The rest of these street children - known as children “of” the streets - live, sleep and work on Third World city streets.

* In the Philippines, an estimated 1.2 million children live and work on city streets. In Metro Manila alone, government sources estimate the number of children living on the streets at between 50,000 and 75,000. Three thousand of these children are thought to be regular victims of sexual exploitation.

* In Brazil, an estimated 7 million children live on the streets and another 17 million boys and girls work on the streets. In Mexico, 10 million children work on the streets and 250,000 live on the streets.

On working street children...

* Working street children in developing countries generally range in age from five to eighteen years, although children as young as four years old can be found selling goods on street corners or buses, or begging; these younger children are usually accompanied by their parents or siblings and work as part of a family business. (1)

* The work of street children usually involves activities that require few formal skills and produces relatively little income. It is often dangerous and injurious to their physical and mental health. Children who are involved in illegal employment such as prostitution or drug trafficking, face danger of violence, sexual exploitation, abuse, and exposure to sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS. Children who are engaged in such work as hauling or scavenging trash often experience cuts from shards of glass and metal in refuse.

* While the work of street children is often harmful, it is nonetheless crucial to the survival of millions of families in developing countries. In Jamaica, for example, a recent study found that 33% of the street children surveyed said they were the only working members of their households, and 41% were from families with only one other working member. (2)

* In Lagos, Nigeria, a recent study found that children who hawked goods on the street are able to sell between two and four times as much as adult traders; most of the children surveyed reported that their mothers would have difficulty meeting the family's basic needs without the contribution of the child's work to the family income. (3)

* Any effort to eradicate child labour without improving the income generating potential of the family will be ineffective. Numerous advocates hold that children should not be permitted to work in any circumstances and that legislation and compulsory education should be invoked to abolish child labour. However, while such measures are needed, policies should also be designed to dignify the work of street children, recognizing the importance of their economic contribution to millions of families in developing countries.

On street children and drugs...

* While there are few statistics available on street children and drug use, limited data suggests that a majority of street children, at least those children and youth who live on the streets, regularly use drugs. In Guatemala, as many as nine out of ten street children are thought to be addicted to paint thinner, cheap glue or more potent drugs. (4) Similarly, in Colombia, a 1987 study estimated that 95 to 100 percent of Bogota's 12,000 street children were involved with drug consumption of some kind on a daily basis. (5)

* For the majority of street children, drug use is associated with hunger, homelessness and despair. Street children in Kenya say they sniff glue to help them to be able to eat the rotten food they must forage through for survival. (6) Street children in Central America report that the chief attraction of sniffing glue is that it takes away their hunger. Another lure of sniffing glue is its price. Two days' worth of glue costs about US 45 cents in Colombia, while a week's supply costs about US 75 cents in Honduras - far less than the cost of maintaining a regular diet.

* Increasing drug use by street children and youth is complicating efforts to provide them with opportunities and respect. Drug use by street children has in some cases led to even harsher than usual treatment by law enforcement officials. Social service providers are worried that street children will be even further stigmatised and victimised as they become known as regular drug users. (7)

On street children and AIDS...

* Street children are especially vulnerable and increasingly being exposed to the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) that causes AIDS. In Brazil, public health officials describe AIDS as a “time bomb” among street children. Social welfare officials are particularly worried because unprotected sex with multiple partners is a way to make a living for many of Brazil's 7 million abandoned street children and 17 million working street children and youth. (8) Since 1987, the Brazilian national welfare foundation, FUNABEM, has tested 4,200 street children and youth between the ages of 12 and 18 for HIV. Seventy, or about 2%, of the youth tested HIV-positive. (9) In some countries, there has been a reluctance by those working with street children to discuss AIDS or carry out testing for fear of discrimination or repression against street youth, who are already subject to violence and exploitation.

* International efforts among health professionals and social welfare groups are promoting a combination of street-level AIDS education, innovative media use (such as a new video called “Karate Kids” being produced by Street Kids International and the National Film Board of Canada), free and confidential testing, condom distribution and drug prevention and rehabilitation. (For more information, see pages 32 and 52.)

On street children as victims...

* In Brazil, Amnesty International and local human rights organizations claim that private security forces, vigilante death squads, and police are murdering street children and other low income children as part of an effort to “clean up the cities”. (10)

* Street children and their families are the hardest hit victims of Third World debt, poverty and urbanisation in the developing world. Without comprehensive services and targeted programmes to meet their needs, the vast majority of these street children are destined to lives of poverty and despair. In Sao Paulo, Brazil, for example, four-fifths of the prison population is comprised of former street children.

* 600 million people worldwide live in low-income urban slums. As poverty in the Third World becomes increasingly urban-based, the number of potential street children will increase dramatically.

On the rights of street children...

* The U.N. Declaration on the Rights of the Child, recently signed by most member states and national legislation in some countries, offers one avenue for protecting the rights of street children. (For more information see page 42) However, without enforcement and societal pressures, such legislation is of little worth.


1 Protecting Working Children, UNICEF Programme Division, Staff Working Paper No. 4, William Myers, ed. September 1989; 2 Street Children in Jamaica, Council of Voluntary Social Services; 3 Protecting Working Children, UNICEF Programme Division; 4 Estimate from CHILDHOPE staff, Guatemala; 5 Muchachos de la Calle (street youth) report submitted to the Inter-American Commission for the Control of Drug Abuse (CICAD), Organization of American States. 1987; 6 Washington Post, “Nairobi Slum: Africa's Ragged Face”, April 1989; 7 Washington Post, September 1989; 8 Los Angeles Times, “Brazilians Fear AIDS 'Time Bomb' for Street Children”, May 1989, and Toronto Star, “AIDS Update: Infection Spreading in Brazil Street Kids”, May 27,1989; 9 Ibid.; 10 “Children of the Streets: Life and Death Among Brazil's Disposable Youth,” Amnesty Action, Amnesty International, Sept./Oct. 1990.