Poverty drives children to the streets

“I lived with my mother before she died a few years ago. And then I moved in with my auntie where I worked as a maid. She treated me badly until she finally chased me from home after I told her that my uncle wanted to have sex with me. Although am forced to have sex with most of the boys I don’t even know, life here is better,” says Bupe whose name ironically means ‘gift’ .

Clad in a dress that must have been white, yellow or cream at one time but is now brown or greyish in colour, she struggled to keep tears from rolling down her face.

However, the tears were not a cry of the horror that has been her life, they came from a swollen eye resulting from a fight that she had with another female friend the previous day.

“I am a strong girl and have been through a lot of things, some people I knew have died but I am still here. Even this eye that you see will heal, it’s nothing,” she said wiping away the tears.

And as if trying to prove a point, when asked about the boys that she has had sexual relations Bupe seemed more than glad to share her experiences. Her first time was with a boy called Chishala, another street kid who raped her in front of his friends. Although she admitted to not liking the experience too much, Bupe says she is used to sex now and does it whenever she feels like.

“It was dark, so I couldn’t see whether he used a condom or not. But some of the boys that I sleep with don’t use condoms and others do,” says Bupe who got angry and refused to reveal any more information, when asked if she was paid or given gifts in exchange for sex.

“I am not a prostitute; I take care of myself and therefore am free to do whatever I want at any time. If boys give me gifts those come as presents because they love me,” said Bupe as she walked away in a huff.

But not all homeless girls living on the streets have become numb to their environment. For others like Caroline, night time casts a shadow on safety.

“I don’t like sex because it always hurts especially when they force me to do it. Sometimes I say no but then they refuse to give me some of their food. My brother used to find me food and most of the boys here were scared of him but I don’t know where he went. Now they come and threaten to beat me up if I tell anyone,” revealed a rather shy Caroline, whose shrivelled body resembles that of an 11 year old than her age of 16. Although Zambia prides itself in maintaining high family values, the government is still battling to contain the invasion of homeless children.

UNICEF, the UN children’s agency, estimates there are 75, 000 street children in the country.

All prominent roads, shopping malls, stations and traffic lights, are a haven of these children whose hands are constantly stretched out begging for food and money from pedestrians and motorists.

Their nights are spent on pavements, corridors, traffic lights and public stations. They sleep in old abandoned cars, in the gutter and in drains, huddled together for warmth.

They depend mostly on scavenging, petty thefts and handouts from various non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Street children in Zambia sometimes go for many days hungry and when the going gets tougher, young girls and boys whom most citizens are sympathetic towards, are often beaten and robbed of their ‘donated’ money and food by older street children. Often they are abused sexually. This came to light recently when the police imposed a 22:00 hours ban on street children living around the area surrounding Mandahill bridge following complaints of harassment and rape by members of the public.

The footbridge is next to the deluxe Mandahill shopping mall.

But in their defense, the street kids protested.

“We do not sleep with old women because we have our own girls on the streets,” revealed 17 year old Kalunga Kalunga.

And while others are raped and forced to have sex with other street children, according to an “HIV/AIDS and Child Labour in Zambia: a rapid assessment” report released in September this year by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) many were turning to commercial sex to make money.

The report found that commercial sex work was common among children between the ages of 14 and 16 years, particularly girls which put them at the risk of HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). It stated further that condoms were rarely used, since the children lacked the capability to negotiate safer sex. Although the girls were aware of HIV/AIDS, they accepted the risk of being infected, as long as they could earn money.

“Many children were on the street because their impoverished parents or guardians expected them to make a financial contribution to the household. A significant number of children engaged in prostitution said they were so employed with the full knowledge of their parents or guardians,” the report noted.

Poverty has been the driving force behind growing numbers of child sex workers and street children ‘ more than two-thirds of the child labourers who participated in the study were on the street as a result of poor economic conditions at home.

“When we educate them about the danger of HIV/AIDS, they tell us AIDS is something in the future. Their hunger is a more real and pressing need,” said Merab Keremire, director of MAPODE (Movement of Community Action for the Prevention and Protection of Young People Against Poverty, Destitution, Diseases and Exploitation).

MAPODE has since launched a specially equipped mobile clinic to treat children for Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs).

“A lot of them carry condoms, yes ‘ but they don’t necessarily use them. Their motto is: ‘No money, no life,” she explained. Keremire admitted that during her organisation’s outreach work on the pavements of the Zambian capital, Lusaka, she had come across wealthy men paying street boys for sex. “Commercial sex work is driven by the poor economy. It is very difficult to tell kids to avoid unsafe sexual practices when they are living in poverty,” Kiremire said.

To address the situation, “government is trying to do everything possible to address the situation”, says the President Levy Mwanawasa.

Even more bothered by this escalating problem is Community and Development and Social Services Minister Catherine Namugala who warned that government would only help genuine street children.

“Some children are on the streets only for money and therefore do not deserve to be helped. My ministry will only concentrate on helping genuine street children,” she announced recently.

She said that many children had homes and could easily be re-united with their families. To combat the problem, a statutory instrument was issued in 2005 by the Ministry of Defense allowing the Ministry of Youth, Sport and Child development to use the Zambia National Service (ZNS) infrastructure and equipment for the purpose of training these young Zambians.

More than 200 street children were recruited from Lusaka , Kitwe and Ndola to undertake various skills in carpentry, auto mechanics, general agriculture, poultry and animal husbandry, bricklaying and plastering, shoemaking and designing.

Initially, 300 were recruited for the exercise but only 204 remained behind to undertake various life skills.

The street children underwent undergoing counseling for six months, meant to change their mindsets and perception about the programme. To make these skills certifiable by an accredited institution, the training curriculum was developed by the Technical Education, Vocational and Entrepreneurship Training Authority.

Ministry of Youth, Sport and Child Development secretary Bob Samakai explained that after graduation, the students were given start up kits without any resources and a decision was taken to attach the 16 resource centers dotted around the country for continued monitoring.

“With the help of center managers, the graduates make and or produce products which they sell to the community and retain a particular amount for themselves,” he said.

Thereafter the graduates were asked to choose locations which they felt comfortable; some were taken on by commercial farmers.

In the next phase, which begins next month government is targeting 1,000 street children. To reach its intended target, it will use some of the graduates to persuade those on the streets to join the programme.

December 2006
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