AS one enters any major urban centre, including Maseru, he or she will come across groups of young people looking dirty and wearing rags.
Some of these children will be begging, while others will be sleeping on verandas of buildings or pavements. Most of these groups fall under the category called “street children”.
For most people, these street children are an eyesore and nuisance. But with Lesotho last week Wednesday joining the rest of the world in commemorating International Street Children’s Day, a call has been made for a rethink on the way street children are perceived in society.
The commemorations were held in Maseru at the Moshoeshoe I monument and attended by street children and representatives of various civil and non-governmental organisations (NGO).
According to Centre for Impacting Lives (CIL) Executive Director Beatrice Akintade some of the reasons children ended up on the streets in Lesotho were being orphaned by HIV, mistreatment or abuse and poverty.
CIL is a local NGO established by the Redeemed Christian Church of God Lesotho and registered in February 2011. Its main focus is empowering children, youth and women with particular focus on orphans and vulnerable children.
“Once in the streets, they become vulnerable to all forms of exploitation and abuse and their daily lives are likely to be far removed from the childhood envisioned in the Convention on the Rights of the Child,” said Ms Akintade.
“In some cases, those who are entrusted to protect them become the law. Some have been murdered during street fights, resulting from use of various addictive drugs.”
She said street children’s living and working conditions make them vulnerable to many infectious diseases including HIV.
“Extensive criminal networks make substantial profits by engaging children in commercial sex work, smuggling, stealing and the distribution of drugs and weapons. Without appropriate care and continually struggling to survive, many children have no other option.
“Following the hardship and abuse of life on the streets, many children suffer trauma and psycho-socio disorders and because of their distressing experiences, they often become difficult and distrustful, making it difficult for service providers to help them.”
Ms Akintade stressed the need to rehabilitate and reintegrate street children into society.
“It’s critical that the challenge of children and young people living on the streets gets due attention from all stakeholders. Currently, efforts to deal with the issue of street children are still weak, inadequate and under resourced.”
She said although there were no reliable statistics on the actual number of children living on the streets, estimates predicted an increase.
Ms Akintade also explained that most people stigmatised the children, thereby increasing their isolation from society.
“Every child is entitled to a standard of living adequate for their physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development. Children on the streets generally are being denied their rights. They live with poor hygiene and sanitation, poor diet, lack of shelter from the environment, inaccessibility to service and resources,” she said adding that they are mostly perceived in society as dangerous mischief makers and thieves. “Hence, they develop survival behaviours on the street for coping with stress such as criminal behaviour, begging as well as acts of self-mutilation and self-humiliation.”
Also speaking at the event, Sepheo Director Belinda Groves said for most people it was very easy to think that children on the streets were different from other children.
“We understand that a child needs more than food and clothes and a roof over their heads to become a successful adult,” she said.
“We love our children unconditionally, we discipline them, we give them advice, day in and day out, to teach them how to make good choices, become good friends, have a good job and make a good parent themselves one day.
“We make sure they go to school even if we have to walk them ourselves. We are an example to them, showing them what it means to be a man or a woman in Lesotho.
“Children who are on the street — those who are coming from difficult homes as well as those who are choosing to be there miss out on all of this.”
Ms Groves called for a rethink on the perception of street children.
“My very humble request to all of us is that we try to change the way we see children just because they are on the streets,” she said.
“If they are going to succeed, new shoes, new clothes or our spare change doesn’t work. Children on the streets need the same things as our children do.”