Portrait of a Street Child


How do you understand the lives of millions of children who make the streets their home? In Zambia, the lives of some hang in the balance, with potential predators everywhere. Children are no longer safe. The media report cases of violence and abuse against them and yet these children have no voice.

Where are they found? 

There are street children in most major cities in the world. The problem is global. The total number of street children worldwide is estimated by the United Nations to be as many as 100 million. People flee to the cities whenever a political or economic crisis occurs, or corrupt governments leave their rural citizens landless and poor. Children come from these teeming shanty areas where everyone is in desperate need. They turn to street life to eke out a living, ward off hunger and avoid abuse, depending on the generosity of people around them.


Street children are visible every day in the urban centres of Zambia: at bus stops, markets and railway stations - they are alone, ignored, shunned and considered a nuisance by society. These children suffer in silence and those who survive will grow up as social misfits or contribute to criminality in society.


Who are the street children? 

The answer depends on who you ask. To the mother abandoned by her husband, they can be a financial burden. To shopkeepers who find them sleeping in the entrances to their shops, they are a nuisance. To the police and local authorities, who see them stealing and affecting the tourist trade, they are vermin. However, to the Father they are precious.


Why are they in the streets? 

Children find themselves living in the streets for many different reasons. Some are trying to escape poverty and violence. In Africa, street children are often Aids orphans or children displaced by war. Some are abandoned because they are physically and mentally handicapped, but the majority run away from home when their basic needs, either physical or emotional, are not being met.


Families may uproot themselves from rural areas in search of a better life. When they arrive in a city, like Lusaka, they find themselves socially isolated, with no extended family support, no work and no medical help.


In most countries, displaced people can only make a home in the city's poorest areas, the slums. We have stayed and slept on the streets of some of the towns in South Africa and Zambia, to try and understand the life of a street child and to experience something of what they feel.


The majority of street children are boys. While children from more wealthy backgrounds are thinking about their next computer game or a new bicycle, these children are being sent to sell sweets or cigarettes, or to clean cars. Boys in the slums are expected to earn money to provide for their families. It is a small step from there to deciding that the freedom of the streets is a better alternative to home.


Lament of a street girl 

A 14-year-old street girl, shares her experience: "I have been on the streets for eight years. I have nine brothers and sisters, and we all lived and slept in this one room. It got so cramped and we had so many fights that I couldn't bear it anymore." She spends her time at Chisokone Market in Kitwe, seeking shelter. From the way she looks and smells, you can tell that she does not bathe often: "We have to choose between bathing and eating so you can guess what we choose." When we met her, she was reluctant to speak. After explaining that we were trying to help her, she opened up. She told us that the major thing that troubles her is hunger: "We survive by begging and we ask for money from people who many times insult us...We are chased by big male street children with knives [who] force us to sleep with them and because we are scared and have nowhere to go, we have no choice but to do so." They are aware of diseases like HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infections, but there is nothing they can do to prevent it because they have no choice. Her mother despairs about her future, especially as she is now on cocaine.


How do they survive? 

Street children survive in gangs. The group becomes their new family unit, a source of protection, comfort and fun.



The hallmark of a street child's life is their ingenuity to survive, through begging, stealing or scavenging. However, these have dangerous consequences: sifting through rubbish exposes them to disease; eating discarded food results in sickness; and stealing can lead to beatings and imprisonment.



Most children live in rags, occasionally swapping old clothes for newer ones through good Samaritans and drop-in centres. Many of the street children with medical needs refuse to go to hospital because they fear both medical institutions and the police.



All too often we can stereotype street children as a group. The labels we give them ultimately affect the way we treat each child. In some countries police are encouraged to 'get rid of the vermin'. Stories of children shot in their sleep are not uncommon. This must be unacceptable for any Christian. In many cities street children are rounded up and locked up to remove them as a 'blight' on society. These children are neither delinquent nor are they hopeless cases. They have been beautifully created in the image of God, and God calls us to love and cherish them.


The Good News 

The good news is that, every day, children are leaving the streets and the direction of their lives is being reversed. In Zambia, we have seen the indescribable joy of a child transformed and growing into the person God created them to be. In their new-found security and love, even hardened teenagers are seen playing with imaginary toys as they step back into the childhood they were never allowed to enjoy.


With God's help individuals, churches and mission workers can impart God's love to these children and provide for their physical, emotional and spiritual needs. We are assured that it is God's mandate to care for the fatherless, the oppressed and the weak, for the street children who have lost everything and have no other court of appeal.


When we see the hardships and the poverty in Zambia and in Africa, we are thankful that Jesus laid aside His glory and took a servant's form. He lived among us, the poor. He offered lasting riches to those who have nothing in this world. What love, what grace, what mercy!


As we serve we are not interested in appealing to human sorrow or pity; we want to appeal to what is best in our brothers and sisters in the Lord. We want to remind them that these children in need are God's handiwork and His beautiful creation.


Pray for the church to wake up to this reality and see them through our Heavenly Father's eyes. Pray for us as we reach out to these children, that we would not only help provide for their physical and emotional needs but also show them the way to salvation.


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