The issue of street children in developing countries is one that is usually met with feelings of sympathy and even pity as one struggles to imagine their living conditions. Here, Tahsina Khan, who has conducted fieldwork with street children in Dhaka, Bangladesh, discusses the importance of recognising the nuances and diversity of their experiences and networks.
The everyday challenges that street children face are in no way unified. For instance, some children work and play on the street most of the day but return home to sleep at night, whereas for others the street may be a source for shelter as well, with every night requiring the search for find a suitable space to spend the night. Gendered differences are both underexplored and vital for understanding the lives of many of these children.
Settlements: physical security at the expense of emotional?
Settlements have a large population that live very close to each other, this proximity translates into neighbourhood surveillance and community protection, which prevents anti-social behaviour to some extent.
Girls who live in a settlement do not have to face the sexual harassment that girls on the street encounter. This effect is more pronounced for girls who lived with their father, in addition to their mother. Conversely, street life often results in sexual advances from nearby traders, lorry drivers and taxi drivers as these men were aware of the girls’ additional vulnerability. Without a fixed address, these girls were perceived as easier targets.
Defamatory gossip within a settlement is an area where girls bear the brunt. This is because the reputation of a girl is seen to be fragile and easily damaged but, in general, the reputation of boys is not subject to the same social conventions. This is intensified if the settlers are from rural parts of Bangladesh where traditional norms and values are more respected than the urban areas.
The vicinity of the houses and the potential to spy on each other’s household can cause exaggerated, even untrue, ‘scandalous’ rumours about girls to spread like wildfire. As a result, the settlement residents may distance themselves from that household and ensure their children stay away from such ‘bad influence’ too, resulting in possible alienation and social isolation for the girls, and to some extent for the parents too.
The emphasis on ‘reputation’ could be minimised with more equitable treatment for girls living in densely-populated localities. The strength of the community involvement in protecting the girls from physical harm should be extended to combating the malice of gossip. While only possible over time, there needs to be a move towards an increase in tolerance of the girls’ behaviour- whether it be perceived or real.
Sleeping on the street: eroding trust but building innovation?
Competing for limited resources available on the street makes the communalism that exists in the settlements almost impossible. Finding a means of earning money may be difficult enough, but in addition, the fight for a space to sleep at night every night increases the general attitude of mistrust.
When faced with diverse challenges, it makes more sense to develop individualised coping strategies to tackle the hardships as looking out for one’s own needs can be more logical and risk-averse than investing in friendships which may or may not reach fruition.
Jamal, for instance, works as a rag-picker and sleeps at a night shelter. On days he finishes work very late at night, the shelter closes its gates. To ensure a roof over his head, and rather than seeking help from others, he boards trains and sleeps under an empty seat. In other examples, when children cannot afford to buy food, they would forego up to two meals a day rather than asking their peers for assistance- as to do so would be to admit ‘weakness’.
This unwillingness to ask for assistance due to contested space and limited resources prevents the building of friendship relationship networks. In these conditions, even those that desire to build trustworthy friendship groups struggle. For example, during my research, a boy called Karim complained to me that children were selfish, because when he had money he was surrounded by friends who would ask him to buy them food. He would be grateful for the company and gladly buy them food. However, once his money was gone, so too would the children disappear, abandoning him immediately. Clearly, Karim’s peers were strategically utilising his resources for their own benefit, and therefore further increasing the mistrust that exists as a part of street life.
The frequent relocation and mobile lives may be another reason why securing close friendships may prove to be difficult to maintain. Unfortunately, socialisation, and leisure activities are difficult to do without friends. Consequently some children tend to have a loosely-based friendship network, mainly based on participation in team sports.
Different solutions to different problems
It is important to appreciate the myriad subtleties of the daily lives of street children rather than perceiving them as over-simplified subjects, as this will give a better understanding of the lives they lead. This will also allow solutions to be devised and implemented to ensure that these children are able to lead long fulfilling lives.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
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