Children studying in an open classroom. Credit: Toybox
Children studying in an open classroom. Credit: Toybox

Children in street situations in the post-pandemic world

In the UK, the wintry grey skies are giving way to the spring blues. But this seasonal change doesn’t matter in the lives of children in street situations around the world.

If anything, with each changing season, we are witnessing more and more children being displaced or forced to live on the streets.

More children being pushed onto the streets

The current global conflicts are continuously forcing children onto the streets. More than 468 million children, one in six, are living in a conflict zone today. These innocent minds are being robbed of their childhood and the opportunity to reach their full potential.

Many children are spending their lives on the streets, they lack protection and are at risk of post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues. Post-war, rehabilitation efforts may or may not reach all children, thus many of them will suffer harmful long-term impacts of these conflicts on their lives and livelihoods.

Learning crisis looming large

During the pandemic, for public interest reasons, the right to education was limited in most countries worldwide. During that time, it is estimated that 616 million children globally were affected by full or partial school closures.

Among those affected, children in street situations fared worst as they were unable to access internet-based formal or non-formal means of education regularly. Today, more than 70% of children living in low- and middle-income countries are unable to read or write due to school closures during the pandemic, up from 57%, and around 250 million children are out of school.

The learning crisis continues to worsen in these countries, with increased stress on the digitisation of education. Many communities connected with the streets have no or limited access to technologies such as computers, mobile phones, or tablets, nor regular access to the internet. In such circumstances, learning avenues for children in street situations are becoming increasingly limited every day.

In New Delhi, India, the government, in November 2023 and later again in January this year, asked schools to move to online teaching due to deteriorating air quality. Online education works for those with resources, but for children in street situations like Vijay*, age 8, who lives in Delhi and spends most of his time near the railway track colouring slipper shoe straps with others in the family, going to the non-formal learning centre nearby was his only option to access education. The shift to an online mode of education has now pushed him away from a learning environment.

Poor mental health and wellbeing

COVID-19 left an indelible mark on the lives of people globally, exposing health inequalities, and an increased prevalence of anxiety and depression among the population.

However, there is a dearth of studies on COVID-19 and its impact on the mental health and wellbeing of children in street situations. Mantu, 12, was a cheerful street child in Kathmandu, Nepal. During the COVID lockdown, he lost his elder brother. He has now become withdrawn and resorted to drug abuse.

There is anecdotal evidence that the number of children on the streets of Nairobi who partake in substance abuse has risen in the last two years. These children slowly get addicted and stop attending formal or non-formal means of education and get caught up with the vicious cycle of poverty and life on the streets.

According to Okari Magati, Executive Director of the local organisation PKL working in Kenya with young boys connected with streets, ‘’there is rise in mental health issues among children post COVID which is perhaps the main cause of rising substance abuse’’.

Rising discrimination and neglect

Discriminatory practices against children in street situations are on the rise. The restrictions initiated during the pandemic on public spaces in many countries have since become a permanent feature. The children have become targets of increased surveillance and policing. With limited legislative protections available to vulnerable children, measures adopted by States in the name of law and order are often unnecessary and disproportionate.

In some countries police has been using loitering laws to pick up young adolescent boys from the streets. Though this law is being challenged in court by few nations, it is still leading to young children continuing to be harassed and punished.

Meanwhile, in Nepal, the government Guidelines on the Rescue, Rehabilitation and Management of Street Children were drafted to reduce the number of children on the streets. However, they were poorly implemented and post pandemic, the Nepal government became overzealous in implementing these guidelines. Although they claimed to have removed 172 children from the streets in 2021 and that 58% of those removed are reunited with families, many end up back on the streets after being placed in inappropriate children’s homes or without the root causes being addressed at family level.

It is not the government’s intent here, but the neglect of counselling and protection provisions during the process remain the point of concern. In the words of Arjun, 11, ‘’We hide immediately when we see the rescue van, they push and pull us into vans we fear they will lock us in a room. I have friends here on the streets, and I don’t like the idea of being forced into a home’’. Clearly, there is need for dialogue and community-based integration of children in street situations.

Struggle for Right to Identity deepens

Most children in street situations lack a national identity card or a birth certificate. This often prevents them from accessing any government support schemes or entitlement services such as food, health care, or education. During the pandemic, many children were not able to get support from governments due to a lack of identification documentation.

In the post-pandemic world, it was expected that newer ways and mechanisms would be developed to address these issues. However, most states are adopting border protectionist approaches.

The process of birth registration and identification has been increasingly becoming more complex. For example, in Kenya, the birth registration costs are slated to be increased three times in coming months. The process itself is being pushed towards the centralisation of records, making it difficult for children over ten years old to be registered.

Adamu, 13, lives on a street base in Nairobi. He lacks documentation certificates. He intends to attend a vocational course, but to enrol and further get into employment, he needs documentation. In the words of social worker Muamba, who is supporting Adamu, “facilitating getting an identity document for a street-connected child or youth has become very challenging with digitalization and increasing the number of approval levels’’. The difficulties are also increasing in other countries in Asia like India and Nepal.

Need of the Hour

The UN Committee on Child Rights (UNCRC) guidance in General Comment 21 provides authoritative guidance to States on developing comprehensive, long-term national strategies for children in street situations. They advise using a holistic, child rights approach and addressing both prevention and response in line with the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

It is the need of the hour for all civil society organisations, groups and networks working with children in street situations to come together and seek compliance from the authorities and stakeholders to enforce the obligations under the Convention.

Governments should prioritise the enumeration and documentation of all children in street situations. The process should be simplified and made accessible so all children can be linked with state-supported schemes, services, and entitlements.

It is recommended that states should, with immediate effect, review policies and practices that discriminate against children in street situations directly or indirectly.

There are several other unresolved issues of children in street situations which need to be addressed, from reunification to lack of access to justice and sexual violence. There is dire need to create space and forums where their voices can be heard.

* Name changed; all stories, quotes and references in this article are from Toybox’s in -country partners.