It is almost midnight. The streets of downtown Bogotá, Colombia, are deserted except for a number of military policemen. Automatic weapons at the ready, they guard every road junction in this capital city because the president of neighbouring Venezuela is in town.
Five year old Wilson sits on the roadside, crying. His father will beat him again tonight if he returns home without 1,000 pesos (US $1.50). He shivers in the cold of the Andean night; he is barefoot and wears only a light-weight running suit. On the other side of the street, his sister, seven year old Daisey, is begging. Daisey needs money for shoes, and she can’t go home until she has 1,500 pesos.
For a growing number of children on city streets around the world, this scene is all too typical. There must be greater awareness of the situations of these children at risk.
The size of the problem
We need to understand what a huge problem we face, especially in Latin America. It is difficult to picture the number of children living in the world’s streets, many unattached to any family at all. The standard reference figure quoted for street children around the world today is a staggering 100 million (UN).
Almost a third of the world’s population is under 15 years old. In Colombia there are 11 million children under 15 years of age. More and more of these are finding their way to the streets. Estimates of the number of street children in Bogotá swing wildly from a conservative 2,500 to a huge 110,000 (UNICEF).
It is difficult to estimate numbers of street children because they move around so much. A child or even a gang (parche, a ‘patch’) of kids may start out in the far south of Bogotá in the morning, be in central Bogotá in the early afternoon, and in Parque Lourdes (north Bogotá) by late afternoon. Another reason is that some children are ‘latch-key kids’; they live on the streets during the day, but return home at night.
Who are these children?
Four groups of ‘street children’ can be identified:
Totally abandoned children These are the gamín in Colombia, the menino de rua in Brazil, the pelón in Mexico. These children live in the streets and have no family contact. They typically use drugs, preferring inhalants – usually shoemakers’ glue. These children don’t work.
Partially abandoned children These children live in the streets but have some contact with their families. Drug use is common, and typically, they won’t work.
Latch-key children They roam the streets but are careful to maintain contact with their families. They do not usually use drugs and they don’t work.
Working children These children are in the streets while carrying out their work. They may shine shoes, wash car windows, sell sweets and cigarettes. They live most of the time with their families. They don’t usually take drugs.
In Latin America, both boys and girls live on the streets. Generally speaking, however, girls are more sheltered than boys. The boy/girl ratio of street children may be as high as nine to one. Girls, considered more ‘useful’, stay at home while boys are considered stronger and less susceptible to a life of threat on the street.
Most street children are not abandoned by their families. Instead they leave home to escape abuse, poverty, or ordinary parental authority. Lack of stability in family life is the main reason for losing a child to the streets. In the streets they find other children who have come from equally difficult backgrounds. However the child also soon finds that in the world of the street they are abused as much as they were at home. This disillusionment is a tremendous shock – the child realises that he can have no confidence either in his parents or in any other authority figure. Mental escape, usually through inhaling drugs, becomes part of the child’s survival strategy.
Children on the streets have experienced violence at home at the hands of their parents. As a result they become ‘hunters’ looking to inflict pain and violence on others. Being on drugs lessens the sense of reality.
Imagine calling children desechables – ‘throw-away’ or ‘disposable’. But that’s what they are known as on the streets of Bogotá. The term recently came into sharp focus for me when a young boy I had been working with, was killed one night, his body thrown into a ditch. I know of other children, too, who have been killed either by the police, by drug gangs, by death squads put together by merchants who want to clean the streets of ‘dirty kids’, or even by other street people.
Recent reports provide chilling evidence that there are groups in Latin American cities using street children to help satisfy the world’s demand for body parts. The ‘fortunate’ children who survive these on-the-spot surgeries wake in the streets to find that they have lost a kidney, a testicle, or an eye during the night. Usually, however, such surgery means death for the child.
Are there any solutions?
Many agencies claim to help children on the streets. However, UNICEF in Bogotá reports that many ‘social concern’ agencies are selling the misery of the children to raise funds for their agencies.
The Colombian government does all it can with its limited resources. The national welfare agency (Instituto Colombiano Bienestar Familiar) looks for outside groups, both Christian and secular, to work with. They try to encourage more resources to help street children.
Yet governments and social agencies do not own this world problem. We all do. God’s word to us is full of commands to watch out for orphans. These words to us are as fresh today as when they were first spoken:
- ‘Change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, do not oppress… the orphan…’ (Jeremiah 7: 5-6)
- ‘This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right… do no wrong or violence to the… orphan…’ (Jeremiah 22:3)
- ‘Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans… in their distress and to keep from being polluted by the world.’ (James 1:27)
There must be an answer to the problem of children at risk on the streets. It is clear that so far we are losing the battle.
Steps in progress…
STEP 1: LOVE
The first step towards a solution is for the Christian world community to recognise that all of us can have a part. If only we would respond to the word of God, then we would reach out to these youngsters, believing that it is our responsibility to do so. Sharing the love of Christ with these children is the most important part of any solution.
The national Christian church must also decide to face the problem of the children on its own city streets. The church has been unusually slow to act in this area. Yet the national church must be involved in designing a strategy to solve the problem. In Colombia, the national church, with very few exceptions, is not ready to address social issues in the name of Jesus. Local congregations are not taught that they have a responsibility to the widows, the orphans, and other social outcasts.
The only programme for deprived children in Bogotá which is entirely endorsed and funded by a local church is that of the Iglesia Casa Roca (Church of the Rock). In this unique ministry, both boys and girls are cared for at a ranch like setting north of the city.
Other Christian ministries do exist in Bogotá, however, including Futuro Juvenil, which focuses on orphans and tries to educate Colombians on adoption, a foreign idea in Colombia; Hogar Vida en Cristo, a programme for ex-drug offenders; and La Bergerie, a French medical team which goes into the streets to help the physical needs of children.
The largest programme for street children in Bogotá, with about 700 children, is operated by Father Nicolo, a Roman Catholic. He does a good job of getting kids off the streets, though many run away.
Although not a Christian ministry, perhaps the best known programme in Latin America is the ‘Children of the Andes’. Its director, Jamie Jaramillo, a man of genuine compassion, has received much media coverage for his rescue of children from the sewers of Bogotá.
STEP 2: PROVIDING CHOICES
The second most important step is preventing children from arriving on the streets. Potential street children should have choices available to them before they enter street life.
The Hogar Infantil (Infant’s Home) is an alternative home for children. It is one example of what can be offered to threatened children. In Colombia the ‘In Ministry to Children’ Group works with 16 children at this home in Sasaima, a small farming town one and a half hours west of Bogotá. This ranch provides children at risk with a positive and caring experience of life in an atmosphere of Christian love.
Youth With A Mission (YWAM) has one safe house in Bogotá, as well as a ranch programme for children up to age 12.
STEP 3: PROVIDING MORE SUPPORT
A third step is for agencies to re-evaluate their work and give much more support and funding to meet the needs of children at risk.
Urban streets can expose children to much that is evil. It is essential for Christians to work together to understand the needs of street children and their surroundings and then work out ways to reach these children on the streets of this dark world. We need more soldiers on the Lord’s side, standing in the gap in this battle.
Working with children on the street may help a great deal, but still allows children to remain in a negative life style. They need to have a choice so they can leave the street scene if they choose. Over time, a child can recover from the tragedy of his experiences. This recovery varies directly with the degree of stability in the new life. It also varies depending on the length of time the child has needed to survive on the streets. The longer the time on the streets, the longer the recovery time needed. Meeting this need for appropriate support and accommodation is vital.
Gonzalo Arango, in a meditation in his book, A Lament for Disquiet, asks a very relevant question: ‘I asked over his grave dug in the side of the mountain, “Isn’t there some way that Colombia, instead of killing her children, can make them worthy of living?”’
To help allow street children become ‘worthy of living’ is the focus of all of us working with children at risk.
James Beaunaux is founder and director of the In Ministry to Children Group, Apdo 077099, 114 Bogotá, Colombia, S America.