Time to focus on the African child
On the Day of the African Child, which draws attention to the need to improve the wellbeing of African children, we should also turn our thoughts to Africa’s street children
Today, the Day of the African Child, commemorates the day in 1976 when hundreds of black schoolchildren were killed in Soweto, South Africa. They took to the streets to protest against an inferior education system and the right to be taught in their own language.
The day also draws attention to the need to improve the condition and wellbeing of children across the African continent. This year, the African Union (AU) is using the day to draw attention to street children.
The events of 1976 stirred a generation to rise up against apartheid, and we are again at a pivotal moment – to make lasting change to a generation of street children who hope for, and need, the right to determine their own future.
This year has been significant so far for street children, with the resolutions adopted by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in February and the International Day for Street Children in April. But this is not enough.
Being born into poverty, which is the reality for millions of African children, reduces chances of survival, good health and finishing their education. They are also at risk from neglect, abuse, exploitation and violence. The AU’s African committee of experts on the rights and welfare of the child published a concept note this year, All Together for Urgent Actions in Favour of Street Children, to which leading street children organisations responded.
AU members now need to act on the recommendations, and recognise and support the important work of grassroots organisations.
Pioneering organisations are delivering frontline services to street children with little or no government recognition or assistance. Street children remain excluded from policy priorities. The millennium development goals have been criticised for failing to reflect broader notions of children’s rights and wellbeing, particularly taking account of the impact of children’s environments. Unless government, NGOs, and policymakers begin to make this a priority, the rights and social protection of street children are at risk.
In Africa, the most transformative and sustainable models of working with street children have come about when the commitment to change has come from within, driven and led by the local practitioners, activists and communities. According to Tom Hewitt, of Umthombo Street Children, “There are new and creative models that are challenging the way that society perceives and responds to street children, and these must be given space and support to develop and to educate us.” Our role as northern NGOs and practitioners is to support grassroots organisations seeking solutions in the way we respond to street children.
As we celebrate the Day of the African Child, the children who marched with conviction and courage in Soweto in 1976 invoke a powerful reminder of their decisive role in being a catalyst for change. Today, we have the opportunity to move a step closer to giving street children the true humanity they deserve.
• Joe Walker is director and co-founder of the UK-based NGO Street Action, which works with partners in Burundi, Kenya and South Africa
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