Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko has made public his intention to clear the streets of street children by hiring them to clean the capital city in return for accommodation and a salary. He met them at City Hall on Thursday last week pledging this on condition that they quit crime, drugs and stay off the streets.
The Consortium of Street Children (CSC) an international charity, places the number of street children in Kenya at an estimated 250,000 with about 60,000 of them being in Nairobi. These numbers are shocking, especially if one is not a frequenter of Nairobi’s downtown. When the city starts to simmer down around midnight, cardboard boxes and all manner of makeshift shelter are erected on the pavements as these children settle down for the night. It would seem unusual to anyone else, but not for them as some know no other home.
With numbers as high as this, the question is obvious, how did we get to this point? How is it that in a country boasting of some of the best human rights laws in Africa, there still are such apparent failures in a system that should protect all its citizens?
The answer begins with an irresponsible society. Orphans who are left at the mercy of cruel or indifferent relatives often run away from home and end up on the streets. The same applies to young girls rejected by their families because of an unplanned pregnancy. The lack of an effective social safety net results in runaways, rejects, abandoned and misguided children all finding themselves on the street. Other people who were affected by the post-election violence of 2007 who lost their homes and families have also had to make their new homes out of the city’s open spaces.
While the plan to get them off the street is admirable, it is the how that raises eyebrows. To begin with, the legal implications of this action are weighty. The Children’s Act of Kenya provides for and guarantees the rights and welfare of children. These include the right to education, health, protection from child labour and economic exploitation. Reading this together with the Employment Act, the law governing employment and protecting employee rights, it states that children under the age of sixteen cannot be employed in industrial undertakings except internships and training.
The children on the street have the same rights as those with parents. They cannot be discriminated against for falling victim to circumstances beyond their control. The Governor cannot purport to engage these children in formal employment as this contravenes the law. The principles that are applied in the interpretation of children’s rights are the best interest principle and the maximum survival and development principle. This is to say that all actions that affect or have an effect on a child (by the law, anyone under the age of eighteen) must be measured against the two principles to ensure that they work together for the utmost good of the child. Forcing them into employment does not align with these principles. (It is forcing them because they are in a disadvantaged position and therefore do not have a choice.)
Beyond the personal rights of the children are the existing rights of the already engaged City Council workers who are supposed to be doing the very work the Governor wants to offer to the children on the street. Are they going to lose their jobs in this case?
The social implications are no less important. What the children are being offered is the least they need as it is. The governor imagines that giving structure and routine to traumatized children, some of whom are addicted to drugs will be enough to reform them. This is myopic and unsustainable. Their most important needs must first be addressed, these being counselling and an environment within which they can thrive before they can be expected to be functioning members of society. Morris Mwenda: Street kids can be rehabilitated – just not that easily
The law establishes the National Council for Children’s Services whose mandate is to exercise general supervision and control over the planning, financing and coordination of child rights and welfare activities. If indeed the intention is to find a sustainable solution to the problem of homeless children, the local authorities must work with this body, whose scope includes advising the government on all matters children. There are options available such as rehabilitation, charitable children’s institutions, remand homes and eventually adoption.
Want to find out about what some people are doing to tackle the issue of street children? Read about Shamit Patel of Homeless of Nairobi
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Featured image via http://kenyachildrenofhope.org