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OpEd: Hear the Children in the Streets
Friday, April 09, 2004
Art Linkletter is
a longtime television broadcaster
Eric Thurman is CEO of Geneva Global Inc. of Radnor
It's a little-known problem rapidly
becoming a global crisis. Of the 1 billion impoverished
children living in cities worldwide, 140 million are now
classified as "street children." That's twice the number
of all U.S. children between 7 and 18. The numbers climb
daily, a phenomenon without precedent in history, presenting
us, the human family, with enormous challenges that require
innovative and urgent solutions.
Forty percent live completely in the
streets, without homes, parents or responsible adult figures
in their lives. They include orphans; children separated from
family by war; castoffs from the sex trade; and abandoned
youngsters or runaways who have decided to cut family ties
Other street children have occasional
family contact but are abused or neglected, living most of
the time on the street. Still others have regular family contact,
returning home at night after spending most of their waking hours
trying to help support their families through begging, menial
labor, or theft. They are the working children of the poorest
urban families, living in the harshest conditions and unable
to attend school.
Poverty is the urban child's greatest
enemy. One-third of the world's 3 billion urban children live
in severe economic deprivation, according to UN-Habitat. Of
these, 140 million are badly malnourished, underemployed or
unemployed, living in dangerous and unsafe conditions, failing
to receive education, suffering from ill-health physically,
mentally and emotionally. Extreme poverty and breakdown of the
family make a direct pathway to the street.
War and AIDS aggravate their plight.
UNAIDS estimates that by 2010, HIV/AIDS will create 25 million
orphans, more than double the number who already have lost parents.
UNICEF adds that 12 million children were uprooted by armed conflict
in the 1990s, as many as 1 million of them becoming orphans.
All these vulnerable children face violence,
sexual exploitation, abject neglect, chemical addiction, and
violations of their human rights. Some governments jail or even
kill them. According to Human Rights Watch, "governments treat
them as a blight to be eradicated, rather than as children to
be nurtured and protected."
Living on the streets takes a fearful toll.
Illness and malnutrition weaken resistance to diseases like
pneumonia. Drug abuse and early sexual activity often lead to
HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Institutionalization is not the answer.
Orphanages and asylums may provide food and shelter, but have
miserable records of rehabilitating or reintegrating children
back into society.
Research by Geneva Global Inc. shows
that street children, in particular, need programs custom-designed
for problems specific to their communities. Successful intervention
for these children requires creative approaches and large numbers
of local volunteers.
In South Africa, for instance, leaders from
several churches realized that orphans and abused children were
fleeing their smaller villages for the streets of larger cities
such as Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town. Today a program
rescues these children before they leave their villages. More
than 600 receive meals each day, and three temporary emergency
shelters are open to assist any children willing to stay. Citizens
help the children reestablish stable homes with relatives or find
them longterm foster care.
Consider Medellín, Colombia, a city infamous
as one of the top drug centers of the world. It is a violent city,
averaging 15 homicides a day. Most victims are males between 15 and
24. Here soccer clubs are the creative answer for children at risk.
Coaches establish longterm, nurturing relationships with the boys.
In this program, each coach is also a trained social worker. Ten of
them work fulltime to mentor each boy, helping hundreds steer clear
The need is different in Russia, where 140,000
children are abandoned each year by impoverished parents. When they
become old enough to leave the orphanages, 40 percent turn to crime,
another 40 percent become drug addicts, and 10 percent despair
completely and commit suicide. Here again, improvement came from a
custom-designed program. Three thousand orphanage staffers were
trained in psychology and human relations, raising the quality of care
for 20,000 children in the institutions. A modest grant to the project
also reunited 800 children with their families or found them stable
A common feature of these successful programs
is that they were invented locally, each designed for the desperate
children in a specific community. Techniques vary widely, but the
goal is always the same: bond each child to a caring adult. George
Bernard Shaw wrote that "the worst sin toward our fellow creatures
is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them." Street children
need love, attention and meaningful relationships to transform a life
of desperation into one of hope. The good news is that solutions do
exist. What we need are the eyes and hearts to find them.
Art Linkletter, an
orphan himself, is CEO of Los Angeles-based Linkletter
Enterprises. The Geneva Global, Inc. site