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Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Who will weep for our street children?

Whenever I watch a documentary about child slavery, I can't help but wonder how many of Zambia's street children probably end up in one form of slavery or another. Child slavery and our growing number of street children are invariably linked. As long as children are on the street they remain vulnerable to all sorts of abuse.

For girls on the streets especially it is like a death sentence. It's too dangerous. When you add in the problem of AIDs it makes one despair. A theme touched on in Princess Kasune Zulu’s remarkable book ‘Warrior Princess’.

It is no surprise we continue to witness a growth in human trafficking. Sadly the problem has not commanded as much public attention as it should. The closest information I am aware of is the very rough 2006 Central Statistical Office survey which revealed that 22% of girls and 20% boys reported knowledge of human trafficking. 15% reported knowing someone who had been trafficked. But those statistics did not specifically sample street children.

As every Zambian knows street children are a huge problem in our country. Some estimates place the figure well above one million, and this is growing every day. The current phenomenon has largely been attributed to the MMD liberalisation policies of the early 1990s when we saw the number of children double over that decade. The MMD's market fundamentalism coupled with globalisation led to the erosion of the extended family safety within a cocktail of high poverty levels and rampant HIV / AIDs.

Thats the past. The real issue is what should now be done to tackle this stain on our collective conscience. At some level we all know the solution : street children need to be fed, given a home and an education. Therefore at one level the issue of street children is one of child poverty. Reduce child poverty and AIDs and you are on your way there.

And yet it is not that simple. Research by Alessandro Conticini (Global Research Poverty) on street children in Bangladesh gives a more nuanced picture. The analysis suggests that that while most researchers and observers have explained the street children phenomenon in terms of economic poverty, the Bangladesh research suggests social factors are more important for understanding why children move to the street.

Street kids don't always come from economically poor households. Conticini's work found that moves to the street are closely associated with violence - emotional/psychological, physical, sexual or all three - and the breakdown of social relationships within the family and/or local community.

Now of course AIDs/HIV in Zambia contributes significantly to these "Conticini factors". But what is clear is that policy prescriptions and economic solutions should not just aim to reduce poverty, but also ought to incentivise greater cohesion of the family unit. This point should immediately be obvious because even richer countries have lots of street kids. Our own history testifies that as a country we were poor from independence and yet we had fewer proportion of street children!

I believe one the reason why this situation has become worse in Zambia is the weakening of certain social institutions e.g. the traditional family unit. Whilst HIV/AIDs has contributed to this erosion, equal blame must be laid on the lack of national leadership. I believe that since colonialism we have not fully solved how our culture relates to our development agenda. Simply eliminating poverty without emphasis on the social institutions may not eliminate the problem. We need to look at whether our governance structures and economic policies are working hand in hand to address the challenges facing Zambia.

Unfortunately, we continue to remain silent on fundamental questions e.g. how can we support the "family" through our economic policies, including tax policies? We treat economic agents as individuals rather than members within a family unit that we wish to promote, which limits our mitigation options in tackling these kinds of problems. It also continues to undermine our social fabric.

Is it not shameful to call ourselves a Christian nation when we have a large population of children living on our streets and in danger of rape, abusing and trafficking?

We must confront this shame head by preventing more children ending up there in the first place. For those children already on the streets, we must do all we can to protect them from potential slavery through stronger governance, combined with more emphasis on police departments to take the issues of child slavery seriously.

Unless we address this issue we are robbing our nation its future, and all of our policies will be ultimately be ineffective. If you want to see how Zambia’s social and economic will look in 20 years just look at its children today! There are no short cuts to social development.

Chola Mukanga | Economist
Copyright © Zambian Economist 2013

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