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Street children / FACTS

Street children, the facts Who are these children?
The usual image is of young homeless people who live and work on the streets. But it is better to think of street children in terms of their relationship to the street. Some come from street families. Others live mainly on the street but may go back to the family home in the evenings or make sporadic visits. Yet others sleep in night shelters. A proportion endure periods in jail or institutions or spend their days working in open air markets. Most are working children.
All are individuals first with their own unique, complex lives.
A time to smile: it’s party time for these street girls at an NGO project in Kolkata, India. Photo: H Davies / Exile Images
A time to smile: it's party time for these street girls at an NGO project in Kolkata, India.
Photo: H Davies / Exile Images

How many are there?
Nobody knows for sure. Estimates differ widely – anywhere from 30 to 170 million. Their mobility and the fact that they move in and out of street living make them difficult to count. They are not included in surveys and censuses. There are no global statistics and the most reliable national ones come from agencies on the ground.

Particular circumstances such as warfare, deteriorating economies and natural disasters can increase their numbers. Thus, prior to the 1991 Gulf War there were no reported street children in Iraq; with the ongoing conflict, UNICEF is alarmed by the growing numbers of orphans on the streets.1

Family ties4
Only a minority have no contact with their family. In Brazil about 90% have either a home life or occasional contact with their family.

Poverty and social vulnerability put pressure on families and drive children on to the streets. In Kingston, Jamaica, over 90% of street children came from single mother families.

Family dysfunction, often fuelled by poverty, also pushes children out. In the United States poverty is not the main factor – a majority of the estimated 750,000 to 1 million street children have fled physical or sexual abuse.

A matter of gender
While there are far fewer girls than boys, the estimates (that girls make up between 3% and 30 % of the street child population) are so wide as to be almost meaningless. Girls are more vulnerable to violence (including sexual attacks) on the street, although this is a problem for boys, too. Many get lured into brothels.

Countries where the reported sexual exploitation of girls is at its highest are India, the US, Thailand, Taiwan, Brazil and the Philippines. Post-communist Eastern Europe has also seen an explosion in child sexual exploitation.2

UNICEF estimates that over 2 million children, mainly girls, are exploited through prostitution and pornography. 1.2 million girls and boys are trafficked each year – many to join the sex trade.3

Law and order officials and self-styled vigilantes both attempt to ‘clean the street’ of these children in many parts of the world. In Latin America the problem is particularly acute with the worst offenders being Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala and Honduras. An average of three street children are killed every day in the state of Rio de Janeiro. In Cairo, street children are routinely rounded up and beaten by the police, their heads are shaven and then they are transferred to crowded detention centres.

Higher rates of drug use and involvement in petty crime make them vulnerable to violence from others like them. The main reason for gang membership is protection.

Much more prone to diseases associated with risky sexual activity and/or drug use. In Toronto 50% of street children surveyed had chlamydia.4 In Cambodia, 40% of all new HIV infections are in street working children.6 In Guatemala 53% had sexually transmitted diseases.

The Guatemalan study also found 92% of the children had lice and 88% had contracted upper respiratory infections due to exposure. Skin infections were also common.7

Studies conducted in Nepal and Guatemala showed that urban street children were in better health than children in stable homes in farming villages: an indicator of the depths of rural poverty in these countries rather than a recommendation for life on the street.5

Drink your medicine: a Filipino father tends to his young daughter. Traffic fumes cause high rates of respiratory disease. Photo: Fran Harvey
Drink your medicine: a Filipino father tends to his young daughter. Traffic fumes cause high rates of respiratory disease. Photo: Fran Harvey

Snapshots from Africa8

Deepening poverty and the devastation caused by AIDS in many African countries has led to traditional social supports disintegrating, pushing children on to the streets:

The average age of street children is 13 years. 42,505 children were arrested in 2001; 10,958 were charged with being ‘vulnerable to delinquency’.

With poverty rates as high as 90% among the general population, there are 70,000 street children in Northern Sudan, 86% of them boys. The vast majority are employed.

An estimated 50,000 are trafficked to nearby countries where they often end up selling goods on the street.

Democratic Republic of Congo
NGO estimates range from 12,000 to 25,000; the Ministry of Social affairs says the number is closer to 40,000.

The war-torn 1980s and 1990s caused large increases in the numbers of street children; estimates around 150,000.

250,000 estimated. (Half of the general population of the country is under 18.)

South Africa
250,000 nationwide.

45% of street children say they have been beaten on the street.

Snapshots from Asia9

150 million children work in the Asia Pacific area – 104 million of them in hazardous forms of child labour. Asia has traditionally had high numbers of children on the streets:

Over 445,000; 75% of them in Dhaka. The numbers of boys and girls are almost evenly split.

11 million; Mumbai, Delhi and Calcutta each have over 100,000.

300,000, of whom half also sleep on the streets.

Estimates range from 10,000 to 30,000; less than 25% of all Burmese children complete primary schooling.

In 1995, there were 50,000. In 2001, 78% of street children had reportedly left home because of poverty.



Nairobi, Kenya
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Accra, Ghana
Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire
Casablanca, Morocco
Bangui, CAR

1 ‘UNICEF wary of post-war child trafficking in Iraq’, UNICEF press release, 13 June 2003.
2 ‘UNICEF calls for eradication of commercial sexual exploitation of children’, UNICEF press release, 12 December 2001.
3 ‘All children deserve protection from exploitation and abuse’, UNICEF, 2004.
4 Strategies to combat homelessness, United Nations Centre for Human Settlements, Nairobi, 2000,
5 BBC News, ‘Street children surprisingly healthy’, 13 April 2002,
6 Sebastian Marot, Director FRIENDS in consultation with Cambodian NGOs, reported by Consortium for Street Children, 2003.
7 Nancy Leigh Tierney, Robbed of Humanity: Lives of Guatemalan Street Children, Pangaea, Saint Paul, 1997.
8 Facts from the Consortium for Street Children’s Civil Society Forums on Promoting and Protecting the Rights of Street Children: North Africa and the Middle East, 3-6 March 2004, Cairo, (with Hope Village Society); Francophone Africa, 2-5 June 2004, Senegal, (with Street Child Africa and Avenir de L’Enfant); Anglophone West Africa, 21-24 October 2003, Accra, (with Street Child Africa and Catholic Action for Street Children) and East and Southern Africa, 11-13 February 2002, Nairobi, (with Street Child Africa and Undugu Society of Kenya). Reporting by Hope Village society with members of the Egyptian network for Street Children (Egypt); Peace and Development Volunteer with Sabah and partners (Sudan); Croix Rouge and partners (Benin); OPDE Congo and partners (DR Congo); Catholic Action for Street Children (Ghana); Child Protection Alliance and partners (Gambia); Bayti and partners (Morocco); Beatrice Epaye, Network for Street Children (Central African Republic); University of Cocody (Côte d’Ivoire); Undugu Society (Kenya); UNICEF (Ethiopia).
9 Consortium for Street Children’s Civil Society Forums: South Asia, 12-14 December 2001, Colombo (with ChildHope and PEACE) and East and South East Asia, 12-14 March 2003, Bangkok. Reporting by KKSP Foundation (citing ILO figures); Aparajeyo (Bangladesh); Asha Rane (India); Save the Children UK China Programme (China); World Vision Myanmar (Burma); Terre des Hommes-Lausanne, Vietnam and partners (Vietnam).

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