Street Kids: A Different Face of Childhood in Zimbabwe

Rufaro A. Chitiyo
Tennessee Technological University

The phenomenon of children living in the streets is not new, nor is it restricted to certain geographical areas. The United Nations reports that, globally, an estimated 150 million children live on the streets today. These children end up living and working on the streets for a plethora of reasons, including death of parents, breakdown of families, family violence, natural disasters, economic hardships, and drug and alcohol abuse. In order to survive, these children often beg and scavenge. Unfortunately, street children are at risk of exploitation and abuse. Many die, due to disease and accidents.

In Africa, where an estimated 80% of the population lives below the poverty datum line, the number of children living on the streets is increasing. In Zimbabwe, concern about unaccompanied children began in the 1920s to 1950s, as young boys (typically, 10 to 14 years old) flocked to towns and mine areas. The boys often found employment in urban areas as domestic servants and gardeners, in both white and black homes. Colonial officials became concerned about their lives on the streets.

The number children living on the streets in Zimbabwe is hard to determine with accuracy. In the late 1980s, these children became a more and more common facet of the urban landscape of Zimbabwe, especially in the capital city of Harare. Sadly, the complex issues associated with children living on the streets prompt some controversy in Zimbabwe. Many consider them to be a “blemish” on the city and a problem that needed urgent solution. The collapse of the Zimbabwe economy in the late 1990s resulted in large-scale unemployment and urban poverty. Further, education has become more expensive and is not valued as a guarantor of future employment. A survey of children living on the streets of Harare, conducted by UNICEF in 2003, determined that about a third of the children had either never gone to school or had dropped out of school during the early primary years. When these children get onto the streets, they often have no option but to adopt survival strategies, such as petty theft, drug trafficking and abuse, and prostitution.

While the problem of street children may demonstrate a lack of responsibility on the part of some families, it also reveals deeper problems precipitated by the economic and political situation in Zimbabwe. For example, some orphans and vulnerable children are finding themselves on the streets of major cities in Zimbabwe because the child welfare system is dysfunctional. Children would not end up on the streets if strong policies are in place that hold agencies responsible for supporting young children whose families (for whatever reasons) cannot take care of them.