Forgotten children of the streets
by Marko Kokic
During the day, the streets provide these
children with their daily bread. At night, its sidewalks serve
as a bed. Through education and special care, the Red Cross
aims to give them the tools for a better future.
One would be hard-pressed to find greater
wasted promise than in the countless number of children foregoing
their childhood, education and future in the pursuit of survival.
Children of the streets are forgotten, perhaps because the
challenge is too awesome. In Abidjan, however, with the commitment
of one man and the support of his National Society, care,
guidance and hope are given, one child at a time.
At Abidjan's major intersections, children encircle your
car, begging. Confronted by thousands of street children,
it is easier to become blind to their presence, numb to their
plight. Street children are regarded with a mixture of suspicion
and contempt. The children themselves are equally wary of
adults. It takes a special kind of person to be accepted into
their milieu, someone like Dominique Yao Kramo, the co-ordinator
of the Red Cross Assistance to Children in Difficult Situations.
Like his kids, he is suspicious of outsiders, especially
anyone wanting to photograph, much less interview, them. "It
took me two years to gain their trust so I don't want you
messing that up", is his standard warning to anyone looking
for a story. His closet-sized office is full of pictures of
children and his door is always open.
A young girl, accompanied by her rambunctious friends, walks
into his office. Dominique takes careful note of her personal
information, as he does for all new children that come to
see him. Fatou is 15 years old, lives with her family and
works as a street vendor selling tissue paper. "So what
can I do for you?" asks Dominique. She complains of a
headache. He touches her brow expecting malaria, only to find
her temperature normal. Sitting back in his chair, Dominique
crosses his arms and stares at her in silence. Seconds go
by as Fatou nervously plays with her scarf. "What happened?"
inquires Dominique. "I just needed someone to talk to,"
she says, staring down at the floor. More questions reveal
that she is having problems with her boyfriend. Dominique
then asks "Did you have sexual relations with him?"
After some moments, Fatou nods her head in confirmation. "Did
you use protection?" he asks. "No," Fatou responds.
"Was it consensual?" Covering her head, choked with
tears she replies, "it was forced." It was not the
first time and Fatou is pregnant.
Fatou is then referred to a Red Cross social worker, who
will set up the necessary medical exams and termination, if
requested. Dominique sits back in his chair sighing and shaking
his head. "You see that? She's 15 years old and having
unprotected sex with a boy who is not much older than her.
I know the boy. He lives on the streets. Either one can be
HIV-positive. If so, they have probably infected each other.
Before, treatable forms of STDs or unwanted pregnancy were
all children had to worry about. Now it's HIV/AIDS. How are
they supposed to pay for treatment?" Dominique asks rhetorically.
The social worker later revealed to Dominique that Fatou's
boyfriend had sought help for an earlier illness and he is
HIV-posi-tive. Street children begin most things early in
life, and sexual intercourse is no exception. Only 10 per
cent of the sexually active use condoms, while 50 per cent
have never used them.
The law of the streets is such that the strongest prevail.
A child without friends to protect him has little hope of
surviving. Older boys lead the groups and protect the younger
ones from rival groups. In exchange, the younger boys pay
a protection fee. Dominique approaches homeless children via
their leaders. One of them is Fabrice, or Togo-Moro as he
is called on the street. He is the leader of a group that
Dominique has spent much time working with. Togo-Moro is now
22 and has been on the streets since he was six. "I left
my village because of the beatings my father gave me."
"The first time I was almost killed was by a guy wanting
revenge for a bare-fist fight I had won," remembers Togo-Moro.
"I was 14 and hanging out with a bad crowd at that time.
We were playing cards and I won but he refused to pay me.
One night he came at me while I slept and busted my head with
a hammer. He tried to kill me but I stopped him. He ran away
and I chased him but collapsed in the middle of the street,"
he recalls. Red Cross volunteers trained in first aid, found
him lying in the road. The Côte d'Ivoire Red Cross paid
for his complete recovery.
"The second time the Red Cross saved my life was after
a police oper-ation to push us kids out of a city section.
Residents complained about us and the police tried to rid
the streets of our presence. I was sleeping and I was woken
up by the footsteps of two policemen. They walked up to me,
sprayed my eyes with pepper spray and began to hit me. They
wanted to throw me off the third floor. I held on to the legs
of one cop while they hit me. One of them smashed me over
the head with his gun, I lost my grip and fell down to the
pavement. I was badly wounded when they brought me to the
station. When the judge saw what they had done to me, I was
released. It was the Red Cross that helped me get better.
I'll never forget what they did for me."
Reaching out to street children is a painstaking, time-consuming
endeavour with no guarantees. "A lot happened to them
before coming to the streets and it takes a lot to get them
off the streets. Sometimes, when you think you have made a
breakthrough with one, they disappear," explains Dominique.
"What motivates me is knowing that if no one bothers
with these children they will remain on the streets
There is no one to guide them."
Limited in resources, Dominique is only able to reach a small
portion of street children. However, for those he does help,
the project offers valuable assistance. Approximately 400
children visit the Red Cross to see the volunteer doctor or
first-aiders. Thirty-five children are permanently enrolled
in the first of a year-long education programme. The children
are instructed in basic maths, reading and writing, appropriate
social manners, road sign comprehension, food and hygiene,
reproductive health through awareness of STDs, contraception
and HIV/AIDS prevention. They also receive an induction course
on the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.
Six volunteers, including one doctor, provide first aid and
medical care for children. A psychologist and social worker
are also on hand. Over 630 children have sought treatment
since January and 106 children have been reunited with their
Dominique explained that what he finds hardest about his
work is sending the children back on to the streets at the
end of each day. "I know we are helping them, I can see
their progress but at the end of the day I have to send them
back into the streets because we don't have a centre for homeless
children." The Red Cross Centre for Street Children remains
a dream for both Dominique and the children. "A centre
would allow us to make a greater impact by keeping the children
in a stable environment and teach them skills to keep them
off the streets." Until then, success is measured in
small victories - one child at a time, one day at a time.
Marko Kokic is Federation information officer in Côte
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