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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 families.

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
Marko Kokic is Federation information officer in Côte d'Ivoire.



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