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Children and Youth in Contemporary Ethnography: Street Children and Identity

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 5006 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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According to UNICEF (2005), street children are defined as children or youth who have yet to reach adulthood who are living or working on the street and they are prevalent in low-income countries. Under this definition, street children can also be categorised into ‘children on the streets’ and ‘children of the streets’ based on their connections with their families (UNICEF, 2005). The former refers to children who still have connections with their families, have a home to go back to but for various reasons, whether as an order by their parents/caregiver or on their own free will, have gone to make a living on the streets. On the other hand, the latter defines children who may or may not have connections with their families due to factors such as “family dysfunction, violence and poverty” (Hecht 1998), who have to fend for themselves, have very little, if any, parental, emotional and psychological support, no guidance and supervision and makes the streets their home. Other factors which lead to the migration of children and youth to the streets are struggles and abuse in the household (Butler 2009) and avoidance of certain tasks or incidents (Gadd 2016). Due to the imagery they portray, they are often a subject of rejection and discrimination by the society in which they are seen as victims who need and should be helped or as juvenile criminals who should be taken off the streets and be put in correction facilities.

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Because children can be conceptualised as ‘becomings’ in which they are “seen as progressing from a state of vulnerability to sophistication, from an earlier lack of skills to a later possession of abilities” (Young 1990, p.41; as cited in Uprichard 2008) and that they are ‘future adults’ (Uprichard 2008), the issue of street children have garnered attention from government agencies, non-government organisation, academics and the general public because they believe that children and youth should be shield and protected from hostility, adversity and other influences that may disrupt their childhood and, consequently, their development into a healthy and meaningful adulthood (Nii-Boye Quarshire 2011). However, no matter how institutions work towards helping the children with the aim of taking them off the streets, they often fail to help the children effectively because these children would have developed various kinds of peer relationships and emotional support groups and thus continue to seek them (Hecht 1998).

Here, it can get problematic; since some children have chosen to return to the streets for whatever reasons, wouldn’t this in turn mean that they are also ‘beings’ in which they are indeed “a social actor in his or her own right, who is actively constructing his or her own ‘childhood’, and who has views and experiences about being a child” (Uprichard 2008)? Doesn’t this also mean that children are not as incompetent as they are perceived by adults and that they demonstrate agency through their choices which revolves around their competence and understanding of their needs as well as awareness of their surroundings? In other words, in the context of street children, can we argue that children are indeed agents and that they act purposively?

In this paper, I would like to argue that street children are often misunderstood as a threat and that they are in need of help and social intervention by societies in general when in fact, they have agency and have acted purposively through their choice of migrating to the streets. Through bridging this misconception, I would like to demonstrate that street children, particularly children on the street, are competent agents in constructing their own identity through their choices and how they actively structure their lives on the streets in the body of ethnographic work by researchers that I will be using.

In the ethnographic work of Degwale Gebeyehu Belay (2014), the research took place on the streets of Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia. To set the scene, Belay (2014) described the streets being packed with various people taking part in different informal activities with street vending being of the popular ones and it is structured by the street economy based on gender, generation and police restrictions. Interestingly, Belay reported that most of the workers were of children and youth, whom he referred to as street children, are mostly boys and that they had either worked alone or in groups. He explained that the children, particularly boys under the age of 18, have migrated independently without their parents or adults to the city and that the activities were mostly gender-based. His study also showed that the main reason behind the children’s migration to the city and onto the streets was to make living due to various factors such as poor image of schooling and lack of welfare programmes. Many of the respondents believed that education is not useful or profitable due to the low standard of education and the high dropout rates as well as difficulty securing a job upon graduation. One of the respondents named Mengistu, who was 14 years old, revealed that it was hopeless to think of being able to get a job and as a consequent of not being able to get a job, young people resort to chewing ‘khat’ – a stimulant drug and begun questioning his fate. As a result, he dropped out of school, justifying that it was far away from home, and resorted to selling lottery tickets on the street. Meanwhile, some respondents also shared that being able of bringing home new clothes and money boosts their self-esteem and self-respect within the family and the community. While some of the respondents seemed to have had some sort of parental consent to leave home and migrate to the streets, Belay reported that some had even left home without their parents’ permission. For example, Dereje who was 17 years old at the time, dropped out of school to work on the streets of Addis Ababa without his parents’ knowledge, let alone consent, because he saw how profitable it was to work as a vender and had looked up to his peers who had left home and brought back goods for their families. Despite numerous attempts to get him to go back to school, he refused and stayed on to work. As months passed, he was able to make a living and bring home clothes and money to support the family.

From these case examples, it is evident that Mengistu’s thought process reasoned that working and being able to provide for the family will prevent him from resorting to substance abuse like his peers. He was able to foresee his potential future of unemployment if he were to stay in school, probably due to the competitive pool of unemployed fresh graduates, and thus, he took charge of his decision to fully engage in work. Similarly, Dereje migrated to the streets to work instead of pursing his education because it was more practical and the end goal of former was evident and worthwhile. Both of these boys exercised their agency by turning to the streets to make money and have constructed the street as their workplace and hence, they themselves as workers instead of street children.

Drawing upon the moral agency defined by Valentine (2011), this perspective of agency is “something attained by adults and requires rationality, self-awareness and a sense of futurity”. However, from the case examples above, it is evident that it does not only apply to adults and that children can indeed also have agency and are able to demonstrate it through their social competence, survival strategy and social awareness. In addition, I somewhat disagree with Purdy (2008) that children’s agency is limited by their level of maturity which can only be achieved with time, effort and development. This arises the question of how are these children evaluated in terms of maturity and development? If they are evaluated against, say for example, Jean Piaget’s four stages of cognitive development stage model (Piaget 1983) where all children experience the same sequence of development at a given age bracket but at different rates, it would not be admissible. This is because although they can easily be marked against these rigid development stages, their level of maturity is shaped by the marginal conditions and life experiences they undergo. This means that disregarding their biological age, a child can be deemed as cognitively more mature which is constructed by various factors such as responsibilities and tasks that were given or take up by them due to the social construction in which they are in. In other words, they have the capacity of developing and displaying mature, futuristic thought process and behaviour before their time or they are expected to. Thus, I believe that children’s agency is relatively subjective and should not be categorised or evaluated so rigidly. Other than the factors considered by Belay in the abovementioned cases, I think it is also important to consider the children’s emotional and psychological maturity as they too are shaped by the conditions and social structures discussed, which will shed more light on the way they understand their boundaries and their motivation behind their agency.

 In another ethnography work, Lewis Aptekar (1991) found that the children who left their homes in Bogota, Colombia had returned to contribute their earnings and left again on a touch base basis, similar to the findings in Belay’s work. For his data collection, he had 56 children respondents between the ages of seven and 16 who went through intelligence, emotional and neurological functioning tests. These tests revealed that the intellectual, emotional and neurological functioning of these street children were satisfactory though 25% had issues in some of these areas (Aptekar 1991). Despite having emotional problems, Aptekar found that these children had managed to adapt well, which contradicted media and official reports that they were dysfunctional. This was also because they were delinquent, abuse substances and had premature sexual relationships. However, one of the reasons behind this success was because those who had left home and migrated to the streets were children who were emotionally stronger compared to their siblings who were weaker and had stayed behind. On the street, these children then became part of a social group in which they developed friendship and found an emotional support system. As some of the children in this peer group were veterans, they too had support from previous street children who were once in the group. What I found most interesting in this case was that these children in fact had “training for an early independence” (Aptekar 1991, pp.328) which had helped eased their way into street life. Although poverty was a prevalent issue, only a small account of them migrated to the street due to poverty and they were either raised to adapt to life on the street or abandoned from a young age. As it is part of the Colombian culture to train children in the “passive abandonment” method in which “allowed children to roam the neighbourhood, finding company outside of the immediate view of their mothers” (Aptekar 1991, pp.329), there were high numbers of children roaming the streets. According to Aptekar’s findings, the reasons behind the parents’ choice of this method of upbringing is to accelerate their children’s social development, sense of responsibility as well as a nurturing behaviour as they care for their younger siblings, thus it does not constitute as neglect or abandonment. In fact, the label ‘abandoned’ first came to use by the elite to judge the lower-class families due to its ethnohistorical structures.

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Not only that, Aptekar also found that different social family structures also played an important role in the children’s demonstration of agency in their respective classes. In the higher social class, boys were discouraged from leaving home before they were married, especially not without their parents’ consent. While in the lower class, boys were taught to be independent from an early age so that they could leave home when they reach puberty. For example, Tomas was encouraged to leave home at a young age and when he was 12 years old, he had already gained many experienced from being with other street children. Tomas had also consulted and looked up to his mother for advice but as he reached puberty, he had stopped considering his mother’s opinion, thoughts and wisdom. On the other side of things, girls belonging to the higher societal class were often closely monitored, and were instilled in them that their social status is dependent on the social class in which their future husbands belong to. Meanwhile, girls in the lower class were taught to become independent of men and that they had the opportunity to construct their identity without relying on men.

Because of the children’s independence and their peer support groups, Aptekar (1991) reported that street children in Colombia faired better and was eating better than those who stayed at home. Those who were out on the streets had more independence earlier on and this had led to the author’s suggestion to look into the dynamics of the relationship between parents and the children, how age played a role in their parents’ control over them and how they balance their will to be independent of their parents. Aptekar also noted that children were threatened by the political and power struggle between the upper class and lower-class societal groups which gave readers a developmental and ethnohistorical perspectives. Because of the way their lives were positioned, it is evident that children display agency through the organisation of their lives and the choices they made to make ends meet. Children who migrated to the street at a young age was partly by their own account and free will since it was not a compulsory element but simply encouraged. In addition, although some fell into the negative spotlight with the media, it is important to note that this was only a small number. The majority of street children fared much better than their siblings or children who had not left home because they had peer support groups and by joining them on their own free will demonstrate the agency in shaping and negotiating their own identity. Moreover, the support that the present street children received from the peers and ex-street children says a lot by their beings and agency to construct their own community based on their social orders. Although the method in which they are brought up were of their parents’ will, the fact they chose not to consult their parents after puberty shows their ability to think competently and as a result, negotiated their agency in this structure. It is also evident how the thought processes and rational varies from gender and social class in both males and females. From this ethnographic work, we can see how children are individual agents of their own in their respective social order and structure as well as gender and how they create and re-create their identity, responsibilities and social spheres as they progressed with age. In this case, I agree that younger children should not be given full moral agency, but only to those with dysfunctions because they do not have, or possibly even incapable of having, a matured sense of consequence (Benson 1990; as cited in Valentine 2011) to their actions and thus it is unfair to hold them accountable to it.

In the case of street children in Zimbabwe, Muchini (2001) said that boys were drawn towards the streets of the towns and mines in Harare, Bulawayo, Mutare, Gweru and Kadoma where they found work as domestic helpers, gardeners and even sexual services (Grier, 1996). Muchini noted that this issue of street children, however, only became prevalent after the country gained its independence as municipal laws and enforcements were much stricter then. To understand the situation of street children in Zimbabwe and the effects of the issue, Muchini’s study with the assistance of five researchers consisted of interviews with 260 street children, of which 220 were males and 40 were females, aged between three months old to 18 years old, in the abovementioned urban areas. In contrast to the findings in the previous two ethnographies discussed in this essay, the result of this field work revealed that 56.9 per cent of the total respondents were children of the street, meaning that migrated to the streets to make a living and that they had no home or family to return to unlike the cases in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Bogota, Colombia and about 31.4 per cent of them who worked on the streets had a home to return to for the night. The remaining 11.8 per cent of street children slept in both homes and on the street. Of the respondents, Muchini (2001) reported that most of them who recognised the streets as their home were children in age groups between the ages of 11 to 15, followed by those aged 16 to 18 and six to 10 of age. According to the data provided, 46 per cent of them were beggars while 14.7 per cent were vendors followed by 21.2 per cent who worked as car guards. Other jobs they had picked up to survive included taxi tout, washing cars and escorting the blind. Interestingly, young children and babies were used to gain sympathy from passersby as they begged for a living. Because of their social structure with no adults to care or supervise, the majority of the children of the streets were barely educated and were guilty of substance abuse (Muchini 2001). However, those who slept on the street and at home interchangeably were more susceptible to the use of substance which the author justified was due to their inexperience and insufficient wisdom on the street compared to children of the streets. In regards to the public perception of them as street children, most of them felt that the public disliked them and that they were dismissed as criminals while a third was supportive of their act. On the flip side, when they were asked what they had thought about themselves as street children, a majority of them felt life was tough with emotions such as hopelessness, helplessness, futureless and they admitted that often times they saw the streets as their only option in life while only a mere 10.3 per cent of them enjoyed their life as street children (Muchini 2001). In this case, the reason why many children turned to the streets to make a living was due to economic challenges post-independence to provide enough work for its people and the Mozambican war (Muchini 2001). As a consequence, this caused tension within the household and many of them were victims of familial abuse, lacked of care and support from adults and were orphaned thus, they went to work on the streets to either support themselves or help support their families. In essence, poverty, employment and orphanhood were the main reasons behind the children’s motivation to become street children.

Although Muchini’s work showed that street children had no other choice but to resort to living on the street due to political, economical and social struggles, some of these children had agency and that the social conditions in which they were in allowed them to do so. Those who had spent more time on the street were evidently more mature and were seen as more competent in their thought processes such as not being easily influenced by intoxicants as compared to those who had spent less time on the streets. This then ties in with children having the capacity of moral agency to think rationally and have a sense of maturity as well self-awareness without any adult supervision. In contrast, despite those who were had spent time on the street and at home with their family, they were more easily influenced and were susceptible to substance abuse probably because the adults at home were unfit as role models as they were also dealing with poverty and unemployment. Hence, I believe that children’s maturity and agency displayed through the choices they make are subjected to their social structure and that they are in. Other than moral agency, I think it is also evident that children in Zimbabwe displayed the principal of agency from social movement studies. This is because they had drawn on the political, philosophical and sociological construction and acted based on their circumstances and made choices based on their needs (Valentine 2011). Adults who have dismissed and misunderstood street children showed how children were excluded from participation and that they should not be allowed to participate on the street just because the social space in which they were in was adult-centric, being the working environment. This is due to the conception that children’s work will impair their learning development and take up too much of their time with no energy and focus left for school. However, as mentioned in the data, most of them had little or no education at all when in fact, work could even be an important aspect for children to gain necessary skills for future work since there are more informal work than formal work available.

In the work of Bordonaro (2012) who explored the tension between children agency and the right to autonomy in Cape Verde in Africa, he reported that social workers and officials with social interventions to remove children off the streets tend to understate the autonomy of children, their agency and capacity for resistance and have the tendency of treating them as victims (Aptekar 1991, Hecht 1998, Raffaeli et al. 2001, Beazley 2003, Sjoblom 2004, Young 2004, Leinaweaver 2007). One of the interviewees said that these children had no one to respect and refuse to stay in rehabilitation as they do not like to be confined but at the same time, refuses to adhere to the rule and regulations of the authority (Bordonaro 2012). This was justified that street children did not need to adhere to any regulations and had free will to do whatever they had wanted (Bordonaro 2012). In his work, he argued how “children’s agency itself is biased in often unacknowledged ways by the moral politics of childhood” (Bordonaro 2012, pp 415). Through data collection of interviews and dialogues in his field work, he explained that the street was a conscious decision for many of the street children and they consider street life to be acceptable and many of them were not orphans or abandoned; they just preferred their life and freedom on the street as oppose to being at home with their families or in reintegration centres. Although family conflict and poverty are usually the factors that drives children to migrate to the street, in this case, it was the idea and love for liberty and autonomy for children to stay on the streets. In this case, life on the street seem to have satisfied the children’s economic, social and identity needs (Bordonaro 2012). However, this desire of freedom could sometimes go out of control. According to his data, Bordonaro said that staff at the rehabilitation centres claims that the problem with children stemmed from the parents’ inability to supervise and control them (Martins and Fortes 2011; as cited in Bordonaro 2012). In other words, children become vulnerable and at risk without adult to guide and supervise them. Because of this, there are often discriminated and categorised as having risky behaviours (Bordonaro 2012). Social workers then view intervention with street children as a lost cause and that it is ineffective given their prolonged period on the street which often results in the intervention of informal police (Bordonaro 2012). His research data supported this claim when he revealed that some of the inmates in the city’s prison were ex-street children.

Sometimes, as much as social workers and officials wish to respect children’s agency, they often face ethnical challenges and political issues (Bordonaro 2012). In this case study, although the children’s decision to move to live on the streets was an impulsive one and acted on their own free will, social workers treated them as victims and had put in effort to save them, however, “they were constantly frustrating the efforts that were made to ‘save’ them.” (Bordonaro 2012, pp. 421). Because of this, the children’s agency and autonomy then become a moral demeanour and correction is deemed necessary. I believe that this in turn contradicts the notion of individuality, free will and agency empowerment if scholars claim that they indeed have agency. If children have free will and agency and if this is a moral behaviour is a barrier that is hindering them from participating in a morally and socially accepted way, then wouldn’t this diminish their rights to agency in this first place? If this is so, then what agency do they really have if there is a need to correct their presupposed agency? If this is the case then what constitutes as moral and deemed fitted for children to practice? These are some of the questions that I have been thinking about which I have yet to figure out.

To conclude from the discussion above, I argued that children are often misinterpreted as criminals because of the things and jobs they do on the streets. I believe that children do indeed have agency however, I believe that they are relatively subjective and should not be categorised or evaluated so rigidly. I think it is also important to consider the children’s emotional and psychological maturity as they too are shaped by the conditions and social structures discussed, which in turn will shed more light on the way they understand their boundaries and their motivation behind their agency. Moreover I agree that children are individual agents of their own in their respective social order and structure as well as gender and how they create and re-create their identity, responsibilities and social spheres as they progressed with age and that younger children should not be given full moral agency, but only to those with dysfunctions because they do not have, or possibly even incapable of having, a matured sense of consequence (Benson 1990; as cited in Valentine 2011) to their actions and thus it is unfair to hold them accountable. In other words, it should be evaluated based on case by case basis with consideration to other social factors. Lastly, there are still room for debate as to whether children’s agency are really their own agency or if adults are violating the claims that they have agency.


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