Street Children

Street Children

Top of pageWho are they?

A boy writes in his schoolbook alongside other students  Courtesy of Lori McFayden
A young boy concentrates on his
arithmetic homework provided to
him by a local NGO street school
program. Due to the irregular
working hours street children keep,
street school provides them with
an opportunity to acquire
some basic education.

Street children describes children who live or work on the streets. Some of these children live with their families (who are also living on the streets). Other street children live and work on the streets but do not live with their families. The term can also include child labourers, sexually-exploited children, and war-affected children, who may also be forced to live or work on the street.

The children’s relationship to the street varies.

Some live and work with their parents on the streets. Some return home at night, but work independently during the day. Others maintain their family contacts, but are forced to spend most of their time on the streets and return home once in a while to spend a night with their family.

Still others sleep and live entirely on the streets of the big cities without any family contact at all: often they have left home due to abuse. They sleep in abandoned buildings, under bridges, in doorways, or in public parks.

Top of pageHow many are there?

The global figure for children living and working on the world’s city streets is likely well over 100 million children. And that number rises every day. About 40 percent of them are homeless. These children may support only themselves or their homeless families. The other 60 percent work on the streets to support their families, but have a home to return to.
These young people range in age from three to eighteen. Most of them are in developing countries. Street children are mainly boys, but the number of girls is increasing.

Top of pageWhy are they on the streets?

A young boy shining a man’s shoe on a busy street corner © Courtesy of Lori McFayden
Shoe shining is a lucrative business
for street children. However, children
who live without family do not engage in
this industry because they cannot
afford the initial investment for
the shoeshine kit.

Children and youth may take to the streets for a number of reasons including war, poverty, urbanization, political instability, natural disasters, family breakdown, AIDS, rebellion against their parents, insufficient income, and violence including physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.

Children who live and work on the streets are often the victims of violence, sexual exploitation, neglect, chemical addiction, and human rights violations. For example, street children throughout the world are abused—and sometimes murdered—by police, other authorities, and individuals who are supposed to protect them.

Those with some family links spend their lives on the streets selling trinkets, shining shoes, begging, working with their families, or washing cars to supplement their families’ income. Most never go beyond the fourth grade.
Those without direct family contact often create family and security by living in groups with other children. They may also sell small items, or undertake manual labour.

When there are no other means of survival, street children with and without formal family contacts may resort to petty theft and prostitution for survival. Street kids may prostitute themselves because they need the money, because they are looking for praise they can’t get anywhere else, or because their families, or family contacts, force them into this activity. They are extremely vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS. Child prostitutes can be boys or girls, but are more often girls.

Up to 90 percent of street children use psychoactive substances, including medicines, alcohol, cigarettes, heroin, cannabis, and readily available industrial products such as shoe or cobblers’ glue and paint thinner.

The potent fumes of these cheap and easily available inhalants hit a part of the child’s brain that suppresses feelings of hunger, cold, and loneliness. Solvent-based narcotics offer them an escape from reality. But they must exchange their temporary highs for physical and psychological problems—hallucinations, pulmonary edema (fluid accumulation and swelling in the lungs), kidney failure, irreversible brain damage and, in some cases, sudden death.

Top of pageHow can we help?


In Latin America and the Caribbean, the streets are home to millions of children who work as shoe-shiners, rag-pickers, vendors, and sex-trade workers. While the sex trade is one of the worst forms of child labour, the other forms of work can vary in the harm or benefits they bring to street-involved children. These children are often in conflict with the law, and may be institutionalized for long periods of time. (CIDA’s Action Plan on Child Protection)

Today’s youth will become the largest generation to enter adulthood. By 2025, six out of ten urban dwellers are expected to be under 18 years of age. Ignoring the rights of street children threatens human development around the world.
Street children deserve respect. They are valuable members of society. Some street children run thriving businesses, supporting themselves, their families, and other children. We must hear their voices, listen to their stories, and learn from them. We need to recognize that children and youth are full of imagination, desires, and hopes and that they must be involved in decisions that affect their lives.

They need access to counselling, information, knowledge, skills, and a supportive community to protect themselves from harm, help them move off the street, and take back control of their future. They also need better access to health and safety services—medical care, legal aid, and food—and business training so they can develop safe and more profitable ways of earning money.


"We street children are by ourselves; we have no one in front or behind who cares for us. There is no one to cry for us when we die. Yet we are free to do what we want. Yes, I was a street child and you are one, but you need to get rid of these thoughts in your mind of being a street child. You need to determine in your own mind, by yourself, to do something for yourself that will be important for your future. We are sure that if you work hard and think positively, you will definitely reach the peak of success one day." Rewat Timilshina, ex-street child and member of Jagaran, a street children’s organization in Nepal (excerpted from Action Plan on Child Protection)

These children are not just victims—they are survivors. They often show incredible resilience in overcoming or living in the midst of adversity. They have developed coping mechanisms for caring for themselves, and for friends or family members. These children are active participants in their families, workplaces, and communities.

But, without improved protection and promotion of their rights together with increased opportunities, many of these children are likely to remain marginalized throughout their childhood and into adulthood.

Top of pageWhat is Canada doing?

Given their disproportionate representation among the world’s poor and the long-term impact of poverty on them, children—including street-involved children—are an important focus of the Canadian International Development Agency’s (CIDA) work to build a better world for all. That’s why CIDA supports a variety of international development assistance efforts for children (defined by the United Nations as all girls and boys under the age of 18).

All of our development work helps to improve the lives of children across the globe—from basic education and health and nutrition to peacebuilding and private sector development.

But CIDA’s Action Plan on Child Protection focuses exclusively on the most marginalized children who often experience exploitation, abuse, and discrimination. This includes children who live and work on the streets, as well as child labourers, war-affected children, and sexually exploited children, among others.

The international community has learned many lessons through its work with children, including the need to view girls and boys as active participants in their own development rather than as passive beneficiaries of assistance. These lessons led CIDA to adopt a rights-based approach for its Action Plan on Child Protection. This approach uses the Convention on the Rights of the Child as its framework for promoting all children’s rights. Children who enjoy their rights have a much better chance of becoming responsible adults who promote the economic and social development of their communities, and who are committed to the principles of democracy, peace, and justice. We know that investing in the well-being of children is the best guarantee for achieving equitable and sustainable human development.

Top of page
Success Stories

CIDA provides funds to help many organizations work with street children all over the world. Here are just a few examples:

  • In India, Save the Children-Canada worked with local partners in the states of Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan to improve life for child labourers, including street children, between 1998 and 2004. In addition to increasing access to education and vocational training for more than 7,500 children, the project supported income-generating activities that benefited nearly 4,000 families and enabled 2,000 children to stop working. What’s more, the project inspired nearly 200 new community groups to get off the ground, and to carry on the work.
  • In Brazil, the Canadian Rainbow of Hope for Children Society helped a local group, FUNDANOR, to build and equip a home for up to 60 street girls. The home offers girls counselling, basic education, and skills training in such areas as woodworking. In this way, it helps the girls reintegrate into society and reduces the number of young women involved in prostitution.
  • In Thailand, the Thai Red Cross Society and Canada’s Street Kids International produced and printed a Thai language manual of participatory, life skills-building activities called "Friends Tell Friends on the Street". The manual addresses the needs and living conditions of non-family-based street involved youth, who are either living or making a living on the street and family-based street involved youth, who make their living on the street and live in slum communities. The activities in the manual help field workers and community leaders who work directly with street-involved youth, and the youth themselves by providing accessible, educational, and fun activities that can help them communicate important messages to others in their friendship networks. Printed in simple and straightforward language, the manual provides the youth with important information on such issues as HIV/AIDS, drug abuse, reproductive health, child rights and personal safety, as well information on how to access available health and social welfare services.
  • In Kenya, Crossroads Christian Communications supports the Mully Children’s Family, which—with one of its several rehabilitation programs for children—is providing 100 Kenyan street girls, sexually exploited children, and victims of child labour with a safe place to live as well as training in marketable skills. These girls are getting training in skills such as carpentry, metal work, welding, cloth designing, tailoring, computers, micro-business management, and art and handicrafts. The girls also take courses in basic literacy and math and have access to small loans to start businesses when they graduate.

Top of pageWhat can you do?

Use the following links to learn more about street children and to get involved and make a difference in the world.

  • Discuss and share your views on street children in a chat room.
  • Explore, speak out, take action on children’s rights issues through UNICEF’s Voices of Youth website.
  • Express yourself on the issue. Write an essay or create a multimedia piece. Submit it to the butterfly 208 contest.
  • Check out YOUCAN, an organization focused on youth-led initiatives in non-violent conflict resolution and violence prevention, both nationally and internationally.
  • Take a look at TakingITGlobal (TIG). The TIG network brings together tens of thousands of youth from over 200 countries to collaborate on concrete projects, addressing global problems and creating positive change.
  • Volunteer with an organization that supports street children, like Street Kids International, UNICEF, Oxfam Canada, Save the Children or Amnesty International.
  • Vote (if you’re 18 or over). Make a difference in how Canada is run and how it supports children at risk. Participate in the As Prime Minister Awards program.
  • Inform other students about the plight of street children. Speak to other classes in your school or in nearby schools. Visit IMPRINT. It creates a voice for all youth to learn about and speak out on the global issue of street youth in their schools and communities.
  • Organize your fellow students. Form a local fundraising or volunteer group. Participate in a Model United Nations conference.
  • Talk about street children to your parents, your friends, and your teachers.

Top of pageLinks to information and organizations involved with street children:

Read articles at Children’s House in Cyberspace

Visit the PANGAEA Street Children Worldwide Resource Library: a collection of articles from countries throughout the world, an extensive list of organizations working with street children, and links to other worldwide resources.

Human Rights Watch

Free the Children

Save the Children

The Youth Advocate Program International

UN Special Session on Children

A WORLD FIT FOR US Message from the Children’s Forum, delivered to the UN General Assembly Special Session on Children on 8 May 2002.

Oneworld Street Children Guide—this guide provides information that will challenge myths and propose alternatives on street children.


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