It is a busy day in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. People seem to have woken up early ready to face what looks like a busy day ahead. Beautiful ladies in high heeled-shoes cling onto their expensive-looking handbags. Akinyi is among them, not in high-heeled shoes or expensive clothes but she is also clinging onto something she values – that which reminds her reason to live – her son Taabu.
Akinyi is 16 and homeless. She was born and brought up in the streets of Nairobi. She has scant knowledge of her parents; the only thing she can vaguely remember is that her mother was a beggar in the Nairobi streets. They slept in the garbage heaps near Nairobi’s Marigiti market along Haile Selassie Road.
When Akinyi was barely six-years-old, her mother would send her out to beg for money and food in the busy streets. Akinyi would always find her way back to the garbage heap, which was the only home she knew. Her mother would spend the day collecting waste vegetables, which they would cook and eat. Akinyi had no idea that her mother had mental health problems until when she was found dead, having been raped and left for dead. As a crowd formed around her body she heard some talking about her mother’s mental challenges.
“I was very young but I remember that day as if it were yesterday,” recalls Akinyi. After her mother’s death Akinyi joined other street children, engulfed by loneliness and loss.
Soon Akinyi was introduced to drug use and was sexually abused. She was raped many times by older boys, which is how she got little Taabu. He is only 2-years-old. Taabu is a Kiswahili word meaning trouble. Akinyi says the name is suitable because she got him at the peak of her troubles. She got the baby at only 14, in poverty and loneliness. How she survived the delivery assisted by older street women is a miracle.
Akinyi continues begging in the streets to feed her child. She is completely illiterate and doubts whether her child will ever go school. Many times, Akinyi has to have sex with older males for food and protection.
I asked Akinyi if she knows anything about HIV and she has very little information about the epidemic. If anything she seemed to be more scared of another pregnancy than HIV or an STI. Strangely, Akinyi has never been infected with a severe STI although she has never been tested for HIV. From the description of her lifestyle, the young mother seems to have no knowledge of family planning methods or how to negotiate for safer sex.
While there are many organisations that have projects whose aim is to improve health, welfare and the quality of life of street children, Akinyi says that no one has introduced her to family planning methods or HIV prevention information. However, she is quick to point out that street children have a fear of any person or group that looks like they are government-associated. This is due to the harassment they often receive from police officers.
“Police officers do not understand that if I had a home, I would not spend another night in the cold trenches,” laments Akinyi.
In March this year Malindi Provincial Administration carried out an exercise to ‘clean up’ the streets of street children whom it described as a tourist threat. The children were reported to have been stealing from tourists and robbing them of jewellery and other valuables. In the majority of cases, children if caught would be arrested only to come back to the streets shortly for lack of another place to go.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines street children as casualties of economic growth, war, poverty, domestic violence and physical and mental abuse. In research carried out by United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) it was established that many street children run away from their homes due to abuse, neglect, violence or poverty.
According to a WHO toolkit on working with street children, street girls are less visible to researchers or educators because they are fewer than boys. This is because girls have fewer behavioural problems and culturally, only a few of them are rebellious to their parents, meaning many stay in the home even when facing neglect, violence and abuse. In some Kenyan communities, girls are married off at an early age when their parents want to get rid of them.
Street children are challenged by health and safety hazards. Girls are sometimes forced to sell sex or become tip-offs for gangsters in order to survive. Yet their health issues are barely addressed since they are looked upon like a disturbance in the society.
There is need to identify street girls and give them information and education in order to decrease the number of unintended pregnancies and subsequent increase of street children, and the spread of HIV and other STIs. Even as different organisations keep on addressing the plight of street girls it is evident that the rate of children born and brought up in the street is still an issue that needs redress.