There exists an under-acknowledged and under-prioritized issue impacting girl street children: sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA). SEA is the use of power dynamics to sexually harass, abuse or exploit victims. Perpetrators of SEA against girls can be adult men and women, boys on the street, service providers and pimps, among others. Scant literature and research exist that explores the causes, ramifications and best practices for prevention of and response to the basic human rights violations that these girls experience.
While some children are lured and manipulated by others to live a life on the street, a substantial sum are either born or forced to live on the street due to the unfortunate truth that they have no place else to turn.
Girls are often more discrete in their status as street children. Their intentional and inadvertent invisibly, in addition to cultural and programming biases, contribute to the lack of programming efforts that specifically target girl street children.
It has been increasingly recognized that building vulnerable girls’ social and economic assets can play an important role in mitigating vulnerability of SEA. Attention toward the particular needs of girl street children needs to be heightened at the community, national and international levels for improved research, programming and policies.
“Street children are the casualties of economic growth, war, poverty, loss of traditional values, domestic violence, physical and mental abuse” (“Working with Street Children”).
Children can either be born to the street or make a conscious decision to live on the street, but they are often driven to the street by numerous of factors, with poverty and abuse as common drivers. Poverty can lead to a family selling or giving their child to provide as a servant for another family member or a stranger. The child’s servitude may alleviate the financial burden of the child’s family, and the family may be promised that their child will be educated in return for the service. However, children in servitude are vulnerable to abuse, exploitation and neglect, which influence some children to flee. Without knowledge of how or means to return to their family, children may resort to living on the street.
Life on the street is difficult for all individuals, particularly street children, and even more specifically girl street children. Girl street children face an arduous trajectory due to the lack of resources, inadequate services and increased vulnerability. Girls struggle to meet and maintain their basic needs while living on the street. The lack of education, positive role models and adequate services restricts the potential for girls to persevere from life on the streets.
In developing countries, 30% of reported street children are girls ("Working with Street Children”). This disproportionate figure represents cultural reasons that girls are less likely to be on the street: taught to be submissive, fewer behavioral problems, more likely to be married off. However, the figure overlooks the fact that girl street children are also less visible and girls can be quickly taken from the street for use in domestic work or commercial sex ("Working with Street Children”). It is extremely difficult to accurately determine the gender distribution of street children in developing countries.
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO IDENTIFY GIRLS AND THEIR SEXUAL HEALTH?
It is undeniable that all street children require attention and services from providers, however, girls on the street face particular barriers due to their gender. According to the World Health Organization estimates, “150 million girls under the age of 18 had experienced some form of sexual violence in 2002 (“Global Estimates of Health Consequences Due to Violence Against Children”).” Being female, young and living on the street creates a cumulative disposition for girl street children to live on the margins of society.
SEA is a frequent and disconcerting threat and reality for girl street children. SEA is defined by the United Nations as “any actual or attempted abuse of a position of vulnerability, differential power, or trust, for sexual purposes, including, but not limited to, profiting monetarily, socially or politically from the sexual exploitation of another.” Sexual abuse is defined as “the actual or threatened physical intrusion of a sexual nature, whether by force or under unequal or coercive conditions” (“Policy: Sexual Exploitation and Abuse Policy”). While boys may be affected by SEA, girls are disproportionately victimized and often lack the social or structural support to address and recover from abuse (“Working”).
Their vulnerability as girls exacerbates their risk of exploitation by perpetrators of SEA, and opportunities for development and education are denied to them. Street educators usually engage boys in various activities while paying little attention to girls. Additionally, girls have less economic opportunities and are likely paid less than boys for similar activities ("Working”). Economic vulnerability also heightens girls’ risk of exposure to SEA by aid workers and peacekeepers (Lattu; “Sexual Violence and Exploitation”).
Girl street children are often portrayed as “invisible” or non-existent on the street and are often consciously and carelessly overlooked by services provided to street children. Boys are typically engaged due to their visibility on the street and the cultural persuasion to work with boys. Boy street children can be seen as threats to a community when a community perceives them as likely vandals. To mitigate the perceived “threats” of street children – lawlessness, theft, pillaging – programs target the perceived perpetrators, boys. Girl street children are not seen as such blatant threats to society. Furthering the stigmatic nature of living on the street, girls are looked down upon by society ("Working”).
Girls who are unaccompanied, single heads of households, mothers, and/or disabled are among the most vulnerable (“Policy: Sexual Exploitation and Abuse Policy”). Due to the dual burden they must endure, these girls face increased risks as they try to meet their basic needs.
Improving the situation of girl street children would promote gender equality among street children, facilitating equal opportunities and access to resources. Increased engagement will boost self-esteem and empower girls to become informed and educated about their rights and potential. Program efforts that target girls may facilitate economically viable activities that may break the pattern of vulnerability that leads many girls to SEA exposure. Additionally, thoughtful and appropriate programs that target girls may, through providing sexual and reproductive health information, decrease early pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection rates.
STRENGTHS OF GIRL STREET CHILDREN
Despite the disposition to poverty, abuse and neglect, improper services and lack of support, among other vulnerabilities of living on the street, girl street children display the ultimate characteristics of resilience in their ability to survive in an environment lacking basic needs. Street children must be resourceful in their acquisition and allocation of resources.
Girls are more engaged with their peer social group than their male peer group (“Promoting Quality Education”) therefore, a girl’s daily access to resources—food, clothing, shelter and information—is expanded by the integrity of and reliance on her social group. In addition to social groups that are similar in nature to a family or friendship, girls may have business-like relationships. Connections for making money or accessing resources may lack emotional support, but they facilitate survival. Some social groups can also enable emotional connections, which can be positive if said social group is constructive and supportive. Because of their need for acceptance, belonging and protection, social groups are strongly influential on street children (“Promoting Quality Education”).
To survive on the street, girls often develop particular skills to overcome obstacles. Girls have to be hardworking and intelligent to live and maintain on the streets. They may learn skills from other street children or adults that enable them to incur income—beadwork, selling goods, peddling, etc. “Experienced” street children are able to teach newcomers how to survive. The survivalist mentalist within street children enables girls to be creative in their mechanisms for survival ("Working”).
SEXUALLY RELATED RISKS AND VULNERABILITIES FOR GIRLS
Girl street children are exposed to SEA on a daily basis. SEA can be perpetrated by a range of actors—adult men and women, boys on the street, service providers and pimps, among others—and exists in many forms.
The most blatant and recognized form of SEA is often sexual penetration. As described by the World Health Organization, there are four clear forms of sex for street children; comfort sex, initiation sex, sex for punishment and sex for power. Comfort sex, the engagement of sex to obtain securities such as food, shelter, schooling, etc., is often exploitative in nature and may be used as a means to “fill the void of normal relations.” Initiation sex, often seen as inevitable by street children, uses sex to instill a sense of belonging. Sex for punishment can be utilized to maintain order on the street and to humiliate and discipline the individual or group for not obeying the rules of the street. The fourth form of sex, sex for power, is a means of using sex to demonstrate control and to maintain a social hierarchy. For girl street children, use of sex for power has a causational relationship with a decrease in perceived dignity and worth (“Working”).
The psychosocial ramifications of SEA can be seen in an individual’s sense of agency, identity, gender roles and sexuality. The psychosocial effects of SEA can further impact physical health and vice versa. Girls may turn to drugs or prostitution as a result of mental health difficulties. Drug abuse has a direct correlation with increased risky behaviors due to a limitation of a girl’s ability to negotiate condom use and increased vulnerability to rape (Leigh and Stall).
Common ramifications of SEA include sexually transmitted diseases, HIV/AIDS, unwanted pregnancies, uterine prolapse and unsafe abortions. The vulnerability of girls is exacerbated by the lack of awareness of sexual health, limited access to health care services and premature maturation both physically and mentally. The immature genital track and lack of power against sexual aggressors place girls at increased risk of HIV infection. According to the Forced Migration Review:
Pregnant adolescent girls, particularly those under 15, are at increased risk of obstructed labor, a life-threatening obstetric emergency that can develop when the immature pelvis is too small to allow the passage of a baby through the birth canal. Delay in treatment can lead to obstetric fistula or uterine rupture, hemorrhage and death of the mother and child (Kerner, Manohar, Mazzacurati and Tanabe, 2012).
A girl raising a baby on the street limits her abilities and chances to overcome vulnerabilities.
The widespread nature of SEA among girl street children may make girls feel that SEA is a normal and expected way of life. An unfortunate consequence of living on the street and exposure to SEA is that some girls may willingly engage in commercial or transactional sex—sex to obtain food, shelter and other resources. Additionally, acquisition and use of condoms is limited within the street population, further increasing the vulnerabilities for STDs and HIV/AIDS.
Prioritize research and attention toward mitigating SEA of girl street children. Scant models and programs exist, and those that do exist require rigorous and thoughtful expansion before being applicable to any efforts to support girls. Preventative and responsive programming and policy efforts could mitigate causational factors leading to living on the street and improve services and options for girls already living on the street.
Conduct situational mapping during formative research. Without understanding the profiles of the girl street children, programs cannot effectively target and engage girls. “Providing targeted interventions that meet the needs of street children requires an understanding of who they are, what they need, what they do and how they can be identified” (“Working”). Programs need to work throughout development, through the formative and implementing stages, to ensure they appropriately profile the target population and elements impacting the population.
Draw upon lessons from previously implemented programs to develop effective strategies to work with girls. Safe spaces are often used as entry points to engage girls in developing financial literacy, livelihoods programming, education and critical information about reproductive health (Brady, Assaad, Ibrahim, Salem, Slaem and Zibani). Learning from past programs provides guidance as to what may be an effective program mechanism and helps prevent mistakes from being repeated. Research and evaluations are widely available on the web, and consultation or engagement may be feasible with some people who were in involved in the past programs.
Building financial literacy, entrepreneurship, job-readiness and vocational skills can offer as a protective factor, provided that employers are sensitized to SEA. Financial education and asset accumulation have been shown to have an impact on a variety of child well-being indicators including improved self-esteem, school attendance and reduced risky sexual behavior (“The Impacts of Economic Strengthening Programs on Children”).
Develop, modify or use holistic frameworks. The Modified Stress Model, provided below, facilitates an understanding of contributing factors to street children’s vulnerabilities to sexual risks through a holistic approach, incorporating six contributing factors: stress, attachments, skills, resources, normalization of behaviors and situations, and effects of behavior and situations (“Working with Street”). Utilizing the Modified Stress Model can facilitate better programming efforts to specifically target girl street children.
Facilitate appropriate monitoring and evaluation. Without monitoring and evaluation, program effectiveness cannot be properly measured. All formative research, program monitoring and evaluation should analyze the different needs, roles and responsibilities of girl street children within their context. Impact evaluations should reflect safety and ethical guidelines and incorporate sex, age and gender-friendly exercises (“Ethical and Safety Recommendations”). Gender analysis is required to assess girls’ capacities to participate, as well as the effects of the program.
Girl street children’s exposure to SEA needs to be put on the forefront of local and global programming, research and policy initiatives. SEA affects girls’ physical, psychological and social development, in addition to its effects on their families, communities and society. Working with girl street children ensures the return of investment in future generations, as appropriate intervention can facilitate girls to preserve from life on the street, safeguarding their future children.
We can no longer ignore the vulnerabilities of girl street children. Failure to appropriately and effectively engage girls will not only result in the perpetuation of physical and emotional trauma, but it also misses the opportunity to promote girls’ protection and achieve global development goals.
Child Protection in Crisis Network. (2011). The impacts of economic strengthening programs on children: A review of the evidence.
Brady, M., Assaad, R. Ibrahim, B., Salem, A., Slaem, R., Zibani, N. (2007) Providing new Oppportunism to adolescent girls in socially conservative settings: The Ishraq program in rural Upper Egypt, Population Council.
Kerner, B., Manohar, S., Mazzacurati, C., and Tanabe, M. (2012) Adolescent sexual and reproductive health in humanitarian settings, Forced Migration Review #40: Being Young and Out of Place.
Lattu, K. (2008). To complain or not to complain: Still the question, consultations with humanitarian aid beneficiaries on their perceptions of efforts to prevent and respond to sexual exploitation and abuse.
Leigh, B. C., & Stall, R. (1993). Substance use and risky sexual behavior for exposure to hiv: Issues in methodology, interpretation, and prevention. American Psychologist, 48(10), 1035-1045. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.48.10.1035
Save the Children, (2002). Sexual violence & exploitation: The experience of refugee children in guinea, liberia and sierra leone.
United Nations, (2010). Policy: Sexual exploitation and abuse policy. Retrieved from website: http://cdu.unlb.org/Policy/SexualExploitationandAbusePolicy.aspxUnited Nations Childrens Fund, (2009). Promoting quality education for orphans and vulnerable children: A sourcebook of programme experiences in eastern and southern Africa.
World Health Organization, (2000). Working with street children: A training package on substance use, sexual and reproductive health including hiv/aids and stds(WHO/MSD/MDP/00.14). Retrieved from website: http://www.who.int/substance_abuse/activities/street_children/en/index.html
World Health Organization, (2006). Global estimates of health consequences due to violence against children.
World Health Organization, (2007). Ethical and safety recommendations for researching, documenting and monitoring sexual violence in emergencies. Retrieved from website: http://www.who.int/gender/documents/OMS_Ethics&Safety10Aug07.pdf