April 11, 2018 / All Stories

Shedding a light on the plight of street children

The Consortium for Street Children inspires volunteers to fight for those whose rights – and lives – are too often ignored.

Cities of lost children

Imagine yourself as a child: abandoned, alone, with no identification and no place to call home. No roof over your head. No guarantee of where your next meal’s coming from. And no parents to protect you against life’s uncertainties.

Now imagine reaching out to a policeman, a teacher, a doctor – the very individuals dedicated to providing a helping hand – and having a door slammed in your face.The local policeman shuns, beats or arrests you for begging for food; the school teacher forbids you from coming to class because you don’t have a permanent address; the doctor refuses to treat you because you don’t have a parent or guardian to vouch for you.

This is the plight of more than 100 million children worldwide who survive on the streets. Whether abandoned in war-torn conditions, victims of natural disasters, survivors of physical abuse, or sufferers of other socioeconomic issues, these street-connected children continue to be exposed to unnecessary mental and physical abuses, as well as basic human rights violations.

United we stand

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) guarantees that children worldwide are promised the same set of inalienable rights to help ensure their survival. Governments in the majority of countries have promised to protect and uphold these rights. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child is tasked with monitoring individual government’s actions through a regular reporting system. Ultimately, the UN human rights systems aim for the successful enforcement and implementation of these rights around the world. However, only a few countries are examined per year, and when they are, often street children are not the focus.

But when individual governments fail to enforce these safeguards, children fall through the cracks. Young people who rely on the streets for survival aren’t always aware of their rights; even when they do know the law, they are often subject to abuse and mistreatment.

Enter the Consortium For Street Children (CSC). Since 1993, this global nonprofit has been working diligently to give street children a voice, promote their rights and improve their lives. Their network is made up of more than 100 member organizations working across 130 countries worldwide.

“When governments are looking at the UN’s guidelines around children’s rights, they often think of children that have homes, or children that go to school, or children who already have access to health care. Unfortunately, they’re not thinking about the most vulnerable children, who are often undocumented and essentially invisible,” says Caroline Ford, CEO, Consortium for Street Children.

That’s why CSC joined forces with the global law firm Baker McKenzie to develop the Legal Atlas for Street Children, a comprehensive repository of existing laws, policies and procedures affecting street-connected children in individual countries. Accessible to anyone with an internet connection, this tool will help local governments and NGOs access legal information, measure ongoing efforts and adapt more efficient ways to help advocate for and meet the expectations outlined by the UN.

“Ordinary people – so either our members, the staff of organizations that are helping street children, or street children themselves – will have access to information that previously was only in the purview of lawyers,” Ford says.

Legal minds on the case

Investigating the laws, loopholes and hidden truths in numerous countries required the time and effort of volunteers around the world. Working closely alongside CSC and Baker McKenzie, a team of 26 legal experts from AbbVie joined in the pro bono efforts for the Legal Atlas, investigating the legal rights of children in such countries as Bangladesh, Ecuador, Greece, Morocco, Nepal, Peru, the Philippines, Slovakia and Slovenia.

One of these volunteers is Julianna Wedell, an AbbVie paralegal whose family has roots in Slovakia – a country where, Wedell discovered, a lack of legal identification prohibits children from attending school or obtaining medical treatment.

Most children depending on the street for survival do not have birth certificates, verification of citizenship or other legal documentation, so Wedell began researching ways they could overcome this barrier.

But the reality was daunting, even for someone with extensive paralegal experience.

“There were just so many loopholes, so much red tape and bureaucracy that I would have to maneuver to get identification as an adult … much less as a child with no resources or knowledge of the law,” Wedell says.

She worked with the rest of the AbbVie and Baker McKenzie volunteers to find alternative solutions.

“We tried to figure out if the children could make contact with a CSC member or local aid organization, where someone could take record that they saw you, they know your name, and keep record of you for a period of time … That way, they can prove that this child has been in the country long enough to move forward with the paperwork” Wedell says.

Out-of-the-box solutions like this are part of the Atlas’s potential power. But according to Ford, creating the basic awareness that street children actually have rights might be equally important.

“Even if you had all of the services in the world, changing how people think about street children is a huge endeavor. People assume immediately that they are criminal, that they’re worth nothing, that they are garbage,” Ford says.

She shares the words of one street-connected child interviewed by CSC: “People just look through the glass windows of their cars, but they don’t really see us … the authorities call us animals, they say we deserve to be imprisoned because we are the people who sleep on the streets … they attached a label to us and we just become that.”

Wedell came across similar stories in her research, and found herself close to tears on many occasions. But this just made her more determined to help.

“The only way that these kids are going to get justice or any kind of freedom is if adults step in and say we won’t tolerate this,” she says. “My hope for the Atlas is that it will shine a light on what is happening, and there will be some sort of social uprising.”

Ford shares this hope.

“The law is a powerful weapon … in terms of putting information about what is and what is not permissible under national legislation in the hands of ordinary people, in the hands of our members, and in the hands of street children, I think is a huge step forward,” she says. “History has shown that when there is a marginalized group that is invisible, once they start to become visible, and ordinary people start to demand that their rights are respected, that’s when change happens.”

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Mary Kathryn Steel
Email: mk.steel@abbvie.com
Call: +1 847-937-4111
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