No doors to lock: The streetism scourge

Lockdown Agbogloshie.png File Photo: There are concerns about the homeless in the streets

Tue, 7 Apr 2020 Source: Isabella Agyakwa

The initial idea of a western-style lockdown as a measure of containing the COVID-19 pandemic was proposed, it divided opinions immediately.

This type of lockdown has proven to be a saviour in several western societies struggling with the disease hence the question was “Why would anyone fight the only known remedy for a disease which is proving to be a formidable opponent to the modern world?”

Bear in mind that this disease has no cure and no known vaccine hence the only known effective preventive measure is social distancing which takes the form of residents of communities sticking to their immediate home environment.

The critics to the implementation of this western-style lockdown in Ghana pointed to one issue, which is the country’s housing challenge especially in its urban areas where the disease was first detected, namely Accra and Kumasi.

Accra houses the only international airport in the country and remains the only route into Ghana for persons flying in from outside the jurisdiction. It was therefore not surprising that Accra recorded the first case.

“How do you lockdown Accra and Kumasi with the huge numbers of people living in the street?” was the only question raised by critics.

These numbers include persons living in makeshift structures built on lands that they do not own or slums. It will also include those who have sleeping arrangements but no living arrangements.

The key question that confronted the government was how to find decent accommodation for these people who live in the streets before instituting a total lockdown.

It was therefore not surprising when the government took the option of a partial lockdown. Even the partial lockdown was not enough to convince the residents who live on the streets to stay. Hundreds of them in steady numbers departed Accra and Kumasi for their few hours after the announcement.

So desperate were some of them to leave Accra that a group of young ladies from the North agreed to be transported in a cargo truck on the Monday that the restrictions kicked in.

A group that has not been factored into this discussion is the huge population of children on the streets engaging in all kinds of menial labour and in most cases, begging. These children encounter both the rich and poor and then interact with their parents/guardians who in some cases live on the streets themselves.

It is assumed that these group will be forced into lockdown with their parents or accompanied back to the rural areas during the rush out of Accra we witnessed. One thing for sure, is that we have not yet talked about them in the entire COVID-19 debate because not all children on Accra’s streets have some form of guardianship. There are several of them who have no form of guardianship.

The issue of street children is not new but needs to be re-emphasised for the sake of the efficiency of the fight against this pandemic. It is important that we identify the minefields in this fight and address them properly if we are to succeed and I believe street children are one.

The concept of Street Children

The Double-Tongue Dictionary describes the term “Streetism” as the living of homeless or unmonitored children on the street, especially when related to drugs, disease, juvenile sex, crime, or delinquency.

It is a broad term used to present the desperate and often tormenting situation of children who are forced to spend most of their lives outside their homes, engaging in menial income-generating activities and begging in order to make a living…Or, often having to brace unpredictable odds of a cruel weather to sleep rough on the streets.

UNICEF, the United Nations agency responsible for this area defines children as those under the age of 18.

The key attribute of street children is the lack of monitoring that is evident when you encounter them on the street exposing them to a lot of social vices. Delinquency is rife among street children because of their exposure to bad role models and criminal characters.

Many of these children are actually on the street on the instruction of their parents to carry out menial labour or beg. Majority of these children have either parents who are poor or guardians who exploit them. Their labour or begging is intended to generate some money for their homes or their exploiters.

Some of these children end up in the urban areas on their own and are under no form of guardianship.

There are several reasons for the phenomena of street children but I will single out unplanned pregnancies because the key difference in their lives has been the lack of proper guardianship and parental guidance. It would be anticipated that parents would place the safety of their children above everything but that is not the case with street children and one of the biggest contributors to that are unplanned pregnancies.

Unplanned pregnancies

Unplanned pregnancy has been defined as the kind of pregnancy that is reported to be either unwanted or mistimed. It is regarded as the principal concept for understanding the fertility and the unmet need for contraception and family planning of populations.

It usually occurs as a result of nonuse and inconsistent or incorrect use of effective contraceptive methods and, to some extent, the inability to properly calculate the menstrual cycle of a woman.

A study carried out by Lancet Global Health in 2018 had revealed that between 2010 and 2014, an estimated 65 out of a 1000 women between the ages of 15 and 44 were prone to the incidence of unintended pregnancies. The high unintended pregnancy rate in developing regions corresponds with a substantial unmet need for contraception in these parts of the world.

In Ghana, it has been identified that, about 37 percent of all pregnancies are unintended, comprising 23 percent mistimed and 14 percent unwanted pregnancies. Consequently, thousands of pregnancies are aborted, while more than 300,000 infants are born because of unintended pregnancies in Ghana.

Ghana like most African countries, considers childbearing an essential aspect of a union between two consenting adults through either marriage or cohabitation.

Against such a backdrop is the problem of children living on the streets of the capital and a considerable number of urbanis enclaves in Ghana, without the benefit of monitoring by any adult.

Available data from the Ghana Statistical Service (GSS) estimates that the total number of street children in the Greater Accra Region was about 90,000 in 2018.

Reports say 5,768 street children were counted in the Ashaiman, Nungua Municipalities and Tema Metropolitan area, while 939 were in the Ga West Metropolitan. Another 2,031children were also counted in the Dangbe West district. In Accra Metropolitan area, 50,997 street children were counted. The phenomenon is no different in Madina, the Ga East Municipal area where 1,757 children were identified to have fallen into that category.

Per the data, 28.5% of the children were from the Northern Region; 19.5% from Greater Accra; 10.2% were from Volta Region; 7.5% from Upper East Region; and 7.3% from Ashanti Region.

The rest are Central Region with 6%; Upper West recording 2.9%; and Western Region, 2.4% whilst foreign nationals accounted for about 3%. The GSS was of the opinion that the huge numbers identified by the study probably revealed deficits in the implementation of the country’s safety net.

The data also revealed an interesting phenomenon which may have come to the surface in the fight against COVID-19 has been the story of the Kayayei’s being smuggled out of Accra in a cargo truck until the truck was intercepted at Ejisu in the Ashanti region. The group had over 20 children with them.

To get an insight into streetism, all one needs to do is to take a stroll around the streets of Accra. The street children are present.

While these alarming figures of street children continue to increase, one will wonder whether authorities have established the necessary correlations between the phenomenon and unplanned pregnancies. The question remained whether addressing the phenomenon of unplanned pregnancy would largely be crucial to addressing streetism.

It must be admitted that several moves and strategies have been deployed over the past few years to attempt to address the phenomenon of unplanned pregnancies. The other question lingering is what do to transform the children and young adults from the streets and shape them to become responsible individuals in the society.

That is why steps to separate young head porters from the adults and be put in schools under the government's Free Senior High School initiative is a step in the right direction as it will ensure that the young ones don't return to the streets.

“After everything, we are going to separate the younger ones from the older ones… for the younger ones we would let them go back home and go back to school,” the Minister of Gender, Children and Social Protection Mrs Cynthia Morrison had said when updating the public on measures undertaken to help the vulnerable in the wake of the partial lockdown.

Available evidence shows that Sexual and Reproductive Health education plays a vital role in dealing with unplanned pregnancies as majority of research conducted in the health sector indicated there is limited education on the use of contraception. This is complicated by religious beliefs, which hindered the progress of the little efforts that have been made so far.

Inequalities and poverty

It should be noted that my focus on unplanned pregnancies is not to say that it was the most important factor in streetism. That pride of place should go to the inherent inequalities in our country. The young women from the North who end up on the streets of Accra and Kumasi were not escaping unplanned pregnancy; unplanned pregnancy is the result of the pursuit of a better life or escaping exploitation

Another factor is poverty. Poverty sets the tone for parental neglect. In other words, children from economically disadvantaged homes, are compelled to engage in economic activities in order to fend for themselves and supplement the income of their parents or guardians. Ultimately, they find themselves on the streets where they engage in selling commodities or simply begging for alms.

There is neglect because of irresponsibility. Some parents are just completely irresponsible and abandon their responsibilities. Some parents simply dump their children onto the streets, run-off and leave them to fate. In some cases, guardians out of sheer wickedness, exploit these children.

It should be noted that not all unplanned pregnancies result in poorly or unmonitored children on the streets.

The ones we are worried about mostly happen on the streets. Take the case of the several young women who travel from the North to be head porters and the many more who leave their native regions in search of better conditions in our cities without a foothold. The moment they get pregnant and are not lucky enough to escape the streets, their children will definitely add up to the numbers on the steet. In such cases, which are one too many, the phenomena of unplanned pregnancies gives birth to streetism.

We are all witnesses of how living on the streets exposes a lot citizens and residents to insanitary conditions, illiteracy and creates fertile grounds for child prostitution, drug abuse, child trafficking and child labour.

To the rescue

What can we do to manage, eradicate, or control the situation?

Dealing with the issue will require combined efforts from the government, the family and civil society organisations.

The Ghanaian government has through policy and planning sought to provide leadership in dealing with this menace.

However, the government needs to step up its efforts by developing strategies, which are in line with the Sustainable Development Goals, especially 1, 3, and 4, which focuses on poverty, good health and well-being and quality education respectively.

This should provide the leadership needed to activate the collective responsibility required from the society. We need more stakeholders with primary concern for the welfare of children, to create avenues for the holistic reintegration of streets children into their families and schools, through empowerment programmes and vocational training.

Above all, public education is key, as it helps the individual to shape his decision and reduce streetism. Programmes such as the ‘Good Life’, ‘Yolo’ which help to create awareness among parents, guardians, children and the entire society should be reintroduced, intensified and sustained, so that everyone will become aware of the effects of streetism on the development of the child as well as sexual and reproductive health.

Columnist: Isabella Agyakwa