The exact number of street children in Zambia is not known, some estimate it to be 75,000, some double that figure, some put it at close to 500,000, yet one thing is known, the number of street children in Zambia has risen inexorably as AIDS/HIV has tightened its grip on the country leaving 30% of all children under the age of 15 as orphans most of them as a result of the disease. About half of these children are aged 9yrs old or younger according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). It is this march of AIDS that is contributing to the breakdown of the traditional family support network in Zambia, a country known for its care and respect of children.
When fathers in particular fall ill, the family income can drop to nothing and without a social safety net, many children turn to the streets simply to survive or are driven into urban areas after the loss of both parents. As one 15 yr old Zambian boy stated "I [have] lived like this since 2001 when [my] parents died. I sleep in ditches. If I see people carrying plastic bags, I ask to help. They give anything, maybe 1,000 kwacha [UK 18p], maybe more." As with many children who turn to life on the streets, many seek solace in blocking out the physical and emotional pain by turning to substance misuse. In Zambia one such form of abuse highlights just how desperate their plight is.
Children will visit sewage ponds and fill plastic bottles with raw sewage. In the heat the sewage ferments to form what is known locally as 'Jenkem', a methane based substance which can then be inhaled causing hallucinations. As one 16 yr old boy reported "With glue, I just hear voices in my head. But with Jenkem, I see visions. I see my mother who is dead and I forget about the problems in my life."
The government, together with NGOs, has been attempting to address the increasing problem not least by placing some of the street children into training centres run by the Zambia National Service, however the programs are short lived and most of the children return to the streets having no where to peddle any skills gained in an economy where 60% of the urban population are unemployed.
One young person who underwent the process lamented "If they [government] want me to leave [the streets], let them also give me job. They take me to camp, they teach me English, they teach me to make beds, to make chairs; but they don’t give me a job after. They give me tools. I sold them for a cheap price. So, I have come back to start begging again, nothing has changed. I have no supporter [sponsor], I beg to live."
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