Thu, 20 Nov 2003

Thousands of poor children struggle for survival on streets

Debbie A. Lubis, Contributor, Jakarta

For ten-year old Mega, living on the street is the best source of income. By clicking her bottle caps and mumbling some songs at traffic lights in Klender, East Jakarta, she can reap as much as Rp 50,000 (US$5.8) each day.

"I was seven when my friends convinced me that I can earn money just by singing. It is very exhausting but I get much money for my mother," said the youngest of four -- all are street musicians.

Mega leaves her home early in the morning and returns at eight at night. Her hectic street life forced her to drop out of school when she was in the third grade of elementary school.

Mega is one of thousands of street children in Greater Jakarta who live in poverty and struggle for survival on the street. Her father passed away when she was three while her mother, who suffers from high-blood pressure, is unemployed. Just like any other street kid, Mega is vulnerable to inadequate nutrition. Her mother sometimes brings her food at the traffic lights but often she has to buy meals herself.

With an income of Rp 50,000 a day, Mega could be one of the more successful street children in Jakarta. At least, she still has a mother to take care of her. Other children have to stay under the bridge and are often prone to abuse by their older friends.

For many former street children the excitement and freedom they get living on the street is not easy to forget. Aryanto, 13, returned to the street although he had been in the first grade of junior high school.

"I don't feel comfortable at school", he said. He prefers being on the streets although he is liable to physical injuries, substance use and violence.

"Compared to car-window washing, the money from strumming my little guitar on buses is higher. All I have to do is just be prepared to protect myself from the bullies," he said, recalling his first run in six years ago when he was mugged by older street kids.

Aryanto sleeps in a tiny rented room with his parents. His daily earnings worth Rp 15,000 are surrendered to his unemployed parents.

Some street children are also pushed onto the street by desperation as they have nowhere else to go. Botak Bogor (this name means a bald man from town of Bogor), 17, has been on the street since he was nine. As a street child, he has no home but train or bus stations, streets or traditional wet markets.

He has no family members left alive and adopts a transitory lifestyle, moving from one place to another or one city to another. He finally ended up living in a social shelter run by a non-governmental organization (NGO).

To earn a living, he does many kinds of street works at Pasar Minggu, South Jakarta. Everyday Botak can reap Rp 25,000 from selling glasses of mineral water or Rp 15,000 from whistling a suling (a kind of flute-like traditional instrument) through his nose. On other days he can shine shoes, sell plastic bags at the market, sweep commuter train, or scavenge cardboard. "I am tired with these kinds of work. I wish I could have enough capital to start selling bottled tea on the sidewalks," he said.

Indeed, improving the quality of life of street children is a difficult and challenging task. The ongoing exposure to harsh environments and street lifestyles make street children liable to substance abuse and this can harm their mental, physical, social and spiritual wellbeing. Street education is believed to be one of the ways to alleviate those problems.

In response to this, NGOs like Nanda Dian Nusantara (NDN) and the Indonesian Child Welfare Foundation (YKAI), have made various efforts to educate street children.

With the help of professionals, street educators, volunteers, and others, the two institutions also provide food, shelter, health, and clothing to those children.

NDN, established in 1990, has established five Creativity Workshops in Tomang, Pasar Minggu, Kramat Jati, Kebayoran and Ciputat. Currently, around 500 children aged between seven and 15 years are receiving informal basic education, practical skills and prevention on drug abuse.

"Compulsory education is not equal to compulsory learning because you do not need any building (school) to learn something. Learning can take place everywhere, even below the bridges," said Roostin Ilyas, the chairwoman of NDN.

The children do not just drop by at the centers; some of them stay and undergo a thorough process of learning. "We would like to teach them how to be the master of themselves," Roostin said. The children can go through state examinations after completing required stages of learning to obtain formal certificates.

She said that NDN prioritized children whose parents were disabled, single or children who were victims of domestic violence or abuse. "We select them based on home visit study. If their parents are still healthy, we do not want to lessen the responsibility of the parents," she said.

NDN street educator, Mansur, said that practical skills were taught based on the characteristics of the children and location. The skills given are sablon (printing on canvas), making recycled products, making stamps, sewing, mechanical and driving.

"Most of our graduates become bus divers, bus conductors, etc based on the skills received. Hence, one of our children in Pasar Minggu is studying at university now," he said.

Meanwhile, YKAI carries activities on street education on improving literacy, on the importance of seeking assistance on health issues and issues on puberty, counseling about hazards caused by substance abuse or about prevention of sexually transmitted diseases.

"We need to be attentive to listen to and solve their problems because some children have trauma with the experience of sodomy while some street girls are vulnerable to unwanted pregnancies," said Nana Surmana, YKAI's street educator.

This year, it provides scholarship to 80 children out of 100 children to study at a formal school. The rest of the children are enrolled in courses like mechanical, sewing, sablon and driving. However, the shelters still provide learning and health facilities for street children who drop by.

YKAI street educators also hold informal teaching-learning activities at the park every Tuesday for two hours so that the children who do not have a chance to go to school can still spend some time to learn.