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Action and Contacts - ZIMBABWE

Rescuing Bulawayo's street kids

It is a few minutes before lunchtime and a disorderly queue of dishevelled youths in ragged clothes has already formed outside the doors of Thuthuka, a drop-in centre for street children in Zimbabwe's second city, Bulawayo.

Dozens of youngsters from all over the central business district converge here daily for a free lunch, a bath and a chance to wash their clothes before returning to the city's pavements.

Thuthuka has led Bulawayo's initiative to help its homeless children by also providing life skills education and counselling at the drop-in centre, as part of a city-wide taskforce trying to address the growing phenomenon.

The taskforce brings together the Thuthuka Street Children's home, the Bulawayo City Council, government departments and the Bulawayo Residents Association, among other interested groups. It has struggled with dwindling donor support at a time when Zimbabwe's humanitarian and economic crisis has added to the numbers of children and

youth on the streets.

Last week those efforts received a boost from the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), which donated Zim $27 million (US $7,700 at the current auction rate) to the taskforce to help it complete a survey of the numbers of children in need, as part of a rehabilitation programme known as the Urban Vulnerable Children Project (UVCP).

By June the project aims to have a database of street children "for purposes of rehabilitation, including enrolling some of them into schools". The project will also provide the data required for reproductive health care services among street kids in the peri-urban areas of Bulawayo, train HIV/AIDS peer educators and "improve awareness and access to information among the vulnerable children", according to the Bulawayo
City Council.

Sifelamandla Khumalo, Thuthuka's projects coordinator, said preliminary surveys had shown that, at a conservative estimate, there were between 150 and 200 street children sleeping rough in the city centre and eking out a living by begging. He welcomed the UNICEF donation, but said the problem was growing and becoming even more complex, as a second generation of children was being raised on the streets.

"The street kids problem is revolving, in that we now have the offspring of street children needing the same attention as their mothers," said Khumalo, adding that his organisation was already working with 10 street girls and their children, all of whom were born on the streets over the past two years.

"The growing number of children born to young mothers on the streets is a new dimension, which needs a fresh approach. UNICEF would do better to get deeply involved to save and provide for the newly born children," Khumalo suggested. "We also need more support for the extension of counselling, life skills education and a fund specifically for paying tuition fees for some [youths] who will be returned to schools."

The street children have long been regarded as a general public nuisance by Bulawayo residents. The older youths are often accused of involvement in petty crime, from cellphone snatching to muggings, housebreaking and theft from motor vehicles. Young girls have also been forced into commercial sex work.

Most of Bulawayo's homeless live in plastic shacks along urban streams and around public recreational parks. The police clearly regard these shelters as general criminal hide-outs.

"It may not be the street kids who are into all these forms of crime. Sometimes we find that fugitives on the run from the law take advantage of the anonymity of this community to hide among them. That is why we cannot afford to spare them in any anti-crime sweeps," said Sergeant Maxwell Kombo, a community relations officer at one of the city's police stations.

Apart from the youths, a recent addition to the city's street population is a growing number of adult vagrants.

"Bulawayo is facing a growing problem of street dwellers in general we have vagrants of all ages flooding the city centre. Our streets, long known for their cleanliness, are fast becoming streets of shame. But this is a social welfare and human rights issue, in which the city council needs the support from government and donor organisations. UNICEF has taken a commendable lead, and we will be pleased to get the same level of support from other organisations," said Bulawayo mayor Japhet-Ndabeni Ncube.

(Source: IRIN)

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