KINSHASA, Congo – When Cecilia’s parents died suddenly in 2009, there was nobody left to look after her. “I had some older siblings but they are all in Angola. Nobody asked after me,” she says. “They just abandoned me.” Only 8 years old at the time, she ended up living on the streets of the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), hungry, cold and afraid. So it seemed like a miracle when, after two weeks of homelessness, she was approached by a woman who offered to adopt her. “You are too pretty to be on the streets,” the woman had said to Cecilia. “Come home with me and I’ll make you my daughter.”
That was how she found herself working as a “domestic house slave,” says Cecilia, now 15. For six years, she was physically, verbally and sexually abused, sometimes by the six biological sons and daughters of her new “mother.” Then one day, the woman punched Cecilia so hard, she broke her front teeth. Cecilia ran away, back to the streets, where she has been living ever since.
Cecilia is one of 25,000 street children in Kinshasa, a figure that, according to UNICEF, has almost doubled in the last decade. The DRC’s high fertility rates combined with the ongoing urban sprawl of one of the biggest cities in Africa means the number of homeless children continues to increase, says the organization. It’s a problem across sub-Saharan Africa, where 200 million children are living in poverty, at risk of exploitation, abuse and disease. And in many places, those risks are disproportionately greater for girls.
“There are more boys in the streets of Kinshasa than girls – I would say a third of the street children are girls,” says Jean-Pierre Godding, a project manager at the grassroots charity Street Children of Kinshasa.
But, “girls are considered more ‘useful’ than boys. Families usually exploit girls as much as they can.”
For one thing, girls are more vulnerable to sexual violence, says Godding. “Boys can do small manual jobs to make a bit of money here and there. But girls in the streets often end up in prostitution.”
Those who don’t become sex workers might get pulled into domestic work. “Families tend to keep girls to run the household chores and help raise the other children in the family,” says Godding. “Many girls also marry young, which is another reason why they don’t end up in the streets as much as the boys.”
Chloe, 16, turned to prostitution when she ran away from home two years ago. “My sisters wanted to marry me off to an elderly man,” she says. “I’d rather be in the streets and do sex work than be an old man’s wife.” For Chloe, like so many other girls on the streets, rape, sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, violence and stigma are everyday realities. But even when their circumstances change for the better, it’s difficult for them to leave that world. “They usually have a ‘boyfriend’ who solicits customers for them in return of protection,” says Godding. “Their self-esteem and perception [of themselves] take a significant hit.”
Organizations like Street Children of Kinshasa can offer support for the city’s young homeless people, providing dorms, some education and food. Sometimes, the organization can trace the families of abandoned children and negotiate with them to reunify the family. It also offers micro-credit programs to help the families start small businesses and thus have better economic means.
But Godding believes keeping children off the streets means going back to where they came from. “The only way to permanently help out these girls is economic empowerment and development for the children and their communities,” he says.
According to Clemence Petit-Perot, a program director at the Children’s Radio Foundation, which uses radio and broadcast training in Africa to boost community dialogue and participation, giving street children temporary shelter, protection and education might be quick wins. But long-term solutions, she says, lie in changing public perceptions and mobilizing communities.
“Street children in Kinshasa and the rest of Africa suffer from intense stigma,” says Petit-Perot. “Most people see them merely as thieves or prostitutes. If there’s a crime [in a rundown area] the police and the community usually blame the street children.”
“A strong dialogue is the only way for communities to understand that street children are complex human beings with difficult decisions and challenges, rather than just shadows.”
Neither Chloe nor Cecilia see their situations as inevitable. Chloe wants to quit sex work one day and go to school. Cecilia loves clothes and dreams of becoming a fashion designer. But both know there is no easy path off the street.
“People tell me I am very good with fashion and styling. I would really love to go to fashion school and learn more,” says Cecilia, who makes sure to put on beautiful skirts, necklaces and bracelets every day. “But I don’t know if I can do that. I need to go to high school first.”
The names and personal details of some of the children have been changed to protect their identities.
This story was reported with the support of an African Great Lakes Fellowship from the International Women’s Media Foundation.