Leprosy, sexual and skin diseases Yemeni street children at risk [Archives:2006/956/Health]

June 19 2006
A street child in Sanaa suffering from a deformation due to burning accident.
A street child in Sanaa suffering from a deformation due to burning accident.
By: Amel Al-Ariqi
[email protected]

They're everywhere – washing cars and buses and selling food, booklets and toys. They're physically visible, but they're also often ignored, shunned and excluded. They are known as street children.

UNICEF confirms that street children are among the most physically visible of all children, living and working on streets and public squares. Yet, paradoxically, they also are among the most invisible and therefore, the hardest to reach with vital services like education and health care, as well as the most difficult to protect.

Street children … another world

Twelve-year-old Thabet Ghalib has worked as a roaming seller for three years. According to him, his father forces him to work. “My father forced me and my three brothers to work since he doesn't.”

He insisted on showing spots and blotches that have spread on his back. “These spots suddenly spread on my body. I have no idea what they are.” The spots weren't Ghalib's only concern, as he also suffers occasional spasms. “When these spasms attack, I fall down in the street, but nobody tries to help me. Even my friends run away when I fall down.”

Thirteen-year-old Ali Ahmed said he also experiences fits. “I suffer headache fits that sometimes continue three days and prevent me from leaving my house to work.” Ahmed, who sells balls and dolls in a Sana'a park, said he suffered a terrible incident when he was burned two years ago. “I went with my cousin to burn my school books and the fire caught me abruptly,” he explained, with the burning causing noticeable deformation on his right hand and back.

“Fever is killing me!” 11-year-old Mohammed Ali exclaimed. “When I experience this fever, I stay home for many days. The fever makes me weak, sleepy and my eyes fill with tears. I think it's malaria.” Ali said his father forces him to work to get money; otherwise, his father will beat him. “My two older brothers ran away from home because of my father's treatment. I'm now the only one on which my family depends,” he added.

Beating by one or both parents is not the only violence against these street children. Violence is widespread among the children themselves, as they must fight to survive. “We formed a gang to protect this area. We don't want anyone occupying this area and beginning to sell to and steal our consumers,” Ghalib explained.

According to the children, they may get into bloody fights to “protect their business.” “I was stabbed on my leg by a sharp glass piece when I tried to sell in an area another gang controls,” 14-year-old Badee said.

Badee's brother, who is working as a booklet seller on the street, faced possible death when a car hit him. “He badly injured his head and broke his arm and he spent 19 days in a public hospital. Now he's OK, but he often complains of a headache,” Badee recounted.

Street children often find themselves in conflict with police and other authorities, who harass or beat them. “We keep running away from anti-begging police who arrest us, beat us, take our money and put us in jail. They say we're beggars, but we're not,” the children protested.

Ghalib, Ahmed, Ali, Badee and others confessed that they constantly are exposed to sexual harassment. “Many times, those in their cars ask me to join them, saying they'll pay more money if I ride in the car. I ignore them and try to run away.” Ali explained.

More susceptible to disease

Medical experts say children in these circumstances are exposed to infection and disease more than adults.

“Children who work in the street mainly are subjected to skin diseases, respiratory diseases and venereal or sexual diseases,” pediatrician Dr. Mohammed Kashnoon said.

Due to the absence of personal cleanliness and prevailing unsanitary conditions, most street children suffer scabies, chicken pox, measles and other infectious illnesses transmitted by direct and indirect contact, according to Kashnoon. “These children also are subjected to respiratory diseases like sore throat, pneumonia, bronchitis and tonsillitis, which may lead to meningitis,” he confirmed.

Most of these diseases are transmitted by air; that is, if an infected individual coughs, his bacteria-contaminated breath is transmitted by air to these children, who spend most of their time on the streets. “These diseases can be cured if the children receive medication early; otherwise, they'll suffer the pains and complications of their conditions,” Kashnoon added.

Street children also are exposed to sexual and venereal diseases. “Sexual diseases result from sexual abuse that these children are exposed to on the streets. These children come under huge stress from those adults seeking perverted relationships,” Kashnoon explained.

He also referred to injuries caused by widespread traffic accidents occurring in the streets, with the main victims being street children.

Dr. Abdulhamid Abu Hatem pointed to other chronic infectious diseases that have become common among street children. “Leprosy has become widespread among these children,” he said, as children with no idea about the disease mix with leprous individuals spread throughout many regions, for example, Bab Al-Yemen, using their infection to beg.

“Street children also can be disease carriers,” Hatem explained, “They're exposed to viruses and bacteria more than others because they spend a very long time on streets that are very dirty and unsanitary. They also can carry these viruses and bacteria into their homes, spreading disease to their families and neighbors.”

Psychological problems

Hatem talked about the impact of difficulties and obstacles street children face on their psychological state and their health. “Street children are exposed to beating, sexual abuse and sometimes are used in illegal work. Such treatment negatively affects their psychological state, which also gradually weakens their immune system, so they become easy targets for disease and bacterial attacks.”

According to Hatem, most street children also suffer inferiority complexes. Kashnoon also emphasized that street children experience very complex psychological diseases. “A child who's mistreated constantly may become spiteful toward society and such hatred reflects itself in violent behavior; that is, these children become ruder and more violent,” he added.

Street children experience symptoms of megalomania, paranoia and more rarely, depression. “These children weren't born with these complexes, but mistreatment, their circumstances and society's view all share in creating such psychological problems,” Kashnoon asserted.

Regarding the rate of medical treatment street children receive, Hatem said, “These children arrive at hospitals in very serious and late conditions. Most of them don't complete their treatment because there's no constant medical care from their parents or due to poverty, which prevents many families from even consulting a doctor.”

Hatem harshly criticized NGOs and local associations adopting children's issues in Yemen. “Many organizations use 'children's issues' to gain more support. In fact, those who use children's issues to gain financial support are just as much exploiters as those who force children to work on the street.”

Although street children are running businesses to support their families, they still suffer society's low opinion and are treated as beggars, juveniles or delinquents. The Higher Council for Motherhood and Childhood (HCMC) defines them as street children due to the shame involved in admitting this group's existence and absence of specific provisions for “street children” in Yemen's legal framework.

There are no specific statistics on street children numbers in Yemen and estimates vary enormously. The most recent study conducted for UNICEF in 2000 estimated the number of such children in Sana'a as 28,789. Most were between age 12 and 14, with the vast majority (78 to 96 percent) being boys.