The dominant rhetoric on ‘street children’ intended for the general public, politicians and funders was marked by an assurance. That we know who ‘street children’ are, where they come from, and how to ‘fix’ them. When we named a population ignoring undergoing a process that encapsulates multiple dimensions, we felt a false assurance that we have figured something out. The term ‘street children’, however, does nothing but tell us where they are seen. It limits inquiries rather than prompting them. It also stigmatizes a population, associating them with the streets, which is also deceitfully viewed as dirty, dangerous and unpredictable, by the very people who use them on a daily basis. A street child cannot be identified, and much less easily defined, for he or she is a process, constantly evolving. A street child is not simply an object located in space and time.
By naming these children as ‘street children’, they become visible and take on a new identity, both for themselves and people around them, as labeling theory would suggest. The naming process is twofold. On one hand, there is the standard of norms the child does not live by and the enumeration of the ‘causes’ behind this condition. These norms are what define the ‘street children’ as out of place.
The naming process also entails the quantification of these children. It means knowing how many children are on the streets, how many of them disappear, and how many get off the streets. It makes possible a quantified assessment of the situation in order to legitimize interventions and funding, both by the state and NGOs. This quantification is doomed to fail; we cannot add up qualities: identity, feelings, motivations, character, action, relation with others, and so on. The naming process of ‘street children’, then, I closely linked to the child’s objectification. When a child is designated as a ‘street child’, he or she becomes an object of intervention, which can be legitimized by science, social accountability and kindness. Someone charismatic will certainly rise up and try to ‘make an impact’, without trying to understand what that impact is. The ethos of ‘doing something than nothing’ pervades the non-profit landscape when it comes to ‘street children’.
While researching interventions and theories of change, which normality should we use to claim that a ‘street child’ is a child living outside the norm? When does a child become a street child? What is the paradigm to which the researcher or social worker are referring to when they define their research ‘object’ or their ‘target group’? There are answers to these questions, but they differ depending on the ‘unit of measurement’ we choose to use to define normality.
Human beings cannot have substantial ontology; they can only be relationally defined. The substantialist version of the ‘street child’ as an object is both stigmatizing and ontologically problematic. Any definition of a population demonstrates only the perspective of the definer. Every time in human history such substantialist reductions took precedence over relational identities, it resulted in massacre.
Better terms have been developed by Scholars and the UN. ‘Children in Street Situations’ (CSS) or ‘Children living or working on the streets’ are more comprehensive. They also serve a heuristic function while protecting these children from stigmatization, which is a handy tool to marginalize a population created by the urbanization of a city.