On Survival Strategies

An ethnographic approach would be more explanatory when studying CSS. Academic limitation does not allow me to draw on the theories of ethnography here. So, I will instead delineate some skills and strategies CSS deploy for their survival.

Facing the constraints of the street, a child is not defenceless. He or she is a social actor, who makes choices and creates opportunities that he or she knows how to exploit. Investigating the skills that undergo these systems of opportunities will allow us to understand the child’s capacity to draw on their available resources, and how interventions may improve the resources already available.

Survival strategies make an appeal to the child’s rationality. The information available to the child is subject to the use of this rationality. He or she may be unable to achieve a goal, despite possessing relevant information. Survival strategies are behaviours. To be of a strategic nature, these behaviours must be ‘goal oriented’, and have their own rationality which considers the opportunities available to the actor and the behaviour of his or her opponents.

A child may or may not have a strategy, depending on contexts. The absence of a goal is of course an insurmountable obstacle for laying out a strategy, especially for CSS since the Prefrontal cortex and the goal-oriented cognitive faculties are relatively absent at this age.

So, how they will develop a strategy depends on the context in which this goal is situated and the skills (means) available to the child. The simplest strategies are those employed to escape danger that arouse suddenly: for example, police raids or physical aggression. These strategies may be instinctual rather than sophisticatedly reasoned.

More elaborate strategies generally concern the search for protection and self-affirmation.

The survival needs on the streets- goods, clothing, washing, money, shelter, affection, and comfort- must be met. Basic survival strategies function to improve the CSS’s living conditions on the street. More elaborate strategies concern older children (teenagers) who are seeking ways to leave the street. For these children, search for protection goes hand in hand with a long-term project. It is often associated with the search for a patron or a ‘godfather’ who will introduce the teenager to the adult world. It is usually during this phase that some adolescents enter the world of crime.

The need for safety necessitates a search for protection. These searches for protection are non-confrontational. For example, here the child will present him/herself as a vulnerable person, often the tole of a victim.

Systems of Opportunities Perspective

Symbolic resources mean everything which relates to social representations and significations. Without them, communication would not exist since social interactions would be unthinkable.

Socio-cognitive structures filter the outside world and give it meaning.

There is a correlation between someone’s symbolic resources and their perception and evaluation of social reality: the more abundant these resources, the better an individual can relate to their environment. This allows for greater adaptability.

The more elaborate a child’s system of opportunity is, the more fulfilment they can get from street life. If the streets can somehow be made empty of this fulfilment, the children may be forced to exit or find some other way to sustain life. If so, should we disrupt this system of opportunity? This would be arrogant to even think since we do not have well-established alternatives for ‘would-be’ displaced children.

This series hope to partially explain why certain children prefer to stay on the streets rather than return to their home or institutional shelters, provided they have one of these two. If they do, then homes and institutions may not offer many opportunities to exercise these skills.

Consider a scenario:

A child is looking for food. Near restaurants, he recognised a prostitute, accompanied by a client. The client feels pride in accompanying such a wonderful lady. Instead of asking the lady for food, the child asks the man for food. He knows that the man cannot refuse without losing face in front of the lady. The child knew that the request immediately created a new situation, as something new was at stake for the man. By exploiting the situation, the boy got what he wanted.

This example is an illustration of a well-structured system of opportunity. Certain CSS know how to systematically create situations which they can subsequently exploit.

Survival strategies also concern the network of relations that children build with adults in their nearby environment. These adults are usually transportation workers, police officers, panhandlers, night guards, doormen, managers of cheap hotels, prostitutes, drug dealers etc. Children create relational webs of duration and consistency, but these networks have never been systematically studied. One could model this system that aligns with the paradigm of the study of complex-systems.

Other Strategies


To researchers, the youngest of the CSS have spoken of security issues at night, partly security from assaults.

One of biggest need in street-survival is the need for night-time protection. Assaults are most common at nights. A child who has yet to integrate into street networks or is relatively isolated usually seeks police protection. But once a child is integrated into a network, seeking police protection often becomes counterproductive.

For the younger CSS, a strategy of protection is being perceived as a victim or a potential victim of night-time assaults. They know that physical appearance is an asset, and even a type of life insurance. Their ‘babyish’ features trigger culpability in adults for their protection. Besides, they can build a mutually beneficial relationship with the police. They often do small favours for the police officers they regularly interact: buying cigarettes or newspapers, or shoe shining.

Camouflaging Identity using Language

CSS speak in narrated dialogue. Narrated dialogue carries out a function. It is used as proof or illustration of what the child says. In this case, we are mostly describing children with well-developed verbal skills, who are capable of recounting events and commenting on them. These children, by inference, is then from a group of older children of research groups.

When the street becomes the living environment, it conditions the survival strategies. Streets are not lived in the same manner by all children, though. Yet the manner in which they do experience the streets influences their strategies. By definition, the streets are ambivalent, presenting a combination of constraints and liberties, of violence and complicity, of dangers and survival opportunities. This mixture produces pleasure and suffering, alliances and separations.

The contradiction during interviews is often the result of these conflict. It may also point to an elaborate strategy CSS use for protection: camouflage.

A twelve-year old can, and often does, claim he is ten, nine, six or even fifteen, depending on the opportunity he can exploit or the survival threat he perceives. They are the sole judge of when, how, why and to whom they will confide. Thus, the camouflage strategy concerns not only the personal safety of children, but also their identity.

Sometimes, proving themselves to be a minor is favourable to safety. For the older children, such certificates serve to prove that they are still minors. Sometimes they may hold a dead child’s certificate. This paper provides him with a relative security in his contact with the police. A child may even hide his name and use someone’s name who actually exists.

Camouflage is widely used among CSS. It does not consist solely of simple forms of strategy, such as changes of identity, manipulation of nicknames, or of age. It can grow into other dimensions.  In the streets, the need for safety is the priority, and most children’s survival strategies are conditioned by it.

The code of silence and controlled visibility are interdependent because children know everything that goes on in the streets. They know what each of them is doing and has done in the past. There are no secrets between them.

Role of Force

The use of force alone does not guarantee survival on the streets. It engenders respect only if this strength comes with other skills: if the children can use their strength to accompany their resources. Brute force does not bring about any long-term benefits. It is chiefly the symbolic skillset that coveys power, and the more a child’s skills are developed, the easier it is for the child to impose themselves. Indeed, when children make use of their entire persona, and not just their physical strength, they value themselves more highly and allow their resources to expand.


CSS are not mere victims of poverty and inequality, leading a life that is always governed by chance. They are social actors, using opportunities, often creating systems of opportunities on their path. Home and other institutions may not provide such autonomy. These skills are better seen as valuable life skills rather than residues of trauma.

The concepts can also help explain why CSS fail to sustain long-term employment in the informal market.

  • Regular work is not compatible with belonging to a group of CSS.
  • Survival strategies enable children to have a higher income than the wages paid for a job would offer.

If you want to share your ideas on Children in Street Situations and relevant topics, reach out to us

Nafis Rahman


David Dilrosun