Street Children Headcount

The Story of Children Living and Working on the Streets of Nairobi Research Report, Nairobi: Women Educational Researchers of Kenya (WERK) commissioned by SNV/Kenya and GTZ PROSYR Nairobi: 2002.

This study provides a glimpse into the complex lives of the children living and/or working in the streets of 12 selected locations of Nairobi. Adopting a broad-based, two pronged approach it combined a headcount of 10,424 children with detailed investigation of their lives as they lived it on a daily basis. The focus of the study was on children as defined by the CRC, that is, people eighteen years and below. Only about 18.2 per cent of the numbers counted were youth aged between 18-25 years.

Specifically, the aims and objectives of the study were to:

  1. Generate information useful for project planning by service providers of street children in Nairobi;
  2. Map out the situation of street children in different areas of Nairobi;
  3. Distinguish the proportions of the different categories of street children in Nairobi;
  4. Give the children an opportunity to express their views regarding their lives on the street; and
  5. Provide partner organisations with a situation analysis of the children that they can work with
  6. Give an indication of the exact numbers of street children to form the basis for evidence-based planning at policy level
  7. Build the research capacity of members of organizations providing services to street children and document this process.

Key Study Findings

The Gender Composition: Girls generally tend to be invisible in most studies on street children. The study found that girls in the 12 research locales were higher than previously reported in other studies. They constituted on average about 25 per cent of the population of children counted in the district as a whole. In two of the locales (Mukuru, Dandora/Maili Saba and Mathare/Eastleigh/Pangani), the proportions of girls were found to be even higher (40%, 31% and 28% respectively). Disaggregation of the findings by age revealed a narrower gender gap in the under-five age bracket. Females were 45 per cent of the children under-5 years of age.

The Age Profile: The research revealed the dominance of 11 to 15 year olds on the streets of Nairobi, constituting over 50 per cent of the valid 10,424 cases recorded. The children below the age of 5 constituted 7 per cent of the total study sample.

The Ethnic Factor: Though the study confirmed that the majority of the children, regardless of gender, identified as Agikuyu, it suggested that the numbers may have been grossly exaggerated in other studies. While the Agikuyu constitute a significant proportion (46%) of all ethnic groups represented among the street children, the non-Gikuyus in the street children population, put together, are more in number. This notwithstanding, most of the children on the streets can speak the Kikuyu language. Other than Kikuyu, knowledge of Kiswahili was found to be almost universal next to ‘Sheng’.

Schooling: Overall, only 39.5 per cent of the children counted and interviewed were attending school with the vast majority not participating in any form of formal or non-formal education. Nevertheless a total of 48.5 per cent of the girls and 36.5 per cent of the boys claimed to be involved in some form of educational programme. Interestingly in Korogocho 56.2 per cent of the boys claimed to be going to school. The highest number of children who claimed to be going to school fell within the age bracket of 11-15 years.

Parental Occupation and Streetism: Unemployment among parents of the respondents was relatively high. Almost a quarter of the respondents claimed that their mothers did not work whereas less than a tenth said their fathers did not. Analyses of the parental occupations mentioned suggest that these were menial, poorly paying and often highly labour intensive jobs. There were several implications of this including inability to meet basic family obligations leading to broken homes, high incidence of child neglect and abandonment, absentee parenthood and a tendency to encourage children to obtain employment by any means in order to supplement the family income. This view was supported by findings indicating that children were sent out to the streets to earn a living for themselves and even to support other members of the family.

Most employed mothers were reportedly in petty trading while the fathers were in more skilled but also unskilled manual work. Some parents also engaged in household and domestic work, farming, illicit brewing, and begging for a living. Others did professional/managerial/technical or clerical work, proprietorship, guarding homes/premises, thievery/robbery or engaged in commercial sex work for a living. The percentage of girls with non-working parents was higher than that of boys (6.8% of the female responses and 17.1% of the male responses for the mother’s occupation; 2.8% of the female and 6.9% of the male responses). A number of children did not know anything about their parents’ occupations.

Children ‘Of’ and ‘On’ the Streets: Many of the children claimed that their parents were either deceased or had abandoned them. Abandonment by or death of fathers was found to be more common than abandonment by or death of mothers. The implication is that there were more single mothers than there were fathers. The death of either or both parent and abandonment in turn increases the likelihood of children turning or being turned out to the streets because of limited or no resources for their sustenance within the extended family setting. Children either orphaned or abandoned were found to be among those who had found permanent residence on the streets (approximately 14% of the total sample). Among the children ‘of’ the streets, over 65 per cent were male. Most of the children who identified themselves fully with the streets were to be found in Mukuru and City Centre.

Time spent on the Streets: About 63 per cent of the children had been on the streets either on a part time or full time basis for up to 5 years. Over 12 per cent had been on the streets for between 6-10 years while another 13 per cent could not remember when they had started to frequent the streets.

Caretakers of the Very Young: Two issues with regard to the characteristics of the caretakers of infants on the streets stand out. Firstly, the bulk of the caretakers were females, particularly mothers (56%) and sisters (12%); secondly, the age of the caretakers - who were either children (37%) themselves or were youth below the age of thirty (36%). An additional point of interest is the presence of young boys (7%) on the streets who took care of their younger siblings. Though fewer in numbers than their female counterparts, their role in taking care of the even younger children should not be ignored.

Reasons for Streetism: The study found that children were on the streets for a variety of reasons the major ones being, in order of frequency: to earn money, search for food and/or look for recreation-- -all described in the literature on street children as “pull” factors. These “pull” factors were symptomatic for children from economically poor families who suffer from lack of adequate attention and care at home as their parents spent most of their time and energy in securing the mere survival. It is also not surprising that “domestic conflicts” and “domestic violence” featured as one key “push” factor for streetism.

Significantly none of the children cited ‘sex’ as a reason for being on the streets. It is probable that of necessity rather than on their own volition, once on the streets children were introduced into sexual activity either for recreation or money or they are being forced into it and/or raped.

The Street Sub-Culture: Once on the streets others initiated the children into streetism in order for them to survive. Children’s rights were violated constantly as they were often harassed and exploited and they exploited others in turn. In absence of adult care and guidance they were forced to assume adult responsibilities and took care of themselves and sometimes their siblings and fellow children at a tender age. Out of necessity they had to look for work and they were easy to exploit through meagre or sometimes no pay. They were thrust into a bleak, harsh and depraved environment often fraught with constant and sustained danger in various forms such as: Harassment, violence amongst themselves and towards others, drug taking and trafficking, sexual exploitation accompanied by a high risk of contracting STIs and HIV/AIDs, loneliness and fear, physical and emotional abuse and neglect, starvation, exposure to the elements, early, unplanned and uncontrolled pregnancy and parenthood, poor hygienic and sanitation conditions.

The Vicious Cycle of Negativity and Violence: During interviews with the members of the security forces and the public and the children themselves during the three children’s workshops held it emerged that children felt that they were unfairly blamed by members of the public for theft, robbery and other infractions of the law. Often they were beaten and harassed for real or imagined misdemeanours. The younger children, especially boys identified the police as among the persons feared most because, according to them, they continually harassed them. Girls feared the older street boys the most because they organised gang rapes sometimes “to teach them a lesson” if they declined to have sex with someone, break up with someone or as mere punishment. The girls reported that they could be taken advantage of and being gang raped if they merely visited another base and they were known to be unmarried [without a boyfriend protecting them]. Younger children expressed fears of being stolen/abducted and often felt insecure when strangers approached them. The older girls cited incidents of peers who had been sexually molested and subjected to bestiality. These experiences heightened their sense of insecurity and vulnerability.

Recreation and Socialisation Activities: Life on the streets were not all about violence and abuse. The children developed strong friendships and spirit of mutual support and assistance. They played, sang, watched videos, told each other stories and went to church together among other activities. Many of the recreational activities that girls and boys engaged in were similar, but there were gender-based differences too. More boys than girls admitted to aggressive behaviour and the usage of a wider variety of drugs.

Defending Street Life: Some of the children even went to the extent of defending street life. They argued that the streets provided them with food, drinks and money. They enjoyed the freedom to move around, not to be ordered around, to smoke, sniff glue, and for the boys, to have girl friends.

Attitudes to Sex and Sexuality: Though boys tended to see sex as recreation, for girls it often turned into a commercial activity or a way to secure a sense of belonging and/even protection through their ‘boy friends’. Both genders were aware that unprotected sex may lead to death and disease but few used protection/condoms. A mix of facts and fiction tempered their awareness of the causes of STIs and HIV/AIDS.

Children’s perceptions of existing interventions: About half of children interviewed had some knowledge about various organisations that offer services to street children. However, this awareness did not necessarily translate into utilisation of and/or participation in the same. Education topped the list of benefits that the children said they derived from their involvement with these organisations, followed by food and clothes. Few had benefited from medical assistance or recreational activities such as football. Among the main reason for non-participation was the dislike of the mode and degree of discipline enforced in schools and centres including rigid rules and regulations, and the curtailment of their freedom of movement and association. Both boys and girls also noted that while some organisations should be appropriately rewarded for the good work they were doing, others should be scrutinised, as their activities did not benefit the street children.


The study recommended both long and short-term interventions, focus on preventive and responsive (rather than rehabilitative) solutions, and a paradigmatic shift from a welfare approach to creative and strategic solutions.