Comprehensive interventions to help street children are needed
The Jakarta administration’s plan to support a police initiative to round up street children and conduct rectal examinations for evidence of sexual abuse should be critically reviewed. As widely reported, Budihardjo, the head of the Jakarta Social Services Agency, stated on Jan. 19 that a citywide search for street children would be jointly conducted by the Jakarta Health Agency and the Jakarta Police in an effort to catch possible child abusers.
These plans are obviously linked to the widely reported case of Baekuni who is suspected of sexually abusing and mutilating several street children in Jakarta.
It is noteworthy that several prominent activists and NGOs have opposed the plans of the Jakarta administration, particularly in relation to rectal examinations. In addition, they have reminded the city government that such initiatives could be a violation of human rights, especially if conducted by neglecting basic principles such as voluntary based procedures, confidentiality, privacy, the need for pre and post counseling and further treatment and support after the examination.
In support of the stance of those activists and NGOs, I argue that instead of conducting such a reactive response, the city government should design and implement a more concerted and comprehensive programs i.e. primary, secondary and tertiary interventions for street children.
Primary interventions are aimed at children who live in absolute poverty, but have not yet entered street life. The goal is to reduce the influence of factors that “push” and “pull” children into street life.
This is done through improving conditions at home, such as improving income generation as well as increasing the capacity of families to financially and psychologically support their members, including their children.
It is worth mentioning that street life has significant pulling power for children who experience poverty, neglect and violations at home. Additionally, street life frequently provides fast money and “fictional kinship” that attract many children from poor and unhappy family backgrounds. However, it should also be emphasized that those factors may cause severe social and health problems for street children.
Secondary interventions are aimed at children who have become enmeshed in street life to work, but still maintain regular contact with their family. The goals are to make street life into one of the phases in which children may pass relatively safely into adulthood.
The common alternative is for the children to be gradually but steadily engaged deeper into criminal activities as a method of income generation as well as to be involved in risk-taking practices such as drug and alcohol use and sexual practices.
Programs such as drop-in centers that provide basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter and informal schooling to improve their capability and access to decent employment and a healthier lifestyle are needed.
Tertiary interventions are aimed at the small percentage of children who live on the streets and who have been heavily involved in serious crimes, alcohol and drug use and other risk-taking practices.
Frequently, these are children who have been orphaned, abandoned or who have run away from home, and thus have no family contact.
Most of these children find themselves forced to engage in illegal means to secure income and most frequently also use alcohol and drugs and engage in risky sexual practices that render them vulnerable to various forms of infections (HIV, STD’s and blood-borne viral infections) and other health problems. Interventions such as harm reduction programs, more accessible health promotion and health services, rehabilitation programs as well as legal aid and so on are urgently needed.
The involvement and active participation of various government and NGOs are crucial in designing and implementing these concerted and comprehensive programs for street children. It should be noted that these kinds of interventions are complex and require an advanced level of cooperation and coordination among various agencies. The willingness to listen and learn from the experience of street children as well as the willingness to involve them in all phases of interventions is a key requisite to successfully implementing these comprehensive programs.
Such concerted and comprehensive primary, secondary and tertiary interventions are more likely to improve the wellbeing of street children than oppressive and top-down interventions such as raids and the physical examinations of street children that were planned by the Jakarta administration.
The writer is a lecturer at the School of Public Health, Hasanuddin University, Makassar, and a PhD candidate at the School of Population Health, the University of Melbourne, Australia.
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