Sir Peter’s Blog ‘from the streets’ Day 5

EVENT: Retrak’s CEO from Addis Ababa to Hosanna, Ethiopia; Day 5 | AUTHOR: Sir Peter Fahy

There could not have been a better way to end my visit to Ethiopia than the official opening of our new centre for girls living on the street. We welcomed out first girl there on 1 January but we now have 11 girls with 5 coming in over the past week alone. The capacity is 15 so soon we will be full. As we work with the girls we will be able to get some back to their families and this will open up spaces for more to come in.

The girls are referred to us by the police and other charities. Most  were sent to Addis by their families to work as domestic servants but were then physically or sexually abused and so escaped from this to live on the street. Some are picked up at the bus station when they arrive in Addis from the countryside. We will have to work with the families of these girls to show them what a bad idea it is to send their children away and, only when we are sure their attitude has changed, their economic situation improved and the girl will be well looked after, will we return them home. Our staff then monitor then for a further two years to ensure that they are well and continuing their education.

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The girls preformed a drama as part of the opening to show a typical scenario of a girl being abused as a servant by a woman who treated her own daughter completely differently. They put the drama together themselves from their own experiences.

A woman who had been a street girl came to tell her story. She broke down with the emotion of reliving her past and seeing new girls in the position that she had been in. The good news is that she now has her own business and is married with two children of her own who were at the ceremony. Ethiopians cut a huge round loaf of bread at a celebration rather than a cake and so that was the equivalent for me of cutting the ribbon to declare the centre officially open.

In all the discussions I have had during this visit to Malawi and Ethiopia it has been clear that the number of children moving to cities to live on the streets is increasing. This is partly driven by rural poverty and a mistaken belief that life is more prosperous on city streets. There are worrying signs that this movement is more organised and that girls, in particular, are trafficked to work as servants or in the sex trade. Some then end up in the Middle East or in Europe.

We cannot say that boys who are drawn to cities such as Addis  end up as part of the wave of migration into Europe that we are seeing at the moment. There is no way they can afford the sums of money being charged by the traffickers. Living on the street however does mean destroyed childhoods, education lost, severe human misery and the potential instability of cities where a substantial part of the population are living a separate lifestyle in an alternative economy.

The big question is how to stem this flow. Retrak’s work of identifying the routes street children are taking and going into the communities they come from to strengthen parenting through self help groups and mobilising the local community seems to me to offer most hope.

Ethiopia like most African countries has some serious challenges. While economic growth is strong it is seeing large numbers of refugees cross its borders, climate change  means many families are dependent on food aid and there will be enormous population growth over the coming decades. There are tensions between different ethnic groups and the movement of people from rural to city areas. Addis is a city of contrasts with a new elevated light railway system but also donkeys and goats on the streets below, a growing educated middle class but also growing numbers living on the street. The Government is clearing a lot of the slum areas and what we would call shanty towns and building new housing and there are a number of innovative schemes to try and create employment. Infrastructure is being improved while in other countries such schemes are often frustrated by corruption.

While there are obvious great differences between Addis and Manchester there are also many shared issues such as how to generate local community action, how to get agencies and charities working closer together, how to keep children out of institutional care, how to protect children from a more sexualised society and how to provide employment opportunities for a growing population while at the same time making sure that some sections of society are not left behind.

We in the West certainly do not know best but we can share experiences and learning with countries like Ethiopia, Malawi and Uganda and perhaps help them not to make some of the mistakes that we have made.