Recently I was invited to speak at an event on ‘street children’ which brought together practitioners and policy makers for an entire day of presentations and discussions. A facilitator who ran a 4 day workshop in South Africa with teenage girls and boys living and working on the streets was presenting her work and gave us one example of an ‘exercise’ she conducted: by way of illustrating how children from every country face the same difficulties on the streets, she asked them all to pick a number from 1-5 which represents their access to healthcare on the streets, 1 being no access and 5 being full access. She was surprised that most of the boys ended up in group five, and the girls were mostly at the lower end, with three girls from Zambia who stood together at the end of the line and began crying. ‘They were both embarrassed and ashamed to admit they have no access to healthcare when they need it especially in front of the boys who all stood at number 5 and were cajoling the girls to join them at the front of the line. The crying girls refused.’
This story illustrates to me how even the most experienced participation specialist can get it seriously wrong if they ignore two critical factors that intersect to create a particular vulnerability: gender and age.
Firstly, the facilitator ignored the unequal dynamics of power between street girls and street boys in the group. All girls are vulnerable to male abuse and domination to various degrees. Although boys experience particular kinds of challenges, overwhelmingly it is girls who are on the receiving end of gender based violence and various forms of exploitation. For girls living on the streets, vulnerability to sexual violence from men (such as police officers, pimps or clients) or boys their own age (boyfriends, fellow gang members) is acute. By not taking this into consideration beforehand the facilitator ignored how a person’s gender defines their lived experiences as a whole, and more to the point, impacts their access to basic rights.
Secondly, by defining teenagers as ‘children’ the facilitator was deliberately ignoring the sexual nature of the abuses these girls were facing and that most of them survived on the street by virtue of being sexually active. She was also ignoring the sexualized way in which the street boys might view these street girls, and how this would inevitably inform the mood in the workshop.
Over and over again I see the way in which people misuse the word children. Sometimes using that word will mean projects directed at girls and boys will only ever reach boys because they didn’t consider the different challenges girls might face in accessing the project. Sometimes it means girls will continue to face sexual abuse from their peers because the word ‘children’ conveniently glossed over the fact that we are dealing with adolescents. And sometimes using that word will mean that three girls end up crying in a corner because no one thought that maybe they don’t want to expose their vulnerability in front of 18 boys who don’t even understand what they’re crying about.