Spare a thought for street children

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Only known by his first name which he got on the streets of Harare where he was born to blind parents whom he does not even remember, Don (15), is finding it difficult to receive medical attention after sustaining a stab wound on the knee during a fight with another child living on the streets.

A day after the fight, he limped to one of the big referral hospital, about 2km from his “house”, and joined the queue of patients seeking treatment, but he had to return unattended after being laughed off by staff at the government medical institution and bystanders.

“Everyone, even sick people, laughed at me, probably because I was coming straight from the drain where I sleep and was dirty. The nurses said it was not their business to attend to street kids. They said we are a menace,” Don said.

Don has resorted to using a dirty rag to cover the wound, but pus can be seen oozing out and he is worried that he could have picked an infection and that he sleeps in dirt does not make his situation any better.

“That was not the first time I received bad treatment from the hospital staff. These people think that just because we live on the streets we don’t have the right to get treatment. I never go to a hospital or clinic without enough money,” said Don, who refused to say where he got the money from.

Don is one of an estimated 5 000 children and adults living on the streets across the country who are finding it difficult to access medical treatment when they fall ill.

A girl child also living on Harare’s streets, Melissa Mpofu (not her real name) (16) has a sexually transmitted infection (STI) which she suspects she contracted from a police officer who five months ago raped her after a raid on their squatter camp situated along a river skirting the city centre.

“It is difficult for me to raise enough money to go to hospital and get treatment. As a result, I have had to visit the marketplace in Mbare (a low income suburb some three kilometres to the south-west of Harare, where I buy traditional herbs people say can cure ‘sick’ (local slang for STI),” Mpofu said.

Even though the herbs have not proved to be effective, she vowed to continue trying them hoping that she would one day be cured.

Before contracting the STI, Mpofu was a sex worker frequenting the various night spots in the city centre and used the money she got from her clients for her upkeep.

“My things (genitals) are getting rotten and my friends complain that I smell too much. It is likely that I could have contracted HIV after the rape, but girls on the streets do not go for testing. Nobody would want to attend to us because we are just animals to them.

After all, who is prepared to give us ARVs?” she said.

She said many of her friends had STIs because they practised unprotected sex, adding that some even continued to sleep with men without using condoms despite being aware of their condition.

Unicef Zimbabwe, however, said it was working together with the government to ensure that children living on the streets got medical and other social services.

“Unicef supports the government of Zimbabwe to implement the National Action Plan for orphans and vulnerable children which includes specific programming for children living outside the family environment, among them children living and working on the streets,” Unicef head of communication Micaela de Souza Marques said.

She added that Unicef provided technical support to residential care institutions where many children from the streets are given shelter.

The organisation also works to promote the reintegration of the children living on the streets into their families, Marques said.

Timothy Ruzawi (47) who has been living on the streets for 30 years after being ejected from his late father’s house by his stepmother, said that some non-governmental organisations, were helping children on the streets.

“Once in a while, people from NGOs (non-governmental organisation) come and ask those that want medical help to approach them. They also give us clothes and offer to send some children to school, while others are put in homes. The problem is that these NGOs do not come often enough,” he said.

“Since I started living on the streets, I have seen many children and adults on the streets die because of lack of medical care. Most of the diseases they die from are curable and if the government had come up with better plans, the deaths would have been avoided,” he added.

Streets Ahead Welfare Organisation director Duduzile Moyo said there was a 27% prevalence of STIs among young adults and sexually-active children living on the streets of Harare.

She said girls accounted for 18% of the STIs, adding: “The most prevalent STIs are genital warts, herpes zoster, gonorrhoea and syphilis.”

Moyo said hospital staff and other people tended to stigmatise street children, but medical caregivers need to appreciate that children living and working on the streets still need access to all forms of medical care.