Social Networks and Caregiving Practices Among Street Children in Bangladesh
An estimated half a million youth live on the streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh relying on each other for survival in an environment characterized by poverty, violence, and illness (Reza, 2013). Almost no research has examined the everyday caregiving environment of street youth or how youth survive the illness and injury so common to their experience. To understand street youths' caregiving practices, this paper draws in part from the informal caregiving and social support literatures, which has focused primarily on care in developed countries for the elderly or those with special needs. Where children are concerned, existing literature tends to presuppose the existence of a family caregiving environment and an infrastructure of formal services. However, such a framework may be insufficient and largely inapplicable for understanding the caregiving of street children for whom neither family caregivers nor formal services are available. Indeed, the caregiving and social support literatures provided limited attention to how caregiving is practiced within nontraditional settings and how services are rendered by nontraditional groups. Since street children are enmeshed in social networks and exchange resources for survival, this paper starts from the premise that informal supports are critical to the caregiving practices of street children. I ask three primary questions: 1) What is the nature of caregiving need among street children? 2) What are the ranges of informal caregiving practices? 3) What social network characteristics facilitate or complicate caregiving?
Street children’s caregiving practices are relatively unstudied and likely complex; thus, a qualitative approach was pursued (Rubin and Babbie, 1997). Purposive sampling from three locations in Dhaka yielded a sample of 75 homeless youth aged 10-17. For each participant, a 60-90 minute in-depth qualitative interview was conducted. Network data were collected using the Hierarchical Mapping Technique (HMT) (Antonucci, 1986). Interviews were transcribed, coded and analyzed using Nvivo-9. Both a priori and emergent themes were identified through within and cross-interview analysis of key topical areas.
Findings suggest that street youth encounter unprecedented dangers and experience frequent accidental injuries and repeated episodes of sickness. Youth rely mostly on social network members for a range of supports. Network members, primarily street youth, help devise a treatment plan, accompany them to treatment centers, buy medicine and nurse sick youth. Network members also support sick friends emotionally through counseling and positive reinforcement. Street youth offer support to close and weak network ties, however support is more intense for close friends. Network members bear most treatment, food and other expenses and do not expect immediate repayment. Network support is extensive for short-term sickness, but decreases as sickness lingers. Caregivers also struggle to balance their own life and work while engaged in caregiving practices with evidence of detrimental effects on friendship ties in some cases.
The findings shed light on caregiving practices among an unconventional group in Bangladesh. The paper discusses these findings in the context of limited formal service availability and proposes an intervention alternative for organizations working with street youth that capitalizes on existing social support.