Background and Purpose:
For the estimated 150 million children who live on the streets globally, the path to adulthood is often marked by hunger, disease, and most importantly, labor. In Bangladesh, there are an estimated 1-3 million street children. The majority of these children must participate in income generating activities (IGAs) to survive. This article draws on findings related to street children’s IGAs in the informal economy, from a larger qualitative study, in which 75 street children participated in in-depth interviews. The study objectives were to explore street children’s experiences in the informal economy and the nature of their IGAs including employment-related risks, abuse, and exploitation. The research questions that guided the study were: 1) what types of jobs do street children secure?, 2) what are the risks involved in these jobs?, and 3) what types of abuse and exploitation do children encounter in their jobs?
The data were derived from a larger study which explored Bangladeshi street children's social networks. A qualitative approach was used, with approval of the principal investigator’s Institutional Review Board. In-depth, semi-structured interviews were conducted with street-living children in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Fifty-nine boys and 16 girls were interviewed multiple times. The in-depth interviews were conducted in child-friendly Bangla, after rapport-building. Nvivo 9 was used to organize and code the data for analysis.
The average age of participants was 12.64 years. Participants reported living on the streets for six months to over six years (average was 34.1 months). Eighty-four percent reported having an education level lower than third grade. All participants were from low-income households. Every child included in the sample participated in some form of IGA. Children reported having an array of IGAs within the informal economy. Typical jobs included: restaurant helper, rickshaw-puller, tea stall helper, day laborer, scrap collector, porter, ferry boat assistant, or domestic aid. Some typical risks for children performing IGAs included risk of injury, exposure to hazardous materials, overly laborious work, sleep and food deprivation, and long working hours with little time for rest or breaks. Every participant spoke of being abused or exploited. The exploitation was most prominent in employer-based jobs. The most common form of exploitation was salary deprivation. The physical and social environment where street children worked and interacted with the public brought their own threats to the children, and girls were particularly vulnerable to environmental threats, including child sexual exploitation.
Conclusion and Implications:
Almost all of the 75 child respondents were subjected to some form of exploitation or abuse in the informal labor market. Protecting street children requires interventions at multiple levels. Preventative interventions such as poverty reduction programs and providing a safety-net for children that ensures their food security, physical safety, and proper education, should be a priority. These interventions should provide essential services to children to meet their basic needs and take measures to reduce their necessity to seek work in the hazardous labor market.