Hit the glass ceiling at age 17

Children on the streets don't have that many career prospects, and the jobs that seem like savvy money earners when you're 12 just don't cut the mustard when you're 17. There are many factors that that contribute to the glass ceiling phenomenon street-connected children face as they age which I will outline briefly in this blog. But first, I want to emphasise that it is by no means inevitable that a child who has lived on the streets will hit this glass ceiling. Some are able to sneak through the fire exit and circumvent around the obstacles, but I haven't interviewed those children yet, so that can be part two!

I would also like to add that since my methodology is guided by Grounded Theory, what I write here is not representative of the entire population of street-connected children that I am working with. Additionally, with Grounded Theory, it is recognised that the research is never finished and findings are never final. This blog is one snapshot in the long process of data collection that will make up my thesis. If you have contradictions or additional comments that you would like to make from your own experience of working with street-connected children, I will welcome these comments as data!

Lack of experience and education
Perhaps the most obvious factor contributing to children's challenges as they grow older and begin to look for employment is their lack of work experience and education. If children have moved to the street at the age of 12, then by 17 they have lost 5 years worth of education and find themselves behind their non-street-involved peers when competing in a formal job market. Street-connected children in this part of Tanzania make most of their money collecting scrap metal, selling food-stuffs in the bus station and carrying luggage and cargo at the market (and possibly other more controversial things that they wouldn't necessarily tell us about!). These are traditionally unskilled jobs, so although street-involved children may be flexing their ingenuity prowess, they are not necessarily learning skills that are applicable to other areas of empoyment.

Street-connected children can be regarded with fear and distrust by the general public. It took us a while to realise that "collecting scrappers" to sell to buyers, in many cases, involves stealing bits of scrap metal from car yards. Street-connected children steal to survive, "not because we want to, but because of life." Despite the varied reasons children have for stealing, this creates a high level of distrust between street-connected children and prospective employers. Children cite this as a reason why they are only given causal work on an ad hoc basis, but are rarely considered for permanent employment.

Lack of guidance and encouragement
A social worker told me that it can take years to get to know a child well enough to be able to help him to identify his skills and passions. That is a lot of investment and sadly social workers are few and far between. Children have told us about the importance of having someone who encourages them and who makes them feel like they have potential and are able to achieve things. "A child is very clever [...] [but] sometimes a child cannot recognise his or her needs." 

Not being cute anymore
A fundamental shift that all teenagers go through as they age on the street is not looking cute anymore. Older children send the younger children out to collect scrappers and make money on their behalf because they fear if they perform these same activities they may be caught and beaten to death, "they find the smaller ones, they cannot kill them." As society changes their attitudes towards the children's aging bodies the world becomes a more dangerous place and livelihood options for the youth diminish. They find themselves without education, stigmatised and distrusted by society and unable to go back to their families (for a variety of reasons, but also because their families share wider society's distrust of street-connected children).

I have already wasted too much time to go back to school
By late teens, some children believe that they have wasted too much time to go back to school and feel ready to be earning a stable wage and making a life for themselves. This attitude depresses children and stunts their activity. As they peer up through the frosted glass ceiling they see no "direction" or "mweleko" for their lives. As their appearance changes and they feel that their options diminish, society tightens it's hands around them upping the price of their misdemeanors. 

It seems that the older children have a level of hindsight that so often the younger children are unable to engage with. When children are younger, the immediacy of the day takes over and they concentrate on the small ups and downs of street life. As children age and begin to become future focused, street life is unable to satisfy their aspirations and they feel they have realised this all too late. It is only ever the older children who share with us their concerns about the younger children not being in school, while younger children complain about the price of scrappers, seemingly oblivious of what everyone else can see apart from them - that their future is limited by a glass ceiling which approaches them with every passing year.

A final word
With findings like this, it is difficult not to think about what can be done to help broaden children's horizons at the point when they become receptive to thinking about how to improve their future prospects. I am hoping that a lot of the answers here will come from future interviews as we understand the people and opportunities that have supported children in realising different futures for themselves. Children need to be willing to change their behaviours, commit to learning and step out into something new. But I don't believe this can be done without appropriate support which helps the children to explore what their skills are and enhances their self-belief. A lot of interventions focus their work on younger street-connected children since they believe that such interventions have a better chance of "rehabilitating" a child. However, I strongly feel that 17 isn't too late for a child to change their future. With my own hindsight, I feel that 17 is just the beginning.

Picture under Creative Commons taken by Remi Kahame from GlobalHort Image library, found on Flickr here.