The number of street children in Meru town has continued to grow by the day despite efforts by the Church, Government and Non-Governmental Organizations to grapple with the problem.
The number of street families has also increased in the town with glue sniffing children being the order of the day. Children as young as four years can be seen at Makutano area which is part of Meru town with them sniffing glue openly as they follow their parents wherever they go.
The parents are no different either, for they too sniff at the glue with some as young as 13 years, mainly girls with children strapped on their backs.
At night the street families cradle together apparently to keep away from the cold while the men go out in search for food. It is widely believed that the street children roam by the night and are sent out to deliver drugs and firearms, and they are paid for it.
There is the other batch of street children who do not sleep on the streets but go home in the evening to take proceeds for the day. They have homes and pick pockets or borrow money and food from a Good Samaritan.
These lots of street children are on errands from their parents who demand for something from them when they get back home from the streets in the evening.
“The culture of the Ameru people has played a major role in worsening the situation making the number of children on the streets grow by the day,” says Jane Kinuthia, a Children’s officer for Imenti North District where Meru town is based.
“According to the Ameru culture, once a woman gives birth to a child outside wedlock , that child is taken to the parents of the woman and then she can get married to the man of her choice,” says the Children’s Officer.
The child who was born out of wedlock is left under the care of the grandmother or in other instances an Aunt or relative. Depending on how responsible the relative will be, the child is taken care of well, or could alternatively face neglect which has currently become the order of the day.
Most of the women who eventually get married elsewhere, forget completely about the child they left back home and some do not send money home for child support .Many of these women do not want their husbands to know that they have children back home.
This is how these children find themselves on the streets since they have no food or clothing or someone to care for them.
On the other hand it is different for the men who rarely take responsibility for the children but when they do so, they live with them along with their other children. These are cases where the mother of the child may have died or incapacitated by an illness.
These Meru customs that have shunned modernity have contributed to child neglect and abuse since children on the streets are constantly sexually molested with no one to protect them.
Barely a week passes without cases of abandonment being presented to the District Children’s office. Infants as young as a day old are found dumped on pathways frequently within the town, an issue that has become the order of the day.
These children are normally taken to the Ripples Rescue Center for care as they await for their cases to be investigated and then the child is re-united with their parents.
Ms Kinuthia appeals to women to take care and charge and responsibility over their children even if they are married elsewhere saying a woman always has the motherly care and instinct for their children.
She however laments that once most women get married they completely forget their children at home and at times do not send money home and this also angers the grandmothers to whom they have been left with, and vent out their frustration on the children.
“Bringing up a child is very expensive and time consuming especially if the child is young,” says Ms Kinuthia.
“The child needs food, clothing, shelter, love, and an education, once they get to the stage of going to school, and it’s very unfair for a mother to simply ignore such responsibilities and begin a new life,” she continues to say.
In instances where the child is left with the paternal grandparents, the situation is different since the mother to the man takes the child as her own blood and cares for him because she knows her son cannot care for a child on his own.
There are, however, other instances where a woman agrees to take in the child but such instances are rare and sometimes contribute to a lot of marital problems.
When the plight of such children is ignored and they turn to the streets, then the rights of the child are infringed upon causing them suffering and neglect and these are the children who later grow up to be criminals, says Ms Kinuthia.
The government should come up with strict laws concerning the issue of street families and children and enforce the current laws on the rights of the child if any change is to be seen and there be a reduction in the high number of children moving in to live on the streets.
Other than living on the streets, other children source for jobs as house girls and boys where they work in homes for long hours, sometimes without pay.
Cases of underage girls working as housegirls in the Meru County is the order of the day with some being paid as little as sh.1,500/=, and with other receiving no pay at all.
For children who are sent to the streets by their guardians every day and bring back money or food in the evening, it is worse for them because they receive a thorough beating if they fail to bring back money in the evening.
Some of the children have left their homes completely and decided to live on the streets for fear of constant reprimanding and beatings when they do not bring anything home in the evening since they too have to earn their own money from the same earnings.
Recently during a crackdown by Imenti North OCPD Tom Odero, he arrested a 17 year-old girl whom he found selling illicit liquor in a bar that had no name at odd hours of the night.
He expressed shock over the incidence saying the girl was of a vulnerable age and he committed himself to searching for the parents of the girl and the owner of that bar that had employed such a young girl to sell at a bar during such odd hours.
Leaders in the area have however made efforts to curb the influx of street children and take care of neglected children by setting up institutions where they have been absorbed.
Ripples International is one such organization where the children who are dumped are taken and cared for. Girls who have been sexually assaulted by their relatives or unknown people have found a home at the Ripples rescue center which has received funding both locally and internationally.
The Meru Municipal Council has also started a program where every month, 30 street children are taken off from the streets and rehabilitated. They are trained on various skills which can help them earn a living and the most disciplined are absorbed in various institutions where they are able to start their lives afresh.
The program that was initiated by the Meru Mayor Councilor John Mwalimu has absorbed over 500 street boys and girls since its inception last year.
Once these street children complete training which takes about three months, the Council who run the program along with the Kenya Scouts Association ensure they re-unite the children with their families so that they can start their lives a new.
Mayor Mwalimu says as the project continues to grow he hopes they will be able to rehabilitate more children and get them off the streets saying he needs the support of all stakeholders within the Meru County and able people in the community to help curb this serious problem.
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