Street children in China see hope for a better future

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The Yunnan Jiaxing Community Center gives street children informal education. The initiative is supported by UNDP&EU. Photo: UNDP China

To the average observer, eleven year old Wang Nan* and fifteen year old Li Dong* look like any other boys their age. But what might seem like an ordinary life on the surface hides a quite extraordinary childhood. Roaming the streets in gangs by day, the boys spent their nights at ATM booths, begging for money and scavenging for supermarket giveaways and restaurant leftovers. For these street children, life has been anything but normal.

 

Wang and Li are just two examples of some 1.5 million street children in China, most of whom have left their homes to escape either domestic violence or poverty. On the streets they lack access to healthcare, education and social support, and are also vulnerable to abuse, disease and exploitation by criminal networks. This has a lifelong negative impact on their physical and mental health, limiting their opportunities before they have even begun to realize their full potential.

 

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Through the "Little Inventor" training session, street children are trained in creativity, communication skills and team work. Photo: UNDP China

"Cosy Family" center gives support on many levels

The Yunnan Jiaxing ('cosy family') Community Centre is a registered non-profit organization that is helping children like Wang and Li to break this cycle by providing not just a roof over their head, but even more importantly education, training and counseling. Children who are willing and able to go back to school are also able to receive pre-training that is helping them adapt to formal learning environments. In cases where reintegration into formal education systems is not feasible, vocational training combined with literacy, numeracy and life skills is offered. The Centre also provides Wang and his friends with opportunities to build their confidence in the community – for example, by helping with the chores in the kitchen of the Centre.

With a mandate to help street children thrive and eventually return to their homes, school and the workplace, the Centre works hard to equip street children with the skills and confidence they need to reintegrate into society. However, while reuniting children with their families is the most desirable outcome, the Centre recognizes that in many cases children are reluctant to return home. In other cases, they simply cannot find their families, or their families are unwilling or incapable of caring for them. Many children who are forcibly returned home lose faith in the workers who are trying to help them and return to the streets.

Although it's hard to get direct answers from him, Wang is clear on one thing: "I am not going home, I will stay here with the teachers", he says, as he turns back to the safety of his Chinese dictionary. With the battle to keep him off the streets proving so far successful, UNDP is helping the Centre to build on its important work through a small grant provided by a joint EU-UNDP programme entitled Governance for Equitable Development. In doing so, its purpose is to broaden the development of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) in China.

Project demonstrates value of civil society engagement

Through this initiative the China Association of Non-Profit Organizations (CANPO), acting under the direction of the Ministry of Civil Affairs, has also provided seed funding to encourage and support the development of social organizations that demonstrate good social service and development models. Together with UNDP support, the Jiaxing Centre is using funds to develop a complete training curriculum on informal education for street children, drawing on its experience in providing counseling, mentoring and vocational training.

In addition to these efforts UNDP is working with the Jiaxing Centre and CANPO to ensure that once the curriculum is developed, it is shared with relevant government authorities as a good practice model that can be adopted elsewhere in China. In this way, UNDP and the EU are helping CSOs like CANPO to develop the skills to be an effective bridge between small grassroots organizations and government systems. Meanwhile, in turn, the Jiaxing Centre is in a far better position to be able to demonstrate its worth and the value of CSOs to society by providing a complimentary service to government efforts to address complex social issues. For many of China's children, like Wang and Li, this means a fighting chance at a better future.

*names have been changed to protect identities