Children who live and work on the street can range in age from infants to 18 years old and face life-threatening social problems. UNICEF defines street children or youth as any girl or boy who has not reached adulthood, for whom the street has become her or his habitual abode and/or source of livelihood, and who is inadequately protected, supervised, or directed by responsible adults. These children may also be living with HIV and AIDS, living with other physical or mental challenges, deserted from broken families, or children from indigenous families without documentation.
When children live on the streets, they face many challenges ranging from physical and mental abuse to forced labour and sexual abuse. In the eyes of the public children living and working on the street may be considered socially maladjusted or nonconformists who should be “locked up” somewhere so that peace and common sense reign. Most of them have experienced problems with basic nutrition, sleep and live in unsafe situations such as being crammed into concrete porches at night.
According to the World Drug Report 2018 not only do children live, survive and grow in vulnerable environments but they can also potentially be abused or exploited by local gangs or criminal groups for street crimes such as drug trafficking and sales, or sex work. In such a harsh environment, street children may engage in odd jobs such as selling substances for remuneration or "subsistence work," where sex is exchanged for a specific food, shelter, money, or drugs to survive.
According to the Modified Social Stress Model, an individual is more likely to encounter substances if the consumption of the substance is coming from their upbringing. Many street children live in places where other street children, adults in the neighbourhood, and even society at large, use substances. Using this model we can guess that these children are at higher risk for substance use.
Drug exposure has various social, psychological and nervous effects. When it comes to gender differences, girls don't just report more negative life events in adolescence than boys but also more often experience interpersonal stressors and are unfavourably affected by them. For example, post-traumatic stress disorder often precedes drug use and harmful drug use among girls. Still, it is more common after drug use in boys, which may suggest that women are more likely to self-medicate their symptoms. At the same time, men are more likely to experience trauma from risk situations related to the use of harmful substances.
Children of all kinds exposed to substance use at an early age benefit from evidence-based and effective drug use prevention and drug use disorder treatment if they are dependent on drugs. Effective interventions may include activities such as life skills, counselling and structured community engagement such as positive recreational activities with positive adult role models to build their skills and help them live a healthy life. The International Standards On Substance Use and Prevention states community-based multi-component initiatives at the community level, mobilisation efforts to create partnerships, task forces, coalitions, action groups, etc., bring together different actors in a community to address substance use through effective science-based drug use prevention. Providing children with the opportunities to participate in activities that help them think independently and develop skills increases protective factors and may reduce unhealthy behaviours.
From my personal experience working with a Non-Governmental Organisation ‘Institut Onn Ja’afar’ in Malaysia carrying out activities for the street children, we involve university students as our volunteers in supporting the implementation of evidence-based programmes called Jom Breakfast to help street children. Its main objective is to provide free breakfast for the underprivileged street, disabled children, refugees and the homeless. Youth volunteers can experience community work activities as a major aspect of giving back to society. Apart from providing food, we intend to instill a broader insight into life and encourage a more positive attitude amongst the volunteers, especially the university students, as we hope they develop a generous nature and a habit of giving after interacting with these children. In addition, we also wish to inspire the beneficiary's street children to pursue higher education when they are exposed to university students on a regular basis. In return, youths inspire the street children to improve their livelihood and pull interest towards the importance of education. At the same time, it strengthens the prosocial behaviour of the youths and street children through volunteering.
Prosocial behaviours are behaviours that people take voluntarily in an attempt to help others. Over time, prosocial behaviours were associated with better mental health, better social relationships, and better physical health, including a longer lifespan. Getting involved in society is a good approach to preventing or reducing substance use. Volunteering is a great pursuit for young people to divert them from risk-taking and dangerous behaviours like substance use. Volunteering increases a person's connection to the community, with research showing that volunteers are up to 42% more likely to define themselves as "very happy" compared to non-volunteers. According to the UN Volunteer Programme, 76% of people who volunteered in the past 12 months thought it made them healthier. In my experience, engaging as a volunteer opened my eyes to the significant issues that children living and working on the streets face, and I hope that our work was able to provide help and hope, if only for a short time.
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