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Mitchell: Plight of African street children is symptomatic of a wide problem

Speech to the Street Child Africa Schools Conference at the City of London Girls School:

Thank you, Hilary, for sharing your views with us.

Support for the British contribution to international development is not a Labour or Conservative policy, but a British commitment.

So I am proud to say that I support the government in much of what it does to increase aid to developing countries.

In the area of International Development, the stakes are simply too high for bickering between political parties.

143 million children in the developing world are orphans.

That is 1 in every 13.

In a way these are the lucky ones - in West and Central Africa, the region with the world's highest child mortality rate, 1 in 4 babies die in childbirth.

But those children who do make it are faced with the harsh realities that cause such alarming statistics:

Shortages of food and water. Lack of education. Disease. War.

When we look at the plight of street children, it is all too easy to concentrate on the immediate problems they face, and attempt to resolve the situation only by building shelters or giving them food.

The work done by charities, many of them based here in the UK, to help these children is highly commendable, and I shall talk more about that in a moment.

Street Child Africa's work is a vital cure to help these disadvantaged children.

But the ultimate aim must be prevention, to stop these children being forced to live on the streets in the first place.

Many street children are there because they are orphans and have nowhere else to go.

An estimated 15 million children have lost at least one parent because of AIDS.

By the end of the decade, the number of orphaned children in Africa is predicted to rise to 42m, and AIDS will be the culprit for half of them.

Countless more are orphaned through wars, or are forced to enlist in armed militias and leave home before they have even received an education.

With limited healthcare resources and poor sanitation, many women die in childbirth.

The chances of a woman dying in labour in the UK are 1 in 10,000. In Sierra Leone, they are 1 in 7.

Without parents to care for them, it is no surprise that orphans are far more likely than other children to miss school, turn to begging or prostitution, fall sick, fail to be inoculated, pass on diseases, and die young.

In Mozambique, 68% of children with both parents alive attend school, compared with only 24% of those with no parents.

Street children are discriminated against.

For the most part, these young people spend their whole lives knowing nothing but rejection.

Rejection first by their families, and then by society.

They are also objects of rape and sexual attack.

People know that street children will not and cannot bring charges against them. So they are often abused.

They are seldom loved or valued.

Many are traumatised, having watched their parents slowly waste away and die.

Many are shunned because of the stigma surrounding death by AIDS and the assumption that they carry the virus too.

According to a report by the Baiti organisation, 98% of children living on the streets of Morocco are addicted to sniffing glue.

A substance they use to numb the feelings of hunger, cold, and rejection.

I recently read about Maria, a 12-year-old Kenyan girl who had been living on the streets for years.

Her day began early, in a hole she shared with 3 other street children to protect themselves from the cold and from abuse by others.

If nothing else, living on the streets breeds solidarity.

She would work for 10 hours a day, collecting paper, begging, and when necessary, selling her body in order to eat.

So far she had been lucky - she had not fallen pregnant. Quite how lucky she was, she didn't know - she had not been tested for STDs.

In return for two meals a day, she had agreed to come into the charity shelter in order to wean herself off her glue-sniffing addiction.

She said that she wanted to kick the habit, but soon after coming off the high with which she had entered the house, she struggled and thrashed around, screaming.

When at last she had calmed down and the glue bottle had been thrown away, she sat silently, sobbing. She did not touch the food she had been given.

When she left, it was impossible to say whether she would go straight back to the glue.

Without the hope of an education, a place to live, regular meals, access to healthcare, protection from abuse by older street children or the police, and a new set of clean clothes to give her a sense of dignity, glue was her only escape.

The work done by charities such as Street Child Africa is therefore invaluable to helping these children pick up the pieces of their lives and make a fresh start.

It is charities like Street Child Africa that exemplify the "bottom-up" approach to aid.

Their work has a direct and personal impact on the individuals they help.

Their staff go to great pains to earn the trust and friendship of the street children they look for in some of the most deprived areas.

Once they have earned this trust, they can develop their relationship and devise a strategy for getting the child off the streets. Off drugs. Off crime. Away from prostitution.

The centres they set up can offer the basics that the child needs to survive, such as food, hygiene facilities, clean clothes, basic medical treatment

But they can also offer more long-term benefits to get the child off the streets and keep them off.

If the child is ready to learn, they can offer informal literacy and numeracy classes.

If the child is ready and willing, the workers can explore the possibility of the child returning to their family and community.

The contribution made by these charities is therefore of great value, and I urge you all to get involved in whatever way you can; whether that be raising the funds which are so necessary to keep these projects alive, or whether it be volunteering and seeing the situation on the ground and making a difference in person.

But now let me return to the point I made at the beginning.

That prevention is always better than the cure.

Street Child Africa and their colleagues do a great job of helping African street children.

But I say that I want to put them out of business.

If we tackle the problems at their root cause, then Street Child Africa will no longer be necessary.

And that is where the commitments made at the G8 summit in Gleneagles come in.

Commitments to get all children into primary school

Commitments to deliver free basic health care and primary education for all

Commitments to provide as close as possible to universal access to the prevention and treatment for AIDS by 2010

Commitments to generate employment and other opportunities for young people

And commitments to bringing about an end to conflict in Africa.

And I wish to explain how these commitments can work specifically for street children.

Much more could be done now to keep infected parents alive for longer.

If cheap anti-retroviral drugs were widely and safely distributed and better food and nursing care made available, mothers and fathers could expect to live for several more years.

It is estimated that the vaccinations carried out in 2003 alone will prevent more than two million deaths from vaccine-preventable diseases and an additional 600,000 deaths related to hepatitis B that would otherwise have occurred in adulthood among the children immunized in that year.

Education is, quite rightly, one of the key priorities in Africa, and providing free primary education to all would help to integrate many street children back into the community, as well as offer them a lifeline out of poverty.

Educating girls, in particular, is key to ensuring the next generation receives an education.

75% of children in developing countries who do not go to school have mothers who did not go to school either.

Countries that have abolished school fees have seen a tremendous surge in school enrolments: In Kenya in 2003, enrolment grew from 5.9 million to 7.2 million in a matter of weeks.

Uganda, Tanzania, and Malawi all had similar experiences following school fee abolition.

The same is true for social care.

Extended families do a heroic job of caring for orphans and preventing delinquency.

Typically, a grandmother takes on children after her daughter dies.

Where governments can afford to help, as in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, bigger pensions and foster grants can keep families together.

This is another area where we, the international community, can provide the support to African governments to enable them to operate such schemes which can have such a massive impact on street children throughout the continent.

We should back up these schemes by removing trade barriers to promote their economies, and by fighting corruption to ensure that all monies are spent wisely on development, and not on arms which only perpetuate the conflict and misery for so many men, women and children in Africa.

And you should not underestimate the role that your voices can play in ensuring that the international community sticks to its promises.

The plight of African street children is symptomatic of a wide problem, which can only be solved through international co-operation, commitment to our promises, and the goodwill of governments and NGOs to face up to the challenges posed by poverty in Africa.

You can hold us accountable. And I hope that you will. Thank you very much.

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