Mail & Globe
21August 1997

Swaziland's Street Urchins
by Vuyisile Hlatshwayo, Africa Information Afrique, in Mbabane

The Swazis pride themselves on strong family ties, but that vice of all urban societies -- homeless street urchins -- is on the increase in Swaziland's towns.

Street children are no longer rare in Swazi society, which once prided itself on its traditional extended family systems. A recent study on street children, conducted by the Swaziland Association of Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation of Offenders (SACRO), reveals that the number of street children is fast growing in the Swaziland cities of Manzini and Mbabane.

The report says that since 1994, 123 children in the two cities have been identified as street children, adding that these children move to the streets primarily because of socio-economic hardships experienced by their families.

Some of the children give reasons such as physical abuse by their parents or step-parents for being on the streets. "My mother started seeing other men, one of whom later moved in with us. He came with his own children who used to beat me. I then decided to leave home," says one street child.

Nonhlanhla Hadzebe, a timid seven-year-old says: "The last time I saw my mother and father was when I was very little. I do not know where they are, but I know that they are still alive. At times I sleep without having eaten anything but I cannot complain -- to whom, anyway? I only pray to God that one day my parents will come back so that we can all be a family again."

Sandile Mamba, 14, says he left home because his alcoholic father used to beat him and his mother."Unable to bear this torture, I decided to leave home and suffer with the other children here. I thought it was going to be easy to find a job but up to now nothing has materialised. I sniff glue, but not out of choice," he says. The children see the street as a place to search for a livelihood. Patrick Johnson (17) recalls how he used to beg along the streets and later changed to washing cars for E5.00 (US$4.5750) which enabled him to buy food and cigarettes.

The study finds that street children are often abused. Police spokesman, Sabelo Dlamini, said that old men sodomise boys often as young as aged nine to thirteen. Many are infected with sexually transmitted diseases. He says the street children are enticed with E10.00 for a sex session. Before the molestation, they are offered glue in order to keep them in "high" spirits during the act.

Phathimuzi, 13, (not his real name) says he was raped by one man. "He took off my trousers and I resisted but he continued. I have reported the matter to the police who have arrested him." A Police spokesman has confirmed that they are investigating cases of young boys being molested by old men.

About 15 street boys around Mbabane are reported to have been treated for sexually transmitted diseases inflicted apparently during acts of sexual abuse by older men in the city. One of the boys is now mentally disturbed and goes about the city offering sex for E10.00 to men.

Organisations like SACRO and Save the Children Fund (SCF) operate drop-in centres around Mbabane and Manzini for street children where they counsel, feed and teach them how to read and write. "Only exceptional cases will be taken in for shelter in the half- way house, thus reducing the likelihood of children running away from home under the pretext of desperation," explains SACRO Deputy Director Desmond Maphanga.

Tizie Maphalala, a member of the Swaziland Women Action Against Abuse (SWAAGA), decries the fact that the mainstream Swazi society still perceives street children as deviants to be viewed with contempt and hostility. There is need to change attitudes towards the street children in order to curtail their problem, she says.

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