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Sierra Leone's Children are Pushed onto Streets

There are more than 1500 street children in Sierra Leone's capital Freetown, which is slowly recovering from civil war. Like many children in West African countries, they are exposed to the dangers of drugs, prostitution, and child trafficking. Aid organizations are trying to reunite children with their families to protect them and get them off the street.

It is a common sight to see street children in Freetown. After a decade of conflict, Sierra Leone is so poor, that many children are sent out to work instead of going to school. The lucky ones will have some place to go, but many of them have been pushed out of their homes, and are sleeping on the street.

In a parking lot in eastern Freetown, children, along with prostitutes and drug addicts, come to sleep in the empty shells of broken down cars. Aid workers from the Action for Children in Conflict Center come here and collect kids, and take them to the town of Makeni, several-hundred kilometers away from the capital to give them temporary shelter.

Here, at the Makenis shelter for street kids, 15 children, ranging from two to 15 years old, play in the dusty courtyard.

Sia Kamanda's story is typical of many children who left home because their families were too poor to look after them. Small and painfully thin, Sia looks much younger than 10 years old.

Sia says she was sent to live with her uncle who mistreated her, so she stole some money and ran away to Freetown. While she was in the city, Sia says she was afraid of being kidnapped and used for sacrifices.

A counselor, John B. Koroma, says some street kids have been kidnapped and trafficked out of Sierra Leone as prostitutes or forced labor. Exact numbers are difficult to confirm.

"It is a kind of enterprise that has just developed recently, it is a very quick way of getting money," he said. "So people come out, and meet some of these children in the street because they will not have people that take care of them. They give them promises that I will pay school fees for you, I will do this and do that. So they collect these children at the end of the day, they move them out of the country, to use them as child labor and other things."

Often girls as young as 10 years old, who are not trafficked, are willing to sell themselves for sex anyway, simply to get enough to eat.

Although boys do not generally become involved in commercial sex work, they are exposed to drugs and alcohol, which provide some relief from the hardship of their lives.

Ansumana Kobba, 15, spent four months out in Freetown's streets, where he made money carrying loads for people. He spent most of it on gambling and drinking the local palm wine, Poy.

Ansumana says he ended up on the street because his parents were killed during the war. He was sent to live with his uncle, but left because he was made to work and was not sent to school. Now living at the shelter, Ansumana says he cannot face his extended family and wants to be placed in foster care.

But the majority of the children at the center are going back to their relatives.

Making sure they do not go back to the streets is difficult, because the reasons why they left their families in the first place still need to be addressed.

A child protection officer for the United Nations children's agency UNICEF, Donald Robertshaw says the Sierra Leonean government is trying to mount campaigns to change attitudes toward sexual and physical abuse.

"The issues that need to be addressed are the prevention aspects and some of the specific prevention aspects relate to physical and sexual abuse within the home setting," he noted. "And we are also working with police and social welfare to give parents and care givers information so that they understand how to better parent their children so they are not in fact pushing them out of the home."

The government is also working to bring children back into schools, so they are not exposed to the dangers of the street. But aid workers say until the real issues of poverty and abuse in homes change, the number of street kids in Sierra Leone will increase and so will the risk of them being trafficked, abused, and sexually exploited.