In Sierra Leone, one of several West African countries recently devastated by civil war, aid organizations are trying to save children from prostitution or forced labor.
A decade of conflict has made poverty in Sierra Leone so bad that many families cannot afford to take care of their children. Over 1,500 children live on the streets in Freetown alone, making a living doing odd jobs. They are the children most in danger of violence and sexual abuse.
At a truck park in the eastern part of the capital, many children come to sleep in the empty shells of cars. Prostitutes and drug addicts also come there, and so do aid workers from the organization Action for Children in Conflict (ACC). The organization offers them temporary shelter in the small town of Makeni, hundreds of kilometers away from the dangers of Freetown.
Eight-year-old Hannah Masany was found in the parking lot. She had been out on the streets since she was six. Hannah's father was killed during the war, and her mother could not afford to look after her.
Hannah said that she was not afraid on the streets, as older street children helped take care of her. But many girls as young as Hannah will have sex with men in order to earn enough money to eat.
"People come along -- it is a kind of enterprise which has just developed recently, it's a very quick way of getting money," says ACC Senior Councilor John B. Koroma. "So people come out and meet some of these children in the street, because they will not have people to take care of them, they make 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."
Other risks for children on the street are drugs and alcohol, which they use in hopes of providing some relief from the hardship in their lives.
15-year-old Ansumana Kobba was also found in the truck park. He had been out on the street for four months. Ansumana's parents were killed during the war. He was sent to live with his uncle, but left when he was forced to go to work and was not sent to school.
Ansumana says he made money carrying things for people, but spent most of it on gambling and the local palm wine called Poy. Although he is glad to be off the street and in school, Ansumana says he is unable to face going back to his uncle or other members of his family. He says he would like to be put in a foster home.
The children cannot stay at the center indefinitely, and many of them will be sent back to members of their family.
Most go back to the same situation they left behind, including physical and sexual abuse. Although ACC will monitor the kids for a few months, there is no guarantee they will remain with their families.
Donald Robert Shaw, who works with the United Nations childrens' organization UNICEF, says that the number of street kids will not decrease until the underlying causes that make children leave in the first place are addressed.
“Our partners' anecdotal information suggests that the number is increasing as the levels of poverty and vulnerability are significant," said Mr. Shaw, "that either push children onto the streets or children end up leaving homes to find better economic livelihoods out of impoverished families.”
UNICEF is working with the Sierra Leonean government to bring children back into the educational system, so children are not exposed to dangers on the streets. Most importantly, it is mounting campaigns against physical and sexual abuse of children. But attitudes are difficult to change.