Derrick*, 12, has left home and now lives on the dusty streets of northern Kenya's Marsabit town. His parents - who live in a village several miles away - could no longer afford to feed him, and he spends most days begging for food.
"At home we don't eat every day. When I eat today, tomorrow there is no food and we just sleep after drinking water - that is why I ran away from home," he told IRIN. "Now I walk into places where people eat and they give me food."
As the drought continues to ravage many parts of Kenya and the cost of living spirals beyond the means of many families, the sight of children hanging around Marsabit has become more common. Some look for casual labour, sweeping shop verandas and washing dishes at local eateries, while others mill around the streets asking passers-by for money or food.
While the phenomenon of street children is not a unique one in Kenya - according to the Ministry of Local Government, there are an estimated 500,000 homeless people in the three largest towns of Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu - smaller towns are seeing a spike in the number of street children because of poverty and hunger. According to records from the district children's services office, there were 2,500 street children in Marsabit at the end of May 2011, up from just 300 in same period in 2010.
Aisha Mose, a mother of four, says she allows her children to go into town to beg because she cannot afford to feed them. A 90kg bag of maize, which in April 2011 cost about 2,500 shillings (US$27.10), now costs as much as KSh4,800 ($52).
"If I went [to town to beg], nobody would believe me, but people easily sympathize with a child and they buy them food or give them some money," she said. "That way they get something to eat for the day, then they return home in the evening. Even if somebody just buys them a banana, that is enough for the day."
"Marsabit didn't have this high number of street children but as the drought continues and the cost of living goes up and food prices go north there has been an influx of them," said Fatuma Adan, coordinator of the Horn of Africa Development Initiative, a Marsabit-based NGO. "They can't get food at home so they come to the town to get food. Not all children who have filled the streets come from rural families, some have parents living here in the town but they are as hard hit as those in the rural areas.
"It is not just children coming into towns even though children are many... Adults and especially women are equally getting to the streets to beg for food," she added. "Actually, unless it is stemmed, crime and prostitution will be commonplace here, yet these are situations that were in the past associated with big cities."
Adan noted that the situation made it difficult for the government and organizations like hers to protect children from harm and ensure they continued to attend school.
Food distributions "rare"
The government and aid agencies have been distributing food aid to hungry families in northern and upper-eastern Kenya, and many of these street children come from families that should benefit from such food aid, but a government official, who preferred anonymity, said food distribution exercises had been rare in the region.
"Such children come from families that should ideally get food aid, but this is an exercise that was last done - at least a coordinated one - three months ago," he said. "The food given cannot last these families, which are usually very large, for three months. Children have to eat and being on the street provides an easier option."
The Blanket Supplementary Feeding Programme being implemented in the larger Marsabit region is limited to children younger than three, or shorter than 95cm, all lactating mothers with children younger than six months and expectant mothers.
"It is a difficult situation, putting children at serious risk of abuse; it increases cases of child labour and child prostitution, which are a serious violation of children's rights," said Ahmed Hussein, director of children's services at the Ministry of Gender. "There are parents who have turned their children into full-time beggars... [these children are] the new breadwinners."
*Not his real name
- Provided by Integrated Regional Information Networks.
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