26 years ago, when British Rail Executive David Maidment arrived at a railway station in Mumbai, India, he saw a sight that profoundly changed him and his chosen path of work. A girl child, alone and asking for money, was committing violence against herself, flogging herself, when she was unable to collect the money she needed. When he returned to try to find her shortly after, she was nowhere to be found.
Children on the street – who often find themselves there due to extreme circumstances such as abandonment, destitution, neglect or abuse at home – are at unprecedented risk of abduction and violence. These children often end up with no one to turn to for support and protection. The experience can be traumatic and the impact lasts a life-time.
The incident of spotting that little girl was a turning point for David Maidment. He took on a role in a humanitarian organisation, ultimately setting up his own – using the framework and knowledge from those very rail networks he had been working with. He founded Railway Children. Railway Children works to reach children as soon as they arrive on the streets and intervene before any harm, abuse or violence can take place. It works to identify and support children who are away from home and positively change their circumstances. During its 25 years, Railway Children has reached more than 275,000 children in India, the UK and East Africa.
End Violence spoke to Mary Gatama, Programme Manager in Tanzania, and Pete Kent, Programme Development Director about Railway Children’s journey and impact. Read about this End Violence Partner and Together to #ENDviolence Champion organisation working to “get to street children before the streets get to them.”
Could you share a bit about the history of the organisation and about the background and inspiration of the person/people who set it up? How did Railway Children come to be?
We were set up in 1996 by a senior Executive of British Rail responsible for rail safety, his name is David Maidment. On return from a work trip in Australia, he stopped off in Mumbai, India. Whilst outside one of the railway stations he was approached by a young girl asking for money. He didn’t have any and she took out a whip and started flogging herself. He was deeply disturbed and walked away quickly, he gathered his thoughts and went to look for the girl but couldn’t find her. He was incredibly moved by this experience and on return to the UK made connections with a number of agencies working with children on the streets to try and understand more about the issue. He joined Amnesty International and represented them on the Consortium for Street Children. He used some of his risk analysis tools from his rail safety job to map out the life of a child on the street and to identify which organisations were intervening at which points in these children’s lives. There was a gap – no one was focusing on early intervention, identifying children as soon as they arrive in a city, and he set up Railway Children to try and fill that gap.
David knew that we would be drawing on support from his friends and colleagues in the rail industry, he knew in India most children used trains to move around, so the name worked, and it would help galvanise an industry behind the cause. His plans worked. We are still today heavily supported by the UK rail industry, and the concept of early intervention remains a strong theme in all of our programming; in outreach, community work in stations, and contextual safeguarding. We are now the largest agency in the world that works specifically and solely with and for children on the streets.
What is your mission for children and how are you working towards it? Can you tell more about the “street level, community level and government level” model you employ in your approach?
Our mission is to create and enable sustainable change for children living and working on the streets. To do this we recognise that we need to work in four, interconnected action areas.
The first is directly with children that are on the streets today; we want to ensure children are contacted as quickly as possible so that they get the support they need to turn their lives around before they are subjected to additional violence and abuse. This includes a range of different interventions depending on the context and the needs of every individual child, but largely pivot around outreach work, individual casework, family support and reintegration and youth work – all done alongside with, or complimentary to local government provision. This also includes some family-based preventative work. We know that violence is a significant factor in causing families to separate, and for children and young people to take to the streets. Our interventions seek not only to ensure further violence against children is prevented, but that children and their families can recover from the impact of violence in their lives and break the cycle.
The second area focuses on working with and mobilising communities to be more attuned to the needs and realities of street-connected children (children who find themselves on the street). We challenge misconceptions and prejudice. We give people the information and tools they need to be able to identify and look out for children in the moment, and to refer them to a service that can support them in the longer term. This work focuses predominantly on transport hubs; railway stations in the UK and India, and bus terminals in Tanzania.
Thirdly, the fact that there are children on the streets means that somewhere, the system in place to protect children is not working. We work with government to help develop and design laws, policies, regulations and guidance. In reality, we know that laws and policies mean nothing if they are not implemented, so much of our work in this area is about working hand in hand with government to capacitate them to be able to provide and strengthen child protection systems.
The final action area is around monitoring, evaluation and learning. We recognise that if we want to achieve our mission, we need to invest in building an evidence base of what works, and why, so that each of our action areas can inform and support the other, and we can share the lessons from our work with others, elevating impact for children beyond our own programmes.
We face multiple, interrelated crises – climate change, economic inequality and the COVID-19 pandemic. All of these put children at heightened risk of violence and abuse and have led to the largest number of displaced children ever recorded. You work with children who are away from, or lack, homes and families. How have the crises we face today impacted your work and what have you learnt are the key ways to be able to reach and help children in this critical context?
Climate change is the greatest challenge facing humanity today. We are seeing the impact of it more and more each year and this might result in a larger number of children being separated at the same time following environmental disasters. Here the response needs to be humanitarian, a logistical and practical exercise of keeping people alive, bringing families back together and rebuilding lives – as was sometimes the case in our COVID-19 response, particularly in India, where the sudden lockdown saw millions of people lose their livelihoods overnight. Our work there quickly povited to provide life-saving assistance to many of the families of children we had reunified in the 3-4 years prior to the pandemic.
The more insidious effect of climate change, economic equality, and COVID-19 is that all of these things put additional pressure on the poorest families ability to care for each other. Poverty does not directly lead to children coming to the streets – but poverty can exacerbate issues and tensions in the home. This can lead to more violence which in turn will force more children to the streets.
What impact has been achieved for children by your organisation at a macro level? Could you share some best practices have you learned?
At the macro level, we have transformed the context and situation for children arriving at Indian Railway Stations. 20 years ago children would at best be ignored, more often vilified and abused and dozens of children struggled to survive around these stations. Now, largely, children are identified quickly and referred to agencies that can give them the support they need. We recognise our model of intervention as contextual safeguarding and it mirrors our work in the UK, and to an increasing extent in Tanzania. In the UK we managed to get the government to write in safeguarding obligations to the regulations around Train Operating Companies. In Tanzania, we helped draft national guidelines on reintegration that are now adopted by the government, and we increased reintegration success rates from 50% when we started to over 80% now – that’s reintegration where often we have actively and purposefully reduced levels of violence in the home. We also saw a 31% reduction in children on the streets in the cities we worked in between 2017 and 2021.
What are some of the challenges you face in your work?
Negative attitudes and apathy towards children on the streets. Transition of key decision-makers in government. Short-term nature of funding contracts. Absolute lack of resources and skills within the systems we’re operating within.
Another challenge is grappling the complex needs versus the range of inadequate choices children have – this means we are often working with ‘holding’ the risks attached to the least risky option for children even though this is far from ideal, remain on the street, go home when home’s not yet entirely safe, referred to an institution we have very little knowledge about or control over.
Despite these challenges, your organisation is working to impact children. The experiences of children are at the heart of all work of the end violence community. Where are some of the children you helped now – how have their lives turned around?
Between 2018 and 2022 RCA and partners have reintegrated 2,036 children into families and supported 4,266 children to enroll/re-enrolled back to school. Here’s a story of one of these children, James.
James, 13 years old, was identified by a street worker in July 2021 and joined our street outreach intervention. He received a range of support services including decision-making skills, medical support, basic informal educational sessions, hygiene services, psychosocial support and life skills (including child rights and responsibilities).
During the course of street outreach activities, James opened up about his journey. “I came to the streets after my father died in February 2021 and my mother remarried, she abandoned me and my brother at my grandmother’s place. My grandmother was not able to provide for us. In April 2021, I decided to come to the streets to look for money to support my grandmother and my brother”. On the streets, James faced severe challenges including sleeping outside in public places, hunger and abuse from the older youth.
Through our project, James was reintegrated back with his grandmother. The project staff reached out to his mother who agreed to support him while at his grandmother’s place. Our project also ultimately supported enrolling James back into school and provided him with school materials. He is still in school and progressing well!
Is there a message you’d like to share for the end violence community?
Violence impacts the very nature of who we are and how we make sense of the world around us. We need to do everything we can to keep children safe, and to ensure that the violence they are exposed to is stopped – but keeping them safe is the starting point. When they are safe, we need to ensure that children get the ongoing support they need to make sense of what’s happened to them and not let it define them. We need to help children rebuild relationships with their families, and to do that we need to help families, mothers especially, make sense of what’s happened to them too. The medicine that helps us heal from violence, is the opposite of violence; a caring, empathetic, consistent and compassionate relationship. Only if we support and enable mothers, and fathers, to provide this nurturing relationship for their children, will we break the cycle and end violence.
A quote that has stuck with me over the years is “What society does to its children, so will its children do to society.” — Marcus Tullius. We do need to put in the work it takes to ensure that children are safe and will go on to be safe human beings in all aspects and that’s how we can ensure a safe society.
Learn more about End Violence Partner Railway Children UK here, and meet 750+ other partners working across continents and expertise to ensure safe, secure and nurturing childhoods.
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