Young children living on their own in the streets is a widespread problem throughout Latin America. United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimates that more than forty million children are surviving on their own, without parental supervision. Lewis Aptekar (1990) claims that this is not as tragic and threatening as some claim that it is. His research indicates that the children are not so much abandoned as they are encouraged into early independence. This is a natural consequence of poor, matrifocal family life. Most scholars have seen it in a more negative light, however.
In one study by Paul Velasco (1992), in which 104 street boys in Guayaquil, Ecuador, were interviewed, the following profile emerged. The boys ranged in age from eight to eighteen, with thirteen as the most common age (31%, with twelve and fourteen year olds at about 15% each). The large majority, 62 percent, had been on the street for less than two years, and on average they had a third-grade education.
More than half of these boys had seen their parents within the last year. This supports most research, which indicates that these boys are not lost in the sense of not knowing where their home and family is. To survive, each boy has one or two jobs. Selling and begging are common, but shining shoes was the work most often mentioned (38.5%). Another 19 percent identified themselves as "artists," with about half of them acting like clowns for money and the others being comics or singers. Few admitted to being thieves, though they are feared by the community, especially for violence and stealing car parts. They typically stay within a certain part of town and sleep on the sidewalks, or even in the sewers, to avoid harassment by adults. That they form their own little communities is exemplified by the fact that four-fifths of them go by nicknames given to them by their comrades.
The Colombian term for runaway or abandoned children who live on their own and on the street is gamine. There are five thousand gamines in Bogota, the capital of Colombia, alone. They are mostly boys (there are girls as well, but they have received less attention by researchers and the media), and they live in small groups, controlling a territory where they sleep at night under cartons or sheets of plastic. They work hard each day to survive, by begging or stealing (Bikel 1979). In a country with no real social welfare program, this is a significant concern.
There are different types of gamines, and a boy may sometimes progress from one category to the next. The first is the pre-gamine—this boy still lives at home, but his mother works and is seldom there, so after school he spends his time on the street, occasionally staying away from home for two or three days at a time. The second is the neighborhood gamine—this boy lives in the street but has not left the general area of his home, and may visit his family from time to time. The third is the street gamine—the true gamine who has left his home and is learning to live by stealing. The fourth is the pre-delinquent—the older boy who, after about age fourteen, will become either a marginal unskilled worker (selling lottery tickets, for example) or part of organized crime—stealing with other boys, using and selling drugs, or both—a career he will carry with him into adulthood (de Nicolo, Irenarco, Castrellon, and Marino 1981).
But why do the boys leave their homes? Many possible explanations have been put forth: lack of love at home, child abuse, neglect of basic needs due to parental unemployment, too much free time and television, pornography, and escaping overwork by parents for the freedom of the streets. All of these ideas may contain some truth, but parental rejection appears to be the chief cause, and the family dynamic is based on the stress of economic poverty.
The predominant pattern resulting in a gamine appears to be as follows: A young man moves from the country to the city in search of a better life. He does not find it—the Colombian economy is structured so that unemployment is consistently and extremely high, creating widespread poverty. He does fall in love with a young woman and they get married. The husband cannot find work, becomes depressed, acts irresponsibly, and eventually leaves his wife and children. They can have sex, but they cannot eat (Ingoldsby 1991a).
Another man moves in with the children's mother. This stepfather (informally so, as divorce and remarriage are rare in Colombia) is not interested in the fruit of a previous union and pushes the boys away, generally when they are eight to twelve years old. Almost half (47%) of all street urchins have stepfathers. The child feels rejected and leaves for the street. The mother, for fear of her new husband, does not try to bring her sons back (Bikel 1979). To summarize, unemployment leads to poverty and desertion, which results in child abuse and neglect, which creates the gamines. Similar conditions can result in abandoned children in any culture of poverty, and not only in Latin America.
For girls who become runaways, the situation is a little different. Half of those who do are escaping sexual abuse by their stepfather. They generally leave when they are ten to twelve years of age. Tragically, the most likely survival path for girl gamines is prostitution. Girls are less likely to run away because the street life is more dangerous for them, and parents are less likely to turn them away, as they are generally more useful than boys are at performing domestic tasks.