Street children: the problem on our conscience and our doorsteps

By Marie Sigsworth, Corporate Responsibility Director, Aviva

Street children: the problem on our conscience and our doorsteps

Every five minutes, a child in the UK runs away. Today is International Day for Street Children, and a pertinent time to reflect on what this means for people, business, and society.

“Street children” can be found in prosperous Western Europe as well as in developing countries. Perhaps this is the first myth we need to debunk. It is a phenomenon that demeans us all. So when people ask me why a big insurance company like Aviva is interested in supporting the Consortium for Street Children, the leading international network dedicated to realising the rights of street children worldwide, I tell them that my colleagues are deeply concerned about this issue, and want to do something about it.

In 2009 we launched an international five year programme called Street to School with the aim of getting at least 500,000 children off the streets and back into education and training. So far we have managed to exceed that aim reaching 640,000 children across the globe. It was our employees who told us that we ought to take this sort of initiative. It is their commitment and support that has helped us achieve this goal.

The value I think we bring as a big business, is our ability to act as a catalyst to help champion street children’s rights, by partnering with charities around the world – such as Railway Children and Save the Children – as well as working with Governments and the UN to raise the issue on the international stage. This isn’t a short term initiative; our mantra at Aviva is recognition. Street children are one of society’s most unrecognised groups, and we believe we have a responsibility to help the most excluded individuals in our communities, and few are more excluded than street-connected children. We believe every child should have access to education because education is insurance for a better life.

I won’t pretend that this is a simple issue. Take the difficult subject of child labour, for instance. Some street children around the world are actually providing financial support to their families, and playing an important role in the local economy. As an investor, we are committed to using our influence with companies to abolish the worst forms of child labour. However, purely removing children from employment can result in greater welfare problems. That’s why we encourage companies to support children back into education – from “street to school”.

Policy change is never a quick win and, given the complexity of these children’s needs, it’s not a quick fix either. Street children adopt many tactics necessary to survive on the streets, such as begging and rough sleeping. Yet it’s unacceptable that some street children still face violence on an almost daily basis. On International Day for Street Children we are calling for governments and society to join together and stand up for the rights of street children all over the world.

Some people worry about “compassion fatigue” in the area of development and international charity. Luckily, this initiative is not a big stretch for our employees, whose “day job” in insurance involves them looking out for people in times of need. In fact, many of my colleagues are inspired by the opportunity they get to make a difference to young people around the world. They find it highly motivating. Frankly, it’s good for our business, as well as being good for some hard-pressed communities. And that’s something else worth thinking about on this International Day for Street Children.

Editor’s Note:

Marie Sigsworth became Aviva’s Group CR Director in October 2009. She is responsible for leading the design and delivery of the corporate responsibility strategy and leading the culture, values and inclusion agenda.

Formerly HR Director for Aviva’s Asia Pacific region, Marie’s priority was establishing the regional team and drawing, developing and retaining talent in a region of high growth. During her stint in the Asia Pacific region Marie was a member of the Board for Aviva’s businesses in India and Sri Lanka, a member of the Regional Executive Team and Regional Advisory Board.

Marie joined Norwich Union in June 1986 and held a number of senior positions prior to taking on the role of HR Director for NUI Customer Services in 2003, the role of HR Director, RAC in May 2005 and then the role of HR Director for the U.K. General Insurance business in July 2006.

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One Response

  1. Thanks Marie for your such an important message on an issue, of which government, private sector and even civil society seems to be doing so less, given the mammoth-ness of the problem in India…I live in Faridabad which is part of National Capital Region (NCR) in New Delhi. I see hundreds of street children everyday in various dishevelled condition. My sense is that there are more than 100,000 such children within NCR (i.e. within a radius of 100 kms or so). Currently few organisations like Butterflies, Aman Biradari are able to reach out to very minuscule proportion of these children. 3 state governments (Delhi, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh) which are involved (in NCR) are adding up another minuscule proportion to the set of children being provided appropriate support…more than 80% of these children are left to fend for themselves. Where parent are sensitised, they are supporting their children to go to the centres run by civil society organisations like Aman Biradari. Again sensitised parents are itself a small minority with large proportion of parent involved in making these children beg on the street. In fact, large chunk of street children are without parent in their location of living…I must say that research on the subject is so poor that it is not able to guide the suitable intervention strategies and whatever is being done is being decided based on easiness of the approach (giving them night shelter or giving them food) and availability of the resources. The problem itself is not being addressed systematically or holistically…am sorry to add an air of despair on an otherwise lovely morning.   

    I have devoted myself to the task, with the long term aim of supporting at least 10,000 street children. I have carried out research on issues and on approaches to tackle those issues…I will be happy to associate with AVIVA work here in India.

    – Ravi

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