The University of Chicago

School of Social Service Administration Magazine

Street Survivors A deep look at the social networks of Bangladesh's street children

More than half a million children live on the streets of the main cities of Bangladesh. Living without their families, facing hunger and danger, they survive in large part due to their social networks. 

“These kids are seen by the police as a public nuisance, and the overwhelming public perception is that they’re trouble. There are few service providers, and so the children have to make their own way,” says SSA doctoral student Md. Hasan Reza.

Over the course of a year, Reza and his team interviewed 75 street children aged 10 to 17 in Dhaka, the nation’s capital, for his dissertation. He found that, unlike their reputation as criminals, most of the kids hoped to be connected to the larger society. He also found that their social networks—typically a core group of seven or eight individuals, with connections to dozens of other children and sometimes with adults—were enormously important for their economic survival and care giving.

Living in a society with very high unemployment and most jobs in the informal economy, street children relied on advice and information from their networks on where to make money carrying travelers’ luggage at the local train station and river port, selling used plastic bags to shoppers in the market or collecting scrap for recycling. Reza says that he’s heard about circumstances where several boys would help sell enough newspapers for a sick street child so he could make his daily commission.

“This society has altruistic views of each other, and they protect each other from danger, not just their inner circle,” says Reza. “They pass information to each other— like when the ‘catcher car’ is coming to round up children to be institutionalized—and they share meals and even make loans to each other when someone is in need.”

Research into how street children live is rare in any culture, and Reza hopes his findings help inform how interventions are designed to help street children. “This is a different point of view,” he says, “to not see these children as victims, but to understand and recognize their resiliency.” --Carl Vogel