For three of the nine teenagers in the team from Kenya, playing football in the Street Child World Cup has been liberating in a literal sense; to take part in the event in Moscow the trio were released from a juvenile detention centre in Mombasa, where they are being held after being rounded up on the streets. They will go back into custody on their return.

“These boys exchanged their prison uniforms for football kits,” says Frederick Achola, a former Kenyan Olympic boxer who leads the team. He hopes their participation in the event for more than 200 at-risk children from 20 countries could help pave the way for changes to the law that address the criminalisation of street-connected youth in Kenya.

Achola had to get permission from the courts for NGO Glad’s House to bring the boys – who have a short time left to serve on their two to three-year sentences – and the team has been accompanied by Philip Nzenge from Mombasa children’s services. In Kenya, youths on the streets are regularly detained, sometimes at centres thousands of miles away from where they have been living if the local juvenile facility is full.

All the teams have been organised by frontline organisations working with homeless and socially excluded children

But the criminalisation of street-connected youth is just one of the social issues organisers hope to highlight at the Street Child World Cup, a football tournament and congress on children’s rights that piggybacks the Fifa World Cup to draw attention to at-risk children so participating countries can leverage the publicity to effect change in their countries.

All the teams have been organised by frontline organisations working with homeless and socially excluded children. This time, 12 boys’ and 12 girls’ teams come from Belarus, Bolivia, Brazil, Burundi, Egypt, England, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Mauritius, Mexico, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Russia, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Uzbekistan and the US.

Many of the participating organisations use football as a tool to engage hard-to-reach youth and provide a safe space for them to play, whether in the Penha favela in Rio de Janeiro, where gun violence is endemic, or in central Cairo, where the Nafas charity runs a football league for 400 at-risk youth, or in Payatas in Manila, where the Fairplay for All Foundation helps children who scavenge on the local rubbish dump for a living to return to school.

The tournament was a festival of football, with some young players showing a multitude of skills, tricks and dribbles, and amazing goals on show. Unsurprisingly, the stars of the tournament came from two of the four finalists, with Asteria Robert from the Tanzanian team and Mohammed Abdullah, the Pakistan captain, impressing the judges to win the female and male awards. Honourable mentions go to Brazil’s striker, Thyssa, who scored 14 goals throughout the tournament to lead her team to victory. In the finals, Brazil’s girls won 1-0 against Tanzania and Uzbekistan boys beat Pakistan on penalties. Team England had given a performance to make everyone involved proud, losing to Tanzania in the semi-final, but then beating the Philippines to finish third.

For some, even travelling to Moscow has meant overcoming huge obstacles; many of the young people lack any identity documents

This year’s event is the third incarnation of the Street Child World Cup, which was held in Durban, South Africa, in 2010, and in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil in 2014. A mini Olympics for street-connected youth was held in Rio in 2016. It is the first time that there has been an equal number of girls’ and boys’ teams, a fact that has pleased many of the girls taking part.

“To come here to an international tournament with a women’s team is really powerful,” said Kalkidan Haile, 16, from the US team. “I like to see women prosper through football.”

For some, even travelling to Moscow has meant overcoming huge obstacles; many of the young people lack any identity documents. The girls’ team from Mexico City had to attend two court hearings to get permission to travel because no one could locate their parents. The Indian team, from Chennai, includes several girls who are ‘pavement-dwellers’.

SCWC_embed
Photo: Polina Bykonya

“Imagine what it is like trying to get an identity document when you don’t even have a front door,” said Dr MB Pavritha of NGO Karunalaya, which brought the team and campaigns for birth certificates for street children. “One challenge for us is that informal homes can be cleared away at any moment so a girl may say, ‘my family live in the hut under the bridge’, and we say: ‘what hut under what bridge?’ because the hut is no longer there.”

The gathering of young people spans those who still live on the streets with their families to others who have faced ‘hidden homelessness’ – on the streets, sofa-surfing or staying at friends’ houses. Teams of girls who have faced social exclusion in London and Washington are among those taking part. The girls from London came with Centrepoint as part of the six-month Street Football team England personal development programme.

For some of the American girls, the highlight of the event is the opportunity for cultural exchange. “Living in the US is a privilege and sometimes it’s hard to understand other people’s situations. Every person I have seen here is just so beautiful… I have never been around a global community. It’s a culture shock but in a good way,” says Kalkidan from the team organised by DC Scores, part of a US-wide programme that offers after-school football and other activities in low-income areas. “One of my biggest takeaways from here will becommunicating with other people whose first language is not English.”

Teammate Jessica Amayo, also 16, says: “This event proves the universal language really is football.”

Such high visibility is important for children who often hide from sight or whose presence in public is unwelcome

The mood has been celebratory as young people have taken over the stands at Lokomotiv, home of the new Russian Premier League champions, to watch each other’s matches. They’ve seen the Kremlin and Red Square, and were guests at a reception in the garden of British ambassador Laurie Bristow.

Such high visibility is important for children who often hide from sight or whose presence in public is unwelcome, say event organisers UK charity Street Child United. As well as challenging stereotypes of street-connected youth – and giving them a chance to demonstrate their talents – a high profile for at-risk children can serve a political purpose.

“It is crucial to increase the visibility of children/youth in street situations. If we don’t make them visible by accounting for them in national and global statistics and protecting them in policies and laws, we won’t be able to hold governments accountable to international and national child rights commitments,” says Caroline Ford, chief executive of the Consortium for Street Children, a global network.

This high visibility culminated in a general assembly in the centre of the city where young people presented a ‘Moscow Manifesto’ calling on governments to uphold their rights around the three issues of protection from violence, the right to education and the right to an identity. To prepare the manifesto, the young people took part in a congress alongside the football where they’ve shared experiences of life in their countries.

“It’s unique to have more than 200 young people who have been or are street-connected in one place to talk to each other and show each other they are not alone and to share in an environment without judgment and hopefully to come together and bring a louder voice to what is important,” says Duncan Ross, of StreetInvest, which works with 15 organisations in 15 countries and has facilitated the congress. The charity has also pioneered a methodology for counting youth connected to the streets.

“We hope that their participation changes the perception of these young people so their rights are recognised and that something very specific changes for the children in their countries soon,” says Ross. “It’s really time that something happened.”

He says youth homelessness is believed to be rising around the world because of factors like conflict and migration, but exact numbers are hard to come by. The figure of 150 million street children is widely cited, but many experts believe it is now much higher.

The Street Child World Cup comes almost a year after the publication of the United Nations General Comment on children in street situations, which offers guidance to governments on applying the Convention on the Rights of the Child to street children.

The general comment is seen as a significant breakthrough in an area that many believe is under-reported, but on an individual level many of the teams will continue their advocacy.

Later this year the American team will go to the US Congress and share their insights from Moscow, supported by the National Network for Youth.

Kalkidan says: “I will say to Congress that homelessness and poverty should be visible. The other day a girl from the Philippines said: ‘The adults need to take care of the kids so the kids will take care of them.’”

For Nzenge, the official from Mombasa who accompanied the Kenyan team, spending a week with the teenagers has been a profoundly affecting experience. He says: “When I go back to Kenya, I will make it my mission to help these children.”

streetchildunited.org