Hundreds of Kenyan slum and street children on Thursday thronged the National Stadium in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, to take part in the finals of a month-long soccer tournament, as part of a concerted initiative launched this year to combat drug abuse and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including HIV/AIDS, among these high-risk youth.
The campaign, Exodus from the Street, intends to bring the plight of street children into the focus of the public and policy-makers, and to raise awareness among the youth on reproductive health.
The event has been jointly organised and sponsored by six organisations: the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat), the Irish development agency GOAL, the African Medical Research Foundation (AMREF), the German Foundation for World Population, the Council of East and Central Africa Football Associations, and the Mathare Youth Sports Association, a local grouping in the Nairobi suburb of the same name.
Some 24 soccer teams, comprising male and female street children under the age of 16, were scheduled to participate in the competition finals on Thursday and Friday.
Sarah Blackmore, coordinator of the street children programme for GOAL-Kenya, told IRIN that the event, which attracted hundreds of deprived children, was an effort to get the public to understand the plight of such children, who often encounter only hostility. She hoped the event would also exert a positive influence on the lives those who participated.
"We are trying to get the information across on the dangers of drug abuse, HIV/AIDS and the importance of sanitation, and what better than through football?" she told IRIN.
"Because of public hostility towards them, the street children are very distrustful, so we had to make friends with them. If your friend is telling you something, then it means a little more," she added.
Fifteen-year-old Samuel Gitau, who had been forced into the streets in 1994 by the death of both parents, told IRIN he was happy to take part in the event, and that hoped to become a role model for other street children through football.
Telling about his life on the street, Gitau said he had been forced to eat from rubbish bins and had been frequently beaten until he sought help at a rehabilitation centre in Nairobi. Now he hopes one day to become a footballer. "I am practising hard every day. I want to be a football star," he said.
About 60,000 children live, as Gitau did, on the streets of the streets of Nairobi alone, with 85 percent of them believed to be sexually active and practising sporadic, unplanned and unprotected sex.
This is leading to an accelerated spread of HIV/AIDS and "third-generation" street families, according to aid workers who work with the street children.
A statement in April from the organisers of this week's football tournament attributed the large number of street children to Nairobi's high population growth rate - currently estimated at 5.3 percent. Moreover, street children are socially marginalised, leading to their involvement in petty theft, begging, prostitution and violence.
"This rapid population rate is expected to remain at high levels during the next two decades," the statement said." The local authorities are unable to cope with this rapid population growth in terms of service provision, because of the enormous strains on the existing resources."
During the tournament, the street and slum children, most of whom suffer respiratory infections, received free treatment at a medical camp jointly set up by AMREF, the Colgate Palmolive Company and doctors from the Kenyan armed forces, among others.
The children were also entertained by various artistes, some from the streets and the slums themselves, drumming home the message to shun drugs and beware of the dangers of unsafe sex.