Below is the text of the speech made by Sir John Major at the Consortium for Street Children dinner held in London on 14 November 2019.
The Consortium for Street Children is not a big Charity, but it has a heart as big as the planet. And it needs it, because Street Children can be found on every Continent.
We don’t know how many there are, but around 150 million – nearly three times the population of the UK – seems a reasonable estimate. Many of them have been stripped of every natural need that we – around this table – take for granted.
They are homeless; barely clothed; often unfed and scrambling for food; often cold, unloved, alone – and treated as criminals …. or worse. If you think I exaggerate, I can assure you I do not.
In Uganda, one very young girl was sold to child traffickers for the equivalent of £11. 11 pounds. As a Member of the Ugandan Parliament put it: “Even a goat would fetch more than that”.
I first learned about Street Children when I attended the Earth Summit in Brazil in 1992. In Rio, the sight of these children – in large numbers – was truly heart-breaking.
The Consortium was founded the following year, and I have been a supporter from its early days.
I hosted its official launch in Downing Street to bring a number of charities together to call for help and action.
It is now 30 years since the UN adopted the “Committee on the Rights of a Child” – the most ratified Treaty in history, but not the one most honoured by its signatories.
For Street Children still exist in large numbers, living in a dark and forbidding world, with no light or laughter.
As I get older, I often remember small vignettes from long ago ….
When I was five years old, my parents were elderly and frail. I used to walk to school on my own and once, bravely trying a new route, got lost. I retraced my steps, but became even more lost.
No-one passed by. No-one noticed. No-one helped. I sat down alone and waited, and waited ….
I still remember how terrified I was. Would I ever get home? Would I ever see my parents again? Would I ever be safe again?
All silly fears – to an adult. But I was five. So I sat there with tears streaming down my cheeks – until a lady with a kind face came along, took me by the hand, and took me home. My nightmare was over.
But what if I’d been a Street Child in Rio, or Johannesburg or Borneo – or anywhere? Then, it would not be a nightmare – it would be real. And, instead of taking me safely home, the lady with a kind face could be taking me to a much darker place.
That is why I care so passionately about the Consortium and its work, and the children that need help.
The lottery of life is unkind in many ways, and those of us who are the winners in that lottery – well fed, well clothed, and with a conscience – have a duty, a responsibility, to help wherever we can.
I know there are many good causes – too many, sadly – but surely vulnerable children must be at, or near, the top of that list.
We can move the hearts of the authorities – and we are making progress – but it is frustratingly slow.
In 2011, the Consortium launched the International Day for Street Children. That same year, the UN Human Rights Council agreed that Street Children were a global phenomenon that should not be ignored.
On Street Children’s Day we asked the children what they wanted to say. One replied a while ago in words that should hang in the forefront of the conscience of governments around the world:
“We should not have to beg. All children are human beings and have the right to be happy. Working on the streets is not good as there are many bad people that can hurt you. They can force you to do things you know are wrong.”
She added: “Please, please listen to me. Please make this world more liveable. Don’t treat me like this – I only do this to survive.”
“I only do this to survive.” We need not go into what “this” is: but no child should ever be in such a situation. We are a richer world than ever in history – it is time to act to end the obscenity of children living in this fashion.
So what can we do? What do we wish to achieve? The list is long.
Children need to be protected. To be safe. To go to school to learn and play – to prepare for adult life. They need healthcare – as we all do – and access to treatment.
They need legal documents ensuring access to their basic rights. And they need affection – to be cared about, to be nurtured, and to be loved.
And, as they grow, they need to be assimilated into society – not treated as outcasts, without papers, without schooling, without a future.
This litany of concerns raises questions:
– Why do we not know how many Street Children there are?
– Why – in developed countries – do they slip through society’s safety nets?
– Why do they seem invisible to so many policy makers?
– Why are they not treated with the humanity, dignity and respect that every human being deserves?
And how and when can we put all this right?
There is good news. We are making progress. And – with your help – we will go on doing so until these children are protected.
Two years ago, the UN confirmed authoritative legal guidance that the rights in the UN Convention applied to all children, and directed governments specifically on how to help Street Children.
Some are now taking action, but many more need to do so. The Consortium needs to be “an advocate for the children” and “a conscience for their governments”. And I promise we will continue to be so. But, with your help, we could achieve so much more.
I speak to you tonight, but the real work is, of course, done by volunteers – not by me. I am full of admiration for their commitment, their consistency, and their sheer refusal to give up until progress is made.
As I grow older, there is much in the world that makes one despair at the folly of man, but the selfless work of these men and women who donate much of their lives to helping others encourages me to believe that our better instincts will prevail.
Since that inaugural reception at No 10 over a quarter of a century ago, the Consortium has brought together many other organisations around the world. This network now extends to 135 countries – itself indicating the scale of the problem.
The value our own charity brings is experience, expertise, evidence to support our case, and the clout to change and shape minds.
It would be wonderful if you felt able to help us in our endeavour.
You may never know the children you help, and they may never know you, their benefactor. But every child’s life transformed by your kindness will be a life that has been saved.
Let me close by letting the children speak for themselves:
From a child in Mexico: “There are street children who die, while others survive, because they don’t have the money to pay for a hospital”.
And, finally, from a child in Brazil: “I would like for people who have never lived on the streets to see us as human beings.”
So, I believe, would we all.
And, with your help and generosity of spirit, we can show them that we do.