Children in Tanzania. Credit: Railway Children
Children in Tanzania. Credit: Railway Children

Contextual safeguarding in action: RCA Bus Terminal Outreach Programme

Our work at Railway Children focuses on creating sustainable solutions to ensure no child is lost to the streets.

We want to make sure any child on the streets is identified as quickly as possible and support is put in place to return them safely to their families or an alternative family setting where they can thrive.

We’ve been doing street outreach work in different contexts for more than 20 years. At Railway Children Africa (RCA) in Tanzania, street workers – or outreach workers – go out to contact and connect with children on the streets to earn and maintain their trust and help them rebuild their lives.

Children living on the streets in Tanzania face serious harm on a daily basis, with no certainty about where they will sleep, or when they will next eat. They have no shelter and are exposed to all forms of abuse from passers-by and their peers. Despite this reality, many children and young people take to the streets every day because this life is preferable to the one they left behind at home.

We don’t force children off the streets, but we know it’s not the best place for them. Our work in Tanzania focuses on family reintegration solutions or supporting self-reliance and independent living for young people. But we also recognise that, for many, it takes time to build trust. As long as children are on the streets, we need to do what we can to make their lives as safe as possible.

The chances of children engaging positively with us, and being open to ideas of reintegration, or placements in other families and safe spaces, increases greatly if we contact them as soon as they arrive in the city. We know that the sooner we get children somewhere safe, the greater the chance of preventing further harm.

Focusing on bus terminals in Tanzania

During the pandemic, we decided to close our drop-in centre for children in Mwanza, in northern Tanzania. This was a place where children on the street could get something to eat, wash, play and receive some remedial education. It was designed to be a space where we could have invaluable time with children new to the street to help build trust.

Over the years, those children most entrenched in street life saw it as their sanctuary. While providing this sanctuary has real value, it became harder to justify its purpose to local government and harder for staff to have any time to engage with new arrivals.

An unexpected consequence of what was supposed to be a temporary closure was that our street workers were able to engage with more children and get them to a place of safety quicker than when the drop in had been open. We closed the drop in for good and over time we’ve been able to support those ‘hardcore’ street youth in other parts of our programme. That work could be worthy of a blog in itself.

In redesigning this work, we turned to our programme in India where our child-friendly station model has been incredibly successful in transforming the situation for children arriving at railway stations in some of the larger cites. We adapted elements of this into our existing outreach and community programmes and created a model of early intervention, as the children arrive at the main bus terminal in Mwanza.

The Mwanza bus terminal project includes a Child Help Desk (CHD) as a focal point for RCA staff to work alongside government social welfare officers and provide support for children arriving in the city, some of them having travelled hundreds of miles hidden in the chassis.

The development of a protective and responsive system for children was achieved through ongoing engagement and training of ‘community champions’ – adults working in and around the bus terminal including police, bus conductors, drivers and food vendors, who will look out for and support children. It’s also achieved through raising awareness and engaging passengers, as well as through our own outreach with the youth connected to the streets around the bus terminal.

By bringing these people together to design coordinated and collective action, children are arriving into a safer environment. It also means we are more likely to contact children arriving in the city quicker and get them home or somewhere safe before they are exposed to the harm and abuse that they likely will find on the street.

At the Railway Children Group office here in the UK, we had been aware of the term ‘contextual safeguarding’ for some time. It was a concept that articulated the approach we were already taking in Mwanza. We contacted the contextual safeguarding team at Durham University and organised for them to visit our work in Mwanza as a case study to form part of their contextual safeguarding across borders project, supported by Porticus. Working with them has been extremely helpful in terms of developing the programme further, but also in validating this approach. The case study is available here.

Our findings

The bus terminal project in Mwanza launched in July 2022. In that time, we have identified 147 boys and 59 girls, with 82 of these boys and 38 of these girls being safely reintegrated home with their families. The proportion of girls we contact has increased over time and we hypothesise this is because we are getting to them early as they arrive into Mwanza, before they become lost to some form of exploitation on the streets.

We have trained 25 people around the bus terminal and have had considerable support from the police and government, who would like to see the model expanded across the country. We have also delivered an awareness campaign on child abuse and reporting to around 400 people. As a result, our work has led to several disclosures of abuse in and around the bus terminal and to the arrests and convictions of men who had been sexually attacking children.

Our task now is to ensure that the approach is integrated into police, social welfare and transport industry regulations and standard operating procedures, so this early identification and response system can continue without the input from RCA or any other NGO. This will take some time, but we are committed to expanding this work across Tanzania and beyond.