Research project

Growing up on the streets: research with and for young people on the streets

'Growing up on the Streets’ worked with hundreds of street children and youth in three African cities, providing insights into their patterns of daily life, struggles, capabilities and coping strategies as they seek to create adult lives to value

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People selling goods at a railway station in Africa


Start date

June 2012

Completion date

January 2020



Backstage Trust

Growing up on the Streets is an innovative participatory research project following the lives of street children and youth as they grow up on the streets of African cities (Accra, Ghana; Bukavu, DRC and Harare, Zimbabwe).  

Our research aims to bridge the gap between the realities for young people living on the street and political attitudes about street children and urban poverty. By challenging the prevailing binary view that children are at risk ‘on’ but safe ‘off’ the streets, it reveals the complexity of life for young people for whom the street is their home, source of income, and identity. Collaboratively collecting in-depth qualitative data over a lengthy period, the research provides evidence to challenge accepted thinking, improve policies, practice, and ultimately transform the lives of street children. 

The team has strong ongoing relationships with young people, local project teams, and practitioners across Africa. Street youth were engaged from inception, dissemination, to data analysis defining research objectives; training as researchers; involving a network of 500+ participants; and facilitating street youth to directly share their knowledge with stakeholders who have power over their lives.

The participants and outputs made a decisive input into recent UN legislation on street children, as well as informing and engaging UK and African governments. Participation in the research, enhanced by training, led to street youth becoming active citizens and peer advocates to government. Some are now employing their research skills as a new generation of street workers. 

Phase 1: ethnographic research

During phase 1 (2012-2016) street youth undertook ethnographic research with a network of young people living on the street, sharing their findings via weekly interviews with local project managers from community-based NGOs. This regular, long-term commitment (plus quarterly focus groups involving the entire network) demonstrates consistency and skills among street children and youth, providing unique insights into the patterns of their daily lives, struggles, capabilities and coping strategies as they seek to create adult lives to value. The team gathered 3,000 qualitative files creating the largest ever database of street children and youths’ lives.  

Knowledge exchange

Knowledge exchange events have created an ongoing dialogue between street children and youth, police, government, judiciary, social work, schools, churches, charities, NGOs, the public and media. Findings are shared via freely accessible briefing papers and the Knowledge Exchange training pack has been widely adopted worldwide and used to engage many other young people in policy dialogue and development beyond this research. 


A key success is contributing to International Law through consultations for the UN General Comment on Children in Street Situations. Professor van Blerk was invited by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child’s Working Group be provide an Expert Consultation in January 2016 on its forthcoming General Comment on children in street situations. In addition, the project team (academics and charity partners) provided written submissions, and significantly, Growing up on the Streets led the African consultations engaging a 200-strong network of street children/youth. Comic Relief, who co-funded some activities, said that the methods used to engage with young people “will be used as the global benchmark for consulting with young people in matters that affect their lives.” 

Since first publication the Growing up on the Streets Knowledge Exchange Training Pack has been used globally with hundreds of street children and NGOs in Africa, Brazil and most recently, India. The project won the MRS President’s Medal 2015 for extraordinary contribution to research and the University of Dundee Stephen Fry Award for Public Engagement, Project of the Year in 2017 recognising outstanding research communication and practice. Briefing Papers on the key topics identified by street children and youth are freely available online in English and French.


External team members

Dr Wayne Shand, independent consultant

Father Patrick Shanahan of the NGO StreetInvest

The innovative research design was developed by street children and youth (aged 14-20), employing a capability (rather than vulnerability) approach to their lives.


See our story maps made with street youth:

In the Shadow of a Pandemic: Harare's Street Youth Experience COVID-19 (A story map)

See the In the Shadow of a Pandemic story map

Lorraine van Blerk