Restoring smiles of Pakistan youth
The Navhind times
Eleven-year-old Aamir, with teeth stained a dirty yellow, gives a full smile and asks: “Will you send me back (home)? Can you?” This is a common request the boys at the Atique Stadium (situated in Lahore’s famous market place, Heera Mandi) make, when anyone meets them for the first time.
About 30 boys live inside the stadium, mostly an arena for wrestling matches. Most are addicted to inhaling Smad Bond, a cheap petroleum-based shoe adhesive, easily available at hardware, or even stationery shops. The boys carry bottles of the solvent all the time. The glue appears to be the cheapest and most accessible addictive escape for the boys. “You forget the pain, you feel on top of the world and nothing and no one bothers you anymore,” says Waseem, 14, when questioned why he inhales the glue.
Some boys beg or work as car cleaners to earn a living. About 40 per cent are pickpockets. All the children (most are between 8 and 14) are part of the SMILE project, initiated in September 2003 by Nai Zindagi (NZ), an NGO. NZ aims at helping children with de-addiction and leading a more safe and secure life. It has also started an HIV/AIDS prevention programme. “This (SMILE project) came about naturally as a response to the need expressed by the street children themselves,” says the project officer Muhammad Ayub. About 569 street children (with only 20-25 girls) are registered with SMILE, a project funded by AUSAID.
Dr Shaikh Muhammad Saeed, who visits the boys regularly to take care of their health needs, says almost 2 per cent of the boys suffer from sexually transmitted infections (STls). The boys are often abused - by gang leaders (older boys), adults looking for sex on the streets, and the police. “Most of the boys suffer from chest infections caused due to sleeping in the open and sniffing glue. Skin infections are also quite common. `Cutting’- a term, which indicates the practice of boys inflicting cuts on themselves - is also common. The boys suffer from depression and have very low self-esteem,” says Dr Saeed.
Azad Foundation, a Karachi-based NGO, estimates there are at least 70,000 street children in Pakistan. About 13,000-15,000 are in Karachi and about 5,000-6,000 in Lahore. According to their study, ‘Solvent Abuse Among Street Children in Pakistan, June 2004’, about 66 per cent of street children were involved in homosexual activities in Karachi alone, and 90 per cent were sexually abused by strangers. Further, the study says, there are about 5 per cent girls among the street children. But once they reach adolescence, they become ‘invisible’ as they land up in brothels.
According to Ayub, these children run away from their homes due to poverty, domestic violence, broken homes and parental negligence. Azad Foundation’s study says that most street children are from poor families that are very large. “One interesting aspect of runaway kids is that they are almost never the eldest or the youngest child in the family They (the ones in-between) crave for the love they have never been given and thus the other children on the street become their family,” says the study.
NZ’s attempt has been to give these children a sense of belonging. “We play with them, listen to them, provide them with what they need, which is very basic…that is all,” says Ayub.
NZ’s team visits the boys every day (except Sunday) at four locations - Bilal Ganj, Lahore Railway Station, Atique Stadium and Lakshmi Chowk. The team members arrive in an autorickshaw which displays the SMILE logo - a black and yellow, bright smiling face - painted on it. The vehicle is equipped with medical equipment, medicines, food, clothing, bedding, drinking water, soap and anti-lice shampoo.
All the five SMILE team members are former drug users. “We know what stigmatisation is, what it feels like to lose the trust of loved ones. We know exactly how it feels to be really down in the pits. The fact that we’ve gone through all this qualifies us to take on this responsibility,” says Ayub, a post-graduate.
“My predicament was far worse than theirs (the street children) - I didn’t even have clothes on me,” says 23-year-old Kamran Farrukh, one of the team members. “I ran away from home after my mother died. I was in Class 9 then, and had started mingling with boys who were experimenting with drugs. I started living off the streets and experimented with everything - marijuana, opium, heroin and alcohol. One day, I decided I wanted to get away from all that. if I can do it, so can these kids. These kids are lucky…they have people who care about them, who don’t moralise or judge them.”
Once Ayub and his colleagues are confident that the children have accepted them, they start the interactive activities and guided discussions to educate them. “We play games like cricket and football so that they remain distracted and don’t sniff the glue. We also have counselling sessions where we talk to them about everything under the Sun - from personal hygiene, self-grooming, to etiquette and even STls,” says DrSaeed.
“This helps improve their knowledge and can lead to reduced drug use. They are also educated about safe sex, employment prospects and how to relate to people and the police. During this process, we also choose the natural-loom leaders who will be trained as peer educators and will take our cause further,” says Ayub.
So, why are the children not sent back home?
“Many do go back but they return after a month or so. They have become so accustomed to the freedom of living on their own that it is difficult for them to settle into their own family,” says Ayub. Navaid Hasan, Chief Executive of Azad Foundation, says in their study, “They are misfits in their family unless they have undergone psychotherapy. The family must also meet them halfway and understand why the child left in the first place.” (Courtesy — Women’s Feature Service)
SOURCE: The Navhind Times