December 20, 2006
By Amir Zia
We see them daily on almost every major road, every busy traffic junction — begging, washing cars, selling flowers, roaming idly, being chased and harassed by policemen and bullied by petty criminals and thugs.
Some of them are barely six or seven-year-old. They earn, eat, sleep, and live on the streets. The traffic choked roads are their playgrounds and footpaths their homes. The world gives them lessons about life, relationships and the society in the hardest possible way.
Those of us, who pity them, toss a few rupees on their extended palms, but most just ignore them. Many seem oblivious to their very existence, others appear afraid to see them eye-to-eye. Perhaps the guilt of living in such a callous society sometimes becomes burdensome even for the most thick-skinned among us.
However, the public apathy or occasional burst of sympathy, hardly make any difference for these wretched souls. They cling to their miserable life — if it is one — on day-to-day basis.
Yes, the plight and suffering of the street children of Pakistan is hardly news now. These little tragic stories float around us unnoticed in every major city — be it Karachi, Lahore, or Rawalpindi-Islamabad. A vast majority, or perhaps the collective will of the society, has accepted them just as another fact. The debate whether is it pleasant or unpleasant one does not seem to matter at all.
Therefore it should not come as a surprise if one is told by some of the stalwarts of rights groups that there is no reliable data available even on the approximate number of these children who live on the streets. The number of this floating-population is increasing as fresh homeless children keep trickling down to their ranks. In Karachi alone, the number of street children is estimated somewhere between 15,000 and 25,000. They could be less or more — but mere statistics, fudged or accurate, conservative or exaggerated won’t bring any smiles on their faces or more tears in their eyes. For these are children not just numbers.
And let’s be clear that these street children do not include the ones involved in manual labour with the consent of their parents. The children who are into labour under the supervision of parents are certainly better off. At least they are more protected. But those who live on the streets are among the lowest of the low and the most vulnerable. They have nowhere to turn to for protection, emotional support and comradeship except the members of their own band in which often a bully — who himself could be a victim of physical and sexual abuse — treats the young or weaker ones as once he was treated as a child.
A vast majority of the children who end up on the roads are driven away from their homes because of domestic violence, corporal punishment, abuse, and poverty. They are usually members of divided or single-parent families. In some cases, simply bad company, the desire of unrestricted freedom, and the pull of the hustle and bustle of cities, prompt them to leave homes in rural areas and low-income localities of our cities, especially belonging to southern Punjab and parts of North West Frontier Province.
Some limited surveys and interviews conducted by various non-government organisations show that an alarming 80 to 90 per cent of the street children are victims of sodomy, sexual and physical abuse not just by elders but older children within their own gangs.
A majority of them are drug addicts. The most popular and affordable of the durg is a type of glue — used mostly in home repair and maintenance — which these children inhale by putting it on a piece of cloth. One can see young boys sniffing this glue openly on the streets and pavements that according to one user, "tingles nose and make one slightly drowsy." The use of other drugs including hashish, and even heroin are also rampant among many of these streets children.
Organised gangs of criminals — peddling drugs or operating begging rackets — take these children under their wings and use them in criminal activities. Many children also resort on their own to begging and petty crimes, raising enough money to buy themselves food and favourite drug.
There are a few small NGOs working for the rehabilitation of these children, but their network is much small given the enormity of the task. Some NGOs operate a few small day-care centres, but they are closed during the night when these children are most vulnerable.
As far as the authorities are concerned, the less said about them the better. The issue does not seem to exist on their radar. There seems to be no awareness about this festering problem in the official quarters. There is no government initiative to protect and rehabilitate these children, who grow up on the streets, amid extreme forms of abuse, harassment, and violence.
Establishing state-run shelters where these children can have food, clothing and education, does not require mega-bucks, foreign currency, or a vote of two-third majority in parliament. It needs a little sensitivity, consideration, and above all channelling of efforts to help these miserable souls, who are not asking for the moon, but only a right to live and lead normal lives.
We, as a society, need to take this responsibility and attempt to pull these children out of the deep pit of crime, ignorance, and exploitation. If we allow them to live as they are, tomorrow they would be justified in returning and inflicting the same violence on others that our society has perpetuated on them.
Yes, these children can live and die on the roads, turn out to be petty thieves, hardened criminals, or even terrorists. After all what options do they have? What options the society has given them? What have they to lose?
Let’s all help these children to get back their precious childhood. It should not be denied to them. But are we willing? Let’s try to find this answer in our hearts — perhaps we can find some light. We need it badly.
The writer is a senior Karachi-based journalist. Email: email@example.com