Zishan Ahmad Siddiqi
Who are the children we see living on the streets? The destitute families that cannot afford to send their children to schools find it more attractive put these children to work. Most of them collect trash or go begging on the fringes. Many children are employed exclusively in the begging stream.
Needless to say the children on the streets remain highly vulnerable to abuse and denial of basic rights consequently. The type of work/employment these ill-fated children on the streets have to perform are the worst forms of child labour.
Studies conducted to decipher the challenges of human trafficking, pornography and drug transportation point to a strong link with the menace that brings children to live on the streets. It is now a widely known fact that most of the trafficked and abused children are those forced to live on the streets primarily. Several forms of child abuse and denial of their basic rights are the main outcomes of us letting our children live on the streets.
The national estimates, though unsound, suggest that some 1.5 million children live on the streets of Pakistan. This number appears understated in the context of population trends. Also, the number of children living on the streets in our country as enumerated by leading child-centred national and international organisations seems to far exceed the national estimates.
There is a dire need to help a change in our collective mindset about the children trapped in the worst forms of hazardous labour and what bring them to live on the streets. The poor parents of such children as well as a huge quarter of our society approves of the worst forms of child labour.
The foremost argument is the pretext of helping alleviate their families’ poverty. The parents of such children seek solace in stating that the higher number of children means broadening of their livelihood prospects.
Such beliefs have never succeeded in earning any good for the children. Still the societal disapproval of the worst forms of child labour remains an alien connotation. On the contrary, such beliefs have resulted in accelerating population growth.
Consequently, we have a huge bulge of the child population that remains innumerable and forsaken. It is our shortsightedness that has helped a societal approval of children employed at streets and ferociously abused.
The actions addressing the worst forms of child labour, particularly performed by the street children still rely on the old estimates. We indeed do not know exactly how many children are living on the streets of our country. The scope of our national surveys falls critically short of enumerating these ill-fated children. As a result, our actions in this regard remain sporadic and reactive.
The incongruent estimates thus disallow subscription of preventive approaches and methodologies to address the menace. Indisputably, we need a national level survey to a) count the children living on the streets, b) locate the hotbeds of street children and c) find out the failings that bring our children to live on the streets.
What we have so far are the following facts about street children:
It is largely an urban and suburban phenomenon. Seldom have we witnessed children living on streets in rural settings. However, the phenomenon of street children is deeply rooted in the fast-paced urbanisation. The lack of land reforms has resulted in shrinking of employment opportunities in the agriculture sector – primarily rural areas of the country. This has persuaded people to migrate to suburban areas in search of livelihood opportunities. The refugees of wars at the borders have to subscribe to the similar preposition too.
There are two main types of work these street children have to perform; trash collection and beggary. The trash collection mainly rests within the trans-national refugee communities. Whereas, the beggary is mainly employed by locally nomadic communities. On the face of it, the children trapped in beggary are more vulnerable to further abuse and crimes. A myriad of interviews with such children denotes the presence of organised mafias that anchor this criminal activity. The segregation of children between these two types of labour hence calls for separate approaches to address the issue of street children. The child beggary should be dealt with the imposition of strict criminal legislation. Whereas, the children coming on the streets to collect trash could be dealt with decent-work approaches; making it family entrepreneurship thereby ensuring them the right to education and partake in productive economic activities with safety standards.
The laws related to the safety and well-being of children have a great margin of improvement. The safety and well-being of children are largely covered by our national laws. However, these laws are in need of immense efforts for effective implementation. The laws also remain mostly reactive and seldom speak of the street children explicitly. Also, these laws come in the application upon reporting of any abuse or crime against the children. Therefore, the elements that could help prevent such crimes call for a deeper communal interface.
The laws that mean the safety and well-being of children thus need to incorporate efficient complaint and whistle-blowing systems in place. Also, these laws should strengthen the role of communal forums – such as trade unions and vicinity councils – to help children avoid coming to live on the streets.
Last but not the least, safeguarding children and ensuring them a rightful life is a collective social responsibility, which exceeds the need for stringent legal provisions. Let us all take this responsibility to help prevent the reasons that bring children to live on the streets. The foremost, let us all SAY NO TO CHILD BEGGARY. The small amount of money that we consider virtue to give away to such children only pave ways for several other children getting trapped into the hands of the mafias that profit from this heinous crime.
This article was originally published in the News, and has been republished here with the express permission of the author.