“ANY girl or boy … for whom the street (in the widest sense of the word, including unoccupied dwellings, wasteland, etc.) has become his or her habitual abode and/or source of livelihood; and who is inadequately protected, supervised, or directed by responsible adults” comprises a street child. This definition by the Inter-NGO Programme has been cited by the UN.

There are two types of street children; those that source their livelihoods from the streets, sleep and live there; and those who work on the streets during the day, but return to their homes at night.

In 2005, the United Nations stated that 1.2 to 1.5 million children inhabited the streets of Pakistan, placing us in the category of countries with the highest population of street children. The majority live in Karachi. Iraq and India are also examples of countries stricken by war, poverty and population control issues, exacerbating the issue of street children.

Domestic, social and economic disruption constitutes the key factor underpinning the predicament of street children. Poverty, domestic violence, substance abuse, gender identity issues, natural disasters and the ‘war on terror’ contribute towards the steep figure in Pakistan. These children face the expected challenges of access to health and sanitation, clean drinking water, nutrition and shelter.

They also experience a sense of being ‘culturally rootless’ as they lack parental protection, security and a moral fabric, due to the missing link with their families. The majority of street children in Pakistan are boys; female representation is lower due to cultural constraints and a more controlled home environment. Street children form peer groups to compensate for their lack of a social network, often leading to illegal activities including drug abuse, crime and theft. Often, it becomes threatening to resist these gangs.

Given this notion of street children in Pakistan, the recent Street Children Football World Cup was a novel surprise. An initiative organised in Brazil in conjunction with Save the Children, with 230 former street children participating from 19 countries. Pakistan was represented by a team led by the Azad Foundation (AF). Whilst they didn’t win the title, they certainly won a lot of hearts. Social media was abuzz with news as people welcomed this all-encompassing global effort for supporting a clearly marginalised section of society.

AF has drop-in centres, mobile dispensaries, rehabilitation centres and a drug abuse and HIV prevention programme for street children in Pakistan. One of the most critical successes of AF is its resource centre in collaboration with Unicef and the Sindh Welfare Department. This provides a repository of information on street children, vital for capacity development and awareness-raising endeavours.

Similarly, the Naqsh Art School, set up in Lahore’s Walled City, caters to street children (especially those of commercial sex workers) with an alternative support system. This works exceptionally well, with sculpture and art being taught to children in order to create long-term, alternative livelihood opportunities.

Whilst individual efforts must be lauded, the fundamental question is whether the private sector model will be scalable without the necessary boost from the public sector. Street children create a lucrative ecosystem and seek to benefit from it — a much more viable option versus the challenges they face at home. This lifestyle becomes self-sustaining and hence impermeable.

The role of the government, in terms of prevention, cure and accountability is pivotal to signal any meaningful transformation. If children are permitted to live on the streets and earn, the system is incentivising them against change. Further, investment needs to be made in significant alternative health, education and social security infrastructures for this growing number of children.

This is similar to the increasingly popular madressah syndrome. The latter are viewed as a convenient means of attaining food, shelter and clothing along with instruction. Parents are oblivious to the content of teaching imparted at these institutions. For them, survival is primary. Street children are in a similar situation.

Whilst bells and whistles are always welcome, real value-addition is likely to stem from interventions tackling the recurring underlying causes of why children take to the streets. Instead of our cops physically assaulting these children, this attitude towards the street child, which has existed globally since centuries, must be questioned and the issue be made a national priority.

With the ongoing security perils, Pakistan does not need yet another reason to be at the pinnacle of this list. As we heard repeatedly during the Street Children World Cup, from the eyes of these children, they should be “treated the same as your children”. Their message to the wider world was loud and clear, but unfortunately, in Pakistan, one can never guarantee that someone is listening.

The writer is an anthropologist from the University of Oxford.

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