Five-year-old Shahid Gul, along with four other children of his village, rushes to Peshawar Saddar Bazaar with nightfall to collect scrap. They walk on foot to the city, take out huge bags and spread to various corners and pick points to collect reusable things from the garbage dumps. They remain busy for hours, sifting through dumps of filth lying here and there in the city.
“We are six siblings — four sisters and two brothers. I give money to my father, who is ailing and is not doing any work. My mother is also old. She washes dishes in a Khan’s home who gives Rs1,500 per month to her,” Shahid Gul said.
The boy said that although he did not go to school yet his parents advised him that if somebody asked about education he should tell them that he was attending school.
“My father, being poor, says he cannot afford my school expenses. I want to enjoy playing cricket with my friends but we don’t have time,” Mr Gul regretted.
According to experts, the number of street children in Peshawar runs in thousands. “Most of them are hailing from the surrounding villages while many others are from Afghan families. The children, who are involved in scavenging, don’t attend schools as they spend night from dusk to dawn in and around the city,” said Akhtar Jan, a former student of social work department, University of Peshawar.
He said that after having scavenged things of their purpose, they tossed them in pushcarts, provided by their bosses, and wheeled them out to godowns located three kilometres away in Charkha Khel village near Peshawar Saddar.
He said that around 80 to 100 godowns dealing in scrap existed in Charkha Khel, Maskeenabad, Umargul Road and Ring Road areas. Each scrap godown, he said, had engaged about 50 young boys.
Wali Rehman, another scavenger, said that they spent their day sleeping and later loitering on the streets till it got dark in the evening. “We form a group and then rush to the city for collecting various reusable items from the garbage.
We put these things in pushcarts and take it to godowns where our bosses give us money for the stuff depending on quality and weight. Normally we get Rs50 to Rs150 daily,” he added.
Although, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government made Reham Khan, the wife of PTI chairman Imran Khan, ambassador for street children on April 12, 2015, yet the future of thousands of children wandering on the streets of Peshawar seem to be unsafe. Most children come from poor and extended families around the city.
Children from age group five to seven and eight to twelve years are involved in the risky job. The provincial government had also announced to set up an academy for street children which would be made functional next year. The proposed academy would impart vocational training in addition to normal education to street children.
Scavenging is considered the worst form of child labour. Most parents exploit their children to earn a meagre amount without being unaware of health hazards caused by scavenging. These small scavengers contribute Rs2,000 to 2,500 per month to their family income.
Ali Shaukat is a student at social work department, University of Peshawar. He has recently conducted a report on ‘Scavengers in Peshawar. “Child labour is the involvement of children in economic activities; paid or unpaid where they are deprived of adequate education, good healthcare and basic freedom and are exposed to physical, mental, moral and spiritual hazards,” he said.
He added that scavenging was a menace and therefore, being a dangerous job that put the lives of the children at risk by exposing them to the hazardous articles like syringes, sharp blades, broken pieces of glass and sharp pointed nails or metal pieces.
Mr Shaukat said that it might cause hepatitis, Aids and tetanus or the children might get their lungs infected due to other harmful germs. Many of them, he said, were being sexually abused while others were hired for carrying out different kinds of home services with or without being paid but with consent of their parents. “Some children are hired to run home errands just for few hours and get only one meal for their service,” Mr Shaukat said.
According to a police source, teenagers disguising themselves as students in school uniforms carrying heavy bags were being used for smuggling contraband from the adjacent tribal areas into Peshawar.
A police official performing duty at Karkhano Market at the checkpost bordering Khyber Agency on the condition of anonymity told this scribe that he had caught teenage boys on several occasions who had been posing themselves as school students in Peshawar city while in fact they were not.
“They put on school uniform and also carry school bags but their bags instead of books are found being filled with either contraband or pistols and rounds. They take it to private hostels in the city. Three months ago, I suspected a small boy, who was wearing school uniform. He was not enrolled in any school. I recovered half kilogram of hashish from his bag,” the official revealed.
He said that those children travelled in school vans and private buses to Peshawar from Bara, Dara Adamkhel and Jamrud areas. He said that children were being used in drugs smuggling, beggary and street crimes including phone snatching and home robbery etc.
Prof Anoosh Khan, senior teacher at gender studies department, University of Peshawar, told this scribe that it was heartening to hear that provincial government had finally recognised the severity of issue regarding rights of street children and Reham Khan even called them ‘state children’. “I would suggest that the government should first of all identify the root cause which I strongly believe is a strong and organised mafia behind it. Once the root cause is rooted out, then responsibility should rest with academia, civil society and of course parents.” Ms Khan said.
Published in Dawn, April 26th, 2015