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Vanity project or haven? A look at PTI's street child campaign

Updated May 12, 2016 01:36pm

PESHAWAR: Eight-year-old Ali Khan, like many of his friends, cannot afford to go to school. Ali's desires and dreams are no different from other children, but he is poor and his father is mentally ill. Poverty has forced his mother to send him to beg on the streets so he can make enough money to buy bread for his three siblings. Ali currently lives in a welfare house in Faqeerabad.

“I earn between Rs100 to Rs300 through begging in Saddar,” he says. He is wearing a dress made of thin cloth, and his face is covered with dirt marks. The amount he earns is not enough to cover even the admission fee of a school. If someone could take on his educational expenditure, Ali would like nothing better than to go back to studying.

That dream may come true for Ali, and countless other children, if Zamong Kor becomes a reality.

The lush green gardens of Zamong Kor. —Photo by the author
The lush green gardens of Zamong Kor. —Photo by the author

Hope for street children

Zamong Kor, which means ‘Our Home’, is a project initiated by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf-led government. It aims to rekindle hope among street children by encouraging them to enroll in the school where they can study, live, play, and vocational skills away from the burdens of child labour and begging.

Read more: Imran dubs Zamong Kor a 'model institution'

The project is a physical society constructed upon 216 abandoned apartments on the outskirts of Peshawar, where street children can enjoy their rights without discrimination. The facility consists of lush green lawns, blocks of residences and classes, and open fields for sports and leisure.

Standing in one of these fields, Meraj Humayun Khan, a woman member of the provincial assembly and a volunteer at the facility, explains how the project will accommodate 1,000 children. They will be provided with education and health facilities, as well as recreation, sports, boarding and food.

“Street children in Peshawar will no longer live unsheltered, uneducated and uncared for,” says Humayun.

The facility was inaugurated on November 21 last year, on the occasion of Universal Children's Day. A street child, who would soon be a student at the Zamong Kor, was asked to inaugurate the Rs447 million project by the PTI chairman Imran Khan and Chief Minister Pervez Khattak, but the facility is yet to officially open.

The facility was inaugurated on Universal Children's Day last year, but is yet to officially open. —Photo by the author
The facility was inaugurated on Universal Children's Day last year, but is yet to officially open. —Photo by the author

A vanity project?

But the project is marred with controversy: questions remain about how the funds have been allocated and spent; meanwhile, child rights-activists have termed the initiative a ‘vanity project’ by the PTI. They say that while the project might be rekindling hope among street children, it can only be fruitful if it is implemented properly. For example, the millions spent have accomplished nothing due to a lack of proper planning.

“Provincial governments should consult with child right experts before launching these kinds of projects,” says Arshad Mahmood, a child rights activist in Peshawar.

Mahmood feels that even though Zamong Kor is a positive new initiative, the government could better spend its energies on allocating the same funds to already existing initiatives. He cites the example of the existing KP Child Protection Act 2010, and the Welfare Commission (KPCPWC), which are already working to build a sustainable, healthy child protection system in the province.

Zamong Kor aims to provide street children with a safe space where they can live without discrimination, fear and responsibility. —Photo by the author
Zamong Kor aims to provide street children with a safe space where they can live without discrimination, fear and responsibility. —Photo by the author

The Act, for example, has not yet been properly implemented. “The Act is considered to be the most comprehensive child protection law,” Mahmood says, emphasising the need for the KP government the PTI to ensure the act’s implementation, which has been lying in officialdom’s shelves gathering dust.

“A child protection department was established [under the act] with help from UNICEF,” Mahmood explains. “But department officials were never paid. Offices have remained closed for months.” Then, Mahmood feels that while institutions are useful, the existing child protection system needs to be strengthened first.

Meanwhile, the Welfare Commission has only been allocated grants worth Rs10 million since 2011. The amount is not sufficient to build the child protection units across all 25 districts, as earlier planned. These units currently exist in 11 districts, but an additional Rs300 million will be required to construct the rest. “Street children do not just reside in Peshawar,” Mahmood comments. The new facility might help children, but it is limited to the provincial capital.

Also read: Future of thousands of street children at stake

From street children to state children

Humayun believes Zamang Kor will prove to be a center of excellence for street children, who will be allowed to put their energy and time into positive pursuits, rather than becoming a burden on society. “It will produce good leaders in the future,” Humayun says.

In the project’s first phase, 15 children between the ages of five and eight will be enrolled in the facility. These children will come from welfare houses and beggar houses, which run under the social welfare department project. Once the residential houses start filling up, each flat will accommodate 20 students under the supervision of a female warden.

Residence block at Zamong Kor. —Photo by the author
Residence block at Zamong Kor. —Photo by the author

Under the guardianship of the provincial government, these children will then be called ‘state children’ instead of ‘street children.’ The facility also had a vocational training career and psychological counseling. “All expenditures are taken care of by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government,” he says.

Humayun volunteers his time at the facility like most other people. No posts were officially advertised and not a single person was hired. The project’s acting director’s position has been assigned to the additional secretary of social welfare.

No action on the ground

Some child rights activists complain that the provincial government launched the project without proper research. “They did not conduct a census,” says Imran Takar, one such activist. Non-profit organizations, Takar says, do not have enough resources to collect data on a large scale; it should be up to the government to take care of surveys, especially before launching large-scale projects.

The large survey on street children was conducted in 1996, in collaboration with the International Labour Organization (ILO). According to survey there are 3.3 million children in Pakistan involved in child labour and 1.1 million alone in KP. FATA, areas where Afghan refugees live and children working in informal sectors (unregistered sectors) were not included in the survey.

There has been no follow-up on the survey since 1996. This means there is no actual data on child labour or street children available in Pakistan.

“Actual figures are crucial in forming policies and devising strategies for street children facilities,” Takkar says. Hundreds of children quit their studies every year because of poverty. This school could help those kids continue their studies, but Takkar is skeptical of the project, which he feels is similar to numerous initiatives that have been chalked out in the past. “There is little action on the ground,” he says.

Zamong Kor is yet to open officially. —Photo by the author
Zamong Kor is yet to open officially. —Photo by the author

Promises amidst criticism

The criteria for enrollment will be simple: any child who lives on the streets or is unable to pay her school fees due to poverty, can enroll at the facility. However, Takkar finds these criteria problematic. In the lack of a census, he says the KP government has no mechanism to identify such children in the first place.

But others have jumped on board with full enthusiasm. Humayun says NGOs have expressed their interest in assisting Zamong Kor on a voluntarily basis. Shehzad Roy, the pop singer, has donated 16 beds to the school.

Then, Reham Khan was declared the official ambassador for street children by the KP government on April 12, 2015, but she was removed from the post after her divorce from Imran Khan. Humayun attempted to contact Reham on several occasions, but she did not respond.

The project’s delay is simply because of legal frameworks in the government sector, which are time consuming to process. “I promise that the facility will be functional soon,” Humayun adds.