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On the streets

Updated February 02, 2018


AN estimated 44 tonnes of processed heroin is consumed in Pakistan annually, generating some $2 billion in illegal trade, according to a report in the Telegraph in 2014. The figure, it is feared, has gone up since then. According to the Anti-Narcotics Force, close to 8.9 million people in Pakistan are drug dependent and local media sources suggest drug-related complications claim 700 lives daily in the country — much higher than terrorism. This figure is all the more alarming as the average age for drug use has fallen below 24, signalling a worrisome nature of the problem amongst the youth.

Pakistan is a signatory to the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. However, the harsh control and punishment structure has not prevented the country from becoming a hub for the global drug trade. In 2016, the World Drug Report published by UNODC claimed that over 40 per cent of opiates produced in Afghanistan arrive in Pakistan every year. The ease of availability and the shockingly low cost of drugs have greatly increased their consumption and dependence over the past decade.

Drug abuse is rampant in elite youth circles throughout Pakistan but most common among the country’s most ostracised social group, street children, particularly in urban centres. In the wake of the country’s deteriorating state of child security, it is increasingly important to think about street children and the dangers they face.

Drug abuse is most common among the country’s most ostracised social group — street children.

A 2005 UN study estimated that 1.2 to 1.5m children inhabited the streets of Pakistan. New headcounts are needed for these children, who, among other dangers, are exposed to chronic drug abuse and early dependence at as young as seven years. The children exposed to drugs face a host of issues, including lifelong drug dependence, police exploitation and fatal infections such as HIV. Despite the high vulnerability of street children to drug abuse, there is almost no data available on the issue. Even where data is available, its quality is subjective and it is out of date by a sizeable margin of over a decade.

Data available from the early 2000s suggests that the highest prevalence of drug abuse by street children is in some of Pakistan’s largest cities: Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar. For example, based on a survey of 1,151 children from various cities, the Azad Foundation, a Karachi-based NGO working to get children off Pakistan’s streets, had found that almost 56pc of street children were smoking hashish. Another study conducted over 2003-2005 in Lahore found that 67.1pc of the children in the sample had taken drugs in the past month while 15.9pc classified themselves as regular users of drugs.

A follow-up project in 2009 focused on the risk of HIV in street children — 565 of them were interviewed in Lahore; 13.5pc had exchanged sex for drugs on the streets. The numbers were higher for children who had spent 48 months or more on the streets. In fact, children who had exchanged sex for other services, such as food, shelter or drugs, were more likely to be active users of drugs at 93pc and consumed harder drugs; the use of heroin amongst this group was 9.6pc. Although the use of intravenous drugs was relatively higher for children in this group, injecting drugs was uncommon. But regular exploitation of street children by older injecting drug users puts them at high risk of HIV infections and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Among other things, the socioeconomic challenges of life in the street and the ease of availability of drugs push children into addiction. To make matters worse, support and rehabilitation facilities are limited and relapse rates are high due to resource constraints. The strictness, and lack of clarity and awareness around drug laws further reduces access to support; harassment by the police is widespread and false arrests to extract money or force children into doing odd jobs for the police are not uncommon.

There is an urgent need for more proactive and well-informed policymaking to tackle this growing culture of substance abuse on the streets. Therefore, up-to-date data collection on drug abuse among children is an indispensable first step in achieving policies that work. The absence of quality data is a major hindrance to solving the problem as it keeps the true magnitude of the issue hidden from policymakers and the public and, in turn, contributes to the problem.

While there is an obvious need to tackle the supply of drugs, resources must also be allocated for better training and accountability of the police, as well as to increase awareness of drug laws, and punishments in the country so that exploitation at the hands of officials and its subsequent consequences may be reduced.

There is also a need for increasing support facilities and rehabilitation centres. Many children express a desire to quit drugs but have no access to support facilities. Provincial welfare departments run a few rehabilitation facilities but they are far from sufficient. Most centres in high-priority cities, such as Karachi, are run by private NGOs and are severely understaffed and under-resourced. Despite efforts to get drug-dependent children off the streets, the relapse rates of some NGOs are as high as 70pc because of inadequate resources to continue the programmes.

But, most importantly, policies need to address the issue of street children in general. According to the Pakistan Education Statistics 2015-16 launched by National Education Management Information System, 22.64m children are out of school in Pakistan, of which 5.03m are of primary school-going age. This hints at an urgent need for effective and efficient channelling of the education budget. Pakistan’s budget allocation on education has more than doubled since 2010, but the misspending and mismanagement of funds continues to remain a troubling issue.

Pakistan’s battle against drugs has only just begun but the lack of attention towards the issue can lead to a public health crisis if the government fails to act quickly. Pakistan needs to move away from traditional demand-side policies to a more holistic approach.

The writer has worked with Unicef in Tajikistan on security and HIV positive children.

Published in Dawn, February 2nd, 2018