Street kids’ hope

Published September 2, 2018
The writer is founder of Cities for Children a non-profit that focuses on street-connected children.
The writer is founder of Cities for Children a non-profit that focuses on street-connected children.

A COUPLE of years ago, I visited a drop-in centre for street children in Peshawar as part of a mapping exercise. The children there were generally ‘of the street’, ie they did not return to their families or homes. The programme manager explained how many of them would travel between Islamabad and Peshawar, and at the time, they were particularly excited to be part of the PTI dharna.

Such political engagement was not too surprising. In some ways, it resembled the participation of street-connected children in the Arab Spring. In Egypt, they were termed the ‘revolution’s smallest soldiers’, as they would show up at the front lines, braving the violence to feel like they were part of something bigger. The public movement — democratised by the streets — held the promise of food, camaraderie and a sense of belonging.

It was a moment to celebrate, then, when Prime Minister Imran Khan gave some of his youngest supporters the dignity of recognition in his inaugural address. “Street children are our children,” he said, extending the promise of an invitation to children who otherwise stand on the margins.

For those interested in human rights and development, it seemed like the time had finally come for the national conversation to shift to human security by addressing the vulnerabilities of the individual in order to achieve longer-term peace and prosperity, and sparked something like hope.

The time has come for the conversation to shift to human security.

However, it was also a moment to pause. Advocacy agendas can take on new life in the hands of a powerful champion, which would not otherwise be possible in spite of the diligent efforts of child rights workers over decades. There is an opportunity in the sudden sparking of national interest, as well as a risk. ‘Street children’ cannot be a buzzword.

In order to ensure that things are done well, it’s important to understand the nature of the challenges. According to the Wilson Centre, Pakistan is urbanising at the fastest rate in South Asia. Already it appears that about half the urban population lives in katchi abadis, or informal slum settlements. These include Afghan refugee communities, those who have been internally displaced by disaster or conflict within the country over the past few years, as well as economic migrants coming in from rural areas. A most difficult aspect of working with communities that are undocumented and often seen as ‘mobile’ or ‘transient’, is that their existence in cities may be in conflict with the laws of municipal authorities.

‘Street children’ itself is an umbrella term, encompassing a wide range of young people who may or may not have links with these informal urban communities. In the child rights world, the term increasingly used is ‘street-connected’, meaning children who depend on the streets for survival — whether they live on the streets, work on the streets, have support networks on the streets, or have some combination of the three. Children exposed to the streets experience a range of vulnerabilities that are different from what they would experience in rural areas eg the risks of abuse, neglect and exploitation by criminal or militant groups. Economic pressures mean they must choose between work and school.

Pakistan is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the underlying principles are non-discrimination and the best interests of the child. Non-discrimination means that no one gets left behind — even those who live in the sprawling settlements that exist as an inconvenient truth. The best-interest consideration means that solutions need to be tailored by listening to children whose stories and experience are not uniform.

If the plan is to have more and better protection facilities for street-connected children, that will be welcome. However, the task is far more complicated than setting up brick-and-mortar structures. While physical protection matters greatly, particularly for those who are vulnerable to both physical and sexual abuse on the streets, what happens inside those walls is of critical importance. The quality of services can really determine the trajectories of the young people who enter, and how they will interact with the world when they leave. It is also important to consider where the children will go from there, and whether their families are in a position to support their return.

The issue of street-connected children cannot be viewed in isolation; there are drivers and stressors that bring them where they are. The ‘urbanisation’ of poverty is a dilemma that much of the world is struggling with, and solutions require some bold and dynamic thinking. Perhaps the present government, with its reform-oriented agenda, can be the one to take it on.

Time will tell what the tangible outcome of the prime minister’s promise will be. For now, the first significant step has been taken: children who were invisible have finally been seen.

The writer is founder of Cities for Children a non-profit that focuses on street-connected children.

Twitter: @madeeha_ansari

Published in Dawn, September 2nd, 2018

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