ON Tuesday, Nov 12, the Sindh government imposed a ban on child beggary, directing the social welfare department to ‘round up’ child beggars and place them in welfare centres, including in an upcoming facility in Korangi.
On one hand, this might be seen as an effort to deliver on the national government’s promise to better protect street-connected children, as I had written about earlier in this paper. Child beggary does indeed violate the fundamental rights that all children should have, in terms of being safe from harm and having the space and opportunity to achieve their full potential.
To some it may seem strange, then, that this announcement by Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah raises some serious red flags. One of the biggest issues with the blanket ban across the province is that it does not acknowledge the complex factors that first drove children to the streets — or the factors that keep them there.
The megalopolis of Karachi is cruel to the urban poor. The proposed solution ignores the fact that street-connected children are not all the same, and are not all unaccompanied. Many have families to return to, from whom there should not be forced separation if the campaign is to be truly embedded in children’s human rights. There is real desperation, and real lack of economic opportunity, driving family choices that cannot always be fairly judged by people of privilege. Unless efforts are multipronged, with viable economic alternatives being provided so families can care for their own, children’s issues will not end with their removal from the streets.
Children’s issues will not end simply with their removal from the streets.
Children who live on the streets — children ‘of’ the street — include many who have voluntarily run away from unhappy circumstances at home. They are among the most vulnerable to risks like sexual abuse and, for protection purposes, can also be drawn to joining larger groups or even gangs. If rounded up against their will, it will take special efforts and resources to ensure that they do not run away from institutionalisation.
The language of the announcement is also of concern. The report providing the rationale for the campaign cited Section 7 of the West Pakistan Vagrancy Ordinance, 1958, which prohibits beggary. This essentially lays the ground for the criminalisation of street-connected children — and for future harassment by law enforcement agencies.
There is a language of urgency pushing the campaign to ensure that no child will be visible with hand outstretched for alms. The minister for works has been directed to complete the Korangi Sweet Home ‘on war footing’. The question is, even if this is done, will current facilities have the capacity to deal with the results of the ban?
The idea of placing vulnerable children in a facility where they have access to shelter, food, sports and education is certainly born of positive intent. It seems like a holistic approach, incorporating the beautiful concept that play is an important part of childhood. However, perhaps now would be a good juncture to take stock of whether enough material and human resources are available to provide this.
The staff managing facilities have an absolutely critical role in determining the success of the concept. Their level of training and understanding regarding both the practical and psychological aspects of managing street-connected children will determine the success of the provincial government’s plan. It should not be a traumatic experience to be ‘picked up’ by a welfare agency. People who work with street-connected children spend a long time building relationships of trust so that the services they offer are accepted and genuine rehabilitation can happen.
In the development world, the term ‘theory of change’ is used to think about the kind of impact that an intervention is meant to create. While jargon is not always necessary, the idea is to go through the mental exercise of thinking through the desired outcomes of activities, the inputs or resources required, and simple ways of measuring progress. In this situation, it is essential to identify desired outcomes and impact. If the aim is to simply remove children from sight, there is a danger of this campaign becoming akin to a police operation. If the aim is longer-term rehabilitation, much deeper thinking will be required at the design stage.
This is not to detract from the urgency of the issue: children exposed to the streets need attention now. Every experience they have in their daily lives informs who they are and who they are going to be. And the sooner they are able to access a safe, nurturing environment, the brighter their future can be. In the interest of doing more good than harm, however, the language of urgency cannot be the language of haste.
The writer is founder of Cities for Children, a non-profit that focuses on street-connected children.
Published in Dawn, November 18th, 2018