No matter where one looks, one can’t escape the heartrending sight of scores of children of all ages begging, doing manual labour, or selling small everyday items at main intersections or in bazaars in Pakistani cities. Many among them are runaway or abandoned children. Indeed, so large are their numbers that one tends to forget that the Constitution gives them all the basic rights: the right to health, to education, to protection and to dignity. This reminder recently came from Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari, who was addressing an event held to mark the International Day for Street Children observed on April 12 every year. Unfortunately, despite the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution, successive governments have failed to look after our young ones. Children from poor backgrounds already confront huge challenges, none of which are of their own or their family’s making. However, children living on the streets are even more disadvantaged as they endure routine physical and sexual abuse, lack of shelter, a cruel work environment and frequent run-ins with unsympathetic law enforcers. And they have no one to turn to. Though child protection departments or bureaus exist in all four provinces, their offices frequently remain closed. The relevant laws for child protection are there but their enforcement is negligible.
The Sindh government claims to have built two shelters in Karachi, housing a total of 400 street children, while similar shelters are said to be functioning in Hyderabad and Sukkur. Meanwhile, the federal government has launched another flagship project called Zamang Kor under which a large apartment complex outside Peshawar is being turned into a housing society for around 1,000 abandoned children. These silo initiatives might provide some short-term respite and positive PR but are ineffective in the long run. There are other societal factors the government needs to address to minimise the number of forsaken children on the streets: population control, uncontrolled urbanisation, poverty and access to jobs, adequate housing and shelter and beggar mafias. Without a long-term effort, children’s miseries will only increase.
Published in Dawn, April 15th, 2021