Changing the story

Published April 25, 2021
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.

IN an interview for April 12, International Day for Street Children, a young girl spoke of her life with a smile. Her grandparents lived in the same abadi where she was born, and where she now lives with her uncle — who does the same kind of labour as his father before him. She used to beg, like her grandmother, but after a night in prison and decision by a tearful uncle, has stopped. She used to go to school, but doesn’t anymore. Why? She is asked. She just doesn’t, she answers with a shrug.

The story of intergenerational poverty, shrugged off, is common. It is replayed in each of the interviews with children having connections with the street, living in ‘informal’ urban settlements, sometimes for decades. For some, the story has gotten darker with the pandemic, with families sliding deep into debt. While many started work early to support their households — by about age seven or eight — formerly economic activities were often built around school hours. Now for children falling further behind without access to digital options, the possibility of returning to education seems remote.

The theme for this year’s international day was ‘access for street children’ — but the path to real options is strewn with obstacles. The first, perhaps the greatest, is a lack of understanding of who ‘street children’ are. The dominant narrative remains that they are either victims or delinquents, associated with gangs or mafias. Vagrancy laws carried down from the 1950s reinforce stigma and legitimise their temporary removal or detention, but this still doesn’t lead to long-term answers.

The gaps in social protection for street children must be noted.

In reality, street-connected children come from diverse backgrounds including refugee, displaced and economic migrant communities. Often they lack the documentation that is key to accessing services. With invisibility comes vulnerability to harassment and exploitation. Some are unaccompanied, but many have families and parents who do love them — and some (by no means all) do fall into the hands of criminal groups. So, to design solutions, step one is to acknowledge complexity.

A second step would be to review existing laws and their implementation. One is Article 25-A which affirms the right to education for every child, without discrimination. To really get this for street-connected children means investing in community outreach, and working with organisations that understand their challenges and know how to tailor solutions — accelerated programmes, creative learning opportunities and components perceived as useful, including vocational training.

Then in terms of child protection, there is an opportunity right now to shape laws that are currently at different stages at the provincial level, and also determine how they will be operationalised. There have been plans to expand protection and shelter facilities, which should be safe spaces where the best interests of the child are paramount. At no stage should these become akin to detention facilities — something that can be avoided by putting in provisions to consult children and their families about their future, and to review cases on an individual basis.

A useful framework for formulating policies for street-connected children is UN General Comment No 21 on children in street situations. This emphasises a holistic, rights-based approach to address both prevention and response in line with the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The opening paragraph contains quotes from street-connected children, one of which is “Give us the opportunity to change our story.”

Several opportunities can exist, if we want them to. Some may lie in social welfare programmes like Ehsaas, which has elements offering support to families and incentivising education, especially for girls. When it comes specifically to street children, however, there is a need to recognise the gaps in social protection mechanisms, see who falls through the cracks — and how they can be filled.

Then there is the possibility of cooperation to create and implement rights-based laws. On April 12 this year, the Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari reiterated a commitment to street children that was first made by the government in the prime minister’s inaugural address. Her words were important because they defined justice as access to basic rights — health, education, protection. They were also important because it was in conversation with Mehnaz Akber Aziz, the MNA with whom there was most recently landmark cooperation transcending party affiliations, to pass legislation against corporal punishment. In that conversation, for a brief moment, hope seemed very much alive.

Every year, we celebrate international days to remind ourselves of what needs to change in the world. Maybe, by next year, we can give street-connected children in Pakistan more of a chance to change their story.

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

Twitter: @madeeha_ansari

Published in Dawn, April 25th, 2021

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