Starved for love

June 21, 2011

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AJAT Shah is 13. He sells sherbet he prepares by the roadside in Majeed Colony, Landhi. Shah has a dream. He wants to study — but cannot. The government school in his neighbourhood is not functioning. He cannot afford private schooling. Besides, he has to earn a living.

Sohail (16) drives a rickshaw and earns enough to pay his father Rs400 a day. He doesn’t have a dream. He probably finds it futile to dream as his life has nothing to offer. For him, graduating from rag-picking to driving a rickshaw is progress enough.

Shah and Sohail are two of Pakistan’s 1.2 million street children. I met them at the Kirnay Drop-in Centre (DIC) in Landhi which I visited recently. Run by the Pakistan Voluntary Health and Nutrition Association (Pavhna), it caters to the need of those unwanted youth who roam our streets unprotected, unsupervised and exposed to scourges such as HIV/Aids, sexual abuse, violence and addiction.

Turned out of their homes early in the morning to fend for themselves, these young boys, and some girls, earn a meagre living by scavenging, polishing shoes, serving in roadside restaurants, acting as chota for car mechanics or working as apprentices in factories. Many are forced into prostitution. Others offer themselves to sex perverts to earn a quick buck. Apart from the hazards they face in their exposed existence, the biggest problem not generally recognised is that starved for love they are emotionally insecure.

With rising unemployment, economic recession, urbanisation, social instability, growing violence and a high population growth rate, the number and problems of street children are increasing. In a civilised society, Ajat and Sohail would be treated as the state’s responsibility. But Pakistan is not known for being child-friendly and so these children are a blot on society’s conscience.

Kirnay is run on an informal community-based model where the children drop in any time they wish. If they are not well, Misbah, the lady health visitor, tends to their ailment. If they are upset, as they often are, Afsar Khan, counsellor and mobiliser, and Farmanullah are available to listen to their tales of woe and give them friendly advice while providing emotional support. This skeleton team works under Junaid, a dedicated worker who loves the children and has picked up management skills in the six years he has been working with Pavhna.

Because of the staff, the centre is like a haven of peace for the children. They have television and games for recreation, and literacy classes for those who are interested. Soap and water are available to them for the luxury of bathing. Vocational training is provided by Ismail, himself a success story of the centre. He started as an apprentice at a garment factory, went on to pass his Intermediate exam and is now training as a paramedic.

Junaid feels his team’s biggest achievement is imparting better life skills to the children who come to the centre. They have actually managed to bring about behavioural changes in them thus improving their quality of life. Some have been detoxified with the help of doctors to get them off hard drugs while others have been weaned off gutka and glue-sniffing. They have been told about Aids and its dangers and have learnt anger management. Above all, they now feel a sense of ownership towards the DIC. When it started the young visitors were pilfering whatever they could lay their hands on. Not now. The notice on the wall expresses their feelings, ‘This is our centre’.

Kirnay was launched in 2004 with funds from the government’s Aids control programme. There were five centres strategically located in Karachi in areas where the street children population was highest. The idea was to provide protection to these children most of whom are sexually abused and therefore vulnerable to Aids. But in 2008, the government pulled out of the project. Pavhna managed to keep the centres going for another six months when it ran out of funds and had to close them down leaving about 15,000 children out in the cold. A year later, a new DIC was set up in Landhi with the help of Johnson & Johnson and Asia Foundation to run from April 2010 to June 2011. J&J is already out and the future of 2,500 children (including 20 girls) registered with the DIC hangs in the balance.

It costs a minimum of Rs225,000 per month to run a centre on a shoestring budget. But for the children who visit, this makes a vital difference. However, this is not a long-term solution to a problem that is so deep and poignant. It has to be addressed from the other end. There is a need to look into the working of the family-planning programme. Why should parents bring unwanted children into this world and then leave them to roam the streets? Today, a woman of reproductive age has on average four children. The population growth rate is 2.5 per cent and 42 per cent of the population is under 15. Our population bulge has yet to be overcome.

There is need to disseminate information on the rights of children. Parents who give birth to them should be prepared to take the responsibility of giving them a healthy and happy life. The government should concurrently invigorate its population programme, with greater emphasis on contraceptive delivery to meet the large unmet need.

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