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The silence of the lambs


Illustration by Abro

Tahir* remembers with searing clarity the night several years ago when he was sexually assaulted by three policemen. “A group of us boys were sleeping on a pavement when a police mobile arrived and the cops told us to move. I was the only one they picked up. They took me to the police station and told me that I could scream and no one would do anything or I could cooperate and it would go better for me.” He was 11 years old at the time, a runaway living on the streets of Karachi.

According to the UN, there were between 1.2 and 1.5 million children on the streets of Pakistan’s urban centres in 2005, figures regarded as a gross underestimate by many social workers in the country. The number of street children has also increased dramatically over the last few years with the fighting up north compelling multitudes of internally displaced people to migrate — mainly to Karachi — while catastrophic floods have driven families out of the agrarian economy into penury on the fringes of various urban centres. Their children have been forced onto the street and, in many cases, into the clutches of predators on the lookout for easy prey.

Sexual abuse is among the first perils that children living on the street come up against. “Usually, the child is abused the very first night, often by an older child or an adult,” says Rana Asif Habib from the Initiator Human Development Foundation. “In the face of peer pressure, there is little a street child can do to resist his abuser.”

Many children living on the streets are runaways, orphans or abandoned by their families. The only protection afforded to them comes from being part of gangs, usually between 12 and 15 members strong. These gangs largely comprise boys because, as Ali Bilgrami of Azad Foundation explains, “Our social dynamics mean that girls don’t last long on the streets; either family members locate them and take them back or they are trafficked.”

Given their situation, children on the street are vulnerable to the sexual advances of a variety of predators along the chain of command — the older children who lead the gangs, the adult ringleaders who control several gangs of street children in a particular area, the local police who wield ultimate authority over the entire network — as well as a number of others who enable their lifestyle.

These youngsters earn a living by begging, peddling drugs and engaging in other criminal activities, all of which puts them at the mercy of the police. According to Abdullah Langah from Spaarc, “Because they sleep at railway stations, in parking lots, on pavements, at mazaars, etc., they often stash their bedding and sometimes their earnings with owners of roadside stalls who are then in a position to extract sexual favours from them.”

Street children also fall prey to paedophiles who stake outside shrines, restaurants and other places where free food is distributed, as well as sites where children can be found working, such as small tea stalls. They lure them by offering to take them shopping for clothes, to play video games or to watch films. At times, the film turns out to be pornographic viewing in hole-in-the-wall “cinemas” with entry fees of just Rs20  that are located in many slums of Karachi, such as Machhar Colony.

With sexual abuse so much a part of their lives — and often key to their survival — many street children in time themselves turn to selling their bodies to make money, especially when they are hooked on drugs. Tahir also went into commercial sex work when he was 16. “If cops, taxi drivers, etc. can use us with impunity, I thought I might as well earn a living from it,” he says matter-of-factly. “I’ve given my number to maalshis (street masseurs) who pass on my details to potential customers.” According to Tahir, a “mushki” complexion — not too fair and not too dark — is preferred. Most in demand, he says, are children between the ages of 11 and 14, those who “haven’t yet grown a beard”.

Bus terminals (Pir Wadhai in Rawalpindi, for example), public parks (Jehangir Park in Karachi is one) and cheap hotels in every urban centre are some of the usual pick-up spots for child prostitutes. Locations like Pir Wadhai are also home to squalid hotels where a bed for the night can be rented for as little as Rs30 a night.

Sexual encounters tend to be unprotected, putting the children at risk of sexually transmitted diseases. In a survey of 26 street children last year by the Sindh government, 10 were found to be HIV-positive.

Where sexual abuse is a survival tactic and law enforcers themselves are complicit, legal recourse is unthinkable for street children. In a brutal society that marginalises the poor, they are truly voiceless.

*Not his real name.