Street children are our children, and if we don’t look after them who will?”, asked Prime Minister Imran Khan in his opening address. On September 3, 2018, the Federal Minister for Education and Professional Training, Shafqat Mahmood, announced a special programme to educate street children. The new government’s education agenda and commitment to social welfare gives us hope for the future of 1.5 million children on the streets of Pakistan’s major cities.
“Street children are those for whom the street has become home or their source of livelihood. They can be seen begging for money, pleading to wash your car, selling flowers or polishing shoes. Extreme poverty, unemployment, domestic violence and lack of education are considered the major factors behind the increase in the number of street children.”
The vulnerability of these children was gruesomely highlighted in 1999, when serial killer Javed Iqbal was convicted of sexually abusing and subsequently murdering 100 street children in Lahore after which he disposed their bodies of by dissolving them in acid.
Evidence from various reports shows that up to 90 per cent of street children in the country are victims of sexual assault. They are exposed to violence and abuse on a daily basis and young girls are often forced into prostitution. Only eight per cent of children living on the streets in Pakistan are female. A documentary titled ‘Pakistan’s Hidden Shame’ reveals the sad reality of sexual abuse faced by homeless boys in the Northern Areas of Pakistan. It alleges that nine out of 10 street children in Peshawar have been victims of paedophilia.
Furthermore, due to the easy availability and cheap price of industrial adhesives, 90 per cent of street children are addicted to sniffing glue. This coupled with copious drug and alcohol use impairs the physical and mental wellbeing of these children for life. They are at an increased risk of acquiring life threating sexually-transmitted diseases such as HIV and AIDs and hepatitis due to their exposure to sexual abuse. Women are often carrying babies thought to be heavily sedated as they seem to be completely unaffected by heat, cold or rain.
Pakistan is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 20 of which clearly defines the rights of street children: “A child who is temporarily or permanently deprived of his or her family environment, or in whose own best interests cannot be allowed to remain in that environment, shall be entitled to protection and assistance provided by the state.”
The plight of these children warrants special attention from the government, development agencies and civil society.
There are ongoing efforts to assist street children through various government programmes, civil society organisations and remarkable charities that provide concrete services, support and help to street children. However, the need is huge, and it is critical that we step up support to these children as a priority.
In Pakistan, begging is punishable by up to three years imprisonment, but convictions are rare. Existing laws and government policies on education and poverty reduction should be strengthened with strong implementation. We also need to ascertain the true scale of the problem of street children in Pakistan by improving research initiatives and including them in the national census.
Free primary education is the constitutional right of every child in the state, as stipulated in Article 25 A of the Constitution. Children are the future of a nation and Pakistan currently has the largest percentage of young people in its history. The provision of education, safe lodging and social protection is key to reduce and overcome the vulnerability of these children and to ensuring their inclusion in society.
By: Leena Nishtar