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Slum Stars Can Shine the Nation

The phenomenon of street children is considered be very complex in both developed and underdeveloped world today. Let’s define who are street children? What are their numbers? Before considering how street children are to be cared for. The term “street child,” used by the United Nation’s Commission on Human Rights in 1994, was developed in the 1980s to describe “any girl or boy for whom the street (in the broadest sense of the word, including unoccupied dwellings, wasteland, etc.) has become his or her habitual abode and/or source of livelihood, and who is inadequately protected, supervised or directed by responsible adults.” At that time, “street children” were categorized as either child on the street, who worked on the street and went home to their families at night; children of the street, who lived on the street, were functionally without family support but maintained family links; or abandoned children who lived completely on their own.

The terminology has continued to evolve to recognise children as social actors whose lives are not circumscribed by the street. Human Rights Council resolution 16/12 refers to children working and/or living on the street, and the Committee on the Rights of the Child has adopted the term “children in street situations,” recognising that children engage in numerous activities on the street and that if there is a “problem” it is not the child, but rather the situations in which s/he finds her/ himself.

UNICEF in 2002 estimated that 100 million children were growing up on the streets across the world. Though some variance exists, international organizations and bodies estimate that the global street child population ranges between 100 – 150 million children. The street child population is mostly fluid, with street children         travelling from one city toanother and frequently not possessing identification documents.The phenomenon of street children is predominantly urban. The strong family ties and informal system of social protection upheld in rural areas usually keeps children off the streets, although many street children in the cities have migrated from rural areas to the cities individually or along with their families.

In a country like Pakistan where there is political fluctuation, economic instability and the only form of stable growth is in terms of the population, poverty has become an inevitable problem. It is estimated that there are 70,000 street children in Pakistan, surviving in the major cities and urban centres, making them one of the largest and most neglected social groups in the country.As 69% of the population of Pakistan lives in rural areas, the majorityof street children are thought to be in transition between rural villages and major cities, surviving on the streets in small towns throughout the country.

The vast majority of these children are surviving on the street and return to their family homes at night (93%) with a small percentage considered entirely of the street (7%). Estimates suggest that 80% of the street children are male and 20% are female.

International attention on the issue of children and youth working and living on the streets started to rise in the wake of the "International year of the child" 1979. Since then not only have aid programmes and projects been established but the issue has also been the focus of intense interest. In the last three decades of work and research on children and youth on the streets a shift of paradigms has taken place. The focus has recently been placed onto young people by seeing them as competent actors and agents of their own lives.

Street Child World Cup is one of the emergingglobal campaign for street children to receive the protection and opportunities that all children are entitled to. Ahead of each FIFA World Cup, the Street Child World Cup unites street children from across five continents to play football. Through football, art and campaigning, the movement aims to challenge the negative perceptions and treatment of street children around the world.

On 28 March 2014, the Street Child World Cup 10-day tournament and conference kicked off in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In the World Cup 19 teams took part, including: El Salvador, USA, Zimbabwe, Argentina, England, Mozambique, Nicaragua, South Africa, Burundi, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Liberia, Brazil, Egypt, Mauritius, Kenya, Tanzania and the Philippines. According to one of the Organiser Joe Hewitt; ‘Street Child World Cup is calling on governments, businesses and the wider community to invest in frontline responses, legislate and implement policies that protect street children and listen to street children so they are no longer blamed, ignored or victimised’.

Team Pakistan was led by Azad Foundation and supported by a British Charity Muslim Hands. The same charity also supported the team of Philippines. Syed LakhteHasannain, Muslim Hands’ Chairman believes:

‘Wemust recognise that despite their limited opportunities and marginalization, young people on the streets could be exceptionally brilliant. Thus, they should not be seen as problems anymore but as competent social actors who interact with a variety of environments’.

The Pakistani team reached semi-final of the tournament by beating India, Mauritius and Philippines but lost the big match to Burundi. Pakistani team of street footballers won the match for the third position in street Child World Cup by beating United States by 1 goal.In a country where football is not a favourite game and the national team is far away from making into FIFA World Cup, this is an extra ordinary achievement from street children.Pakistan remained the best team in terms of goal average by scoring 19 goals.

By reading in media about the personal lives of these nine national heroes; one can easily understand that these brave souls have remained the victim of poverty, child labour, economic migrations and domestic violence.  It is not surprising as economic deprivation and urbanization have traditionally caused a constant flow of children onto the streets of major cities in Pakistan. Inadequate family incomes have forced children to seek employment in the informal sector.

Family factors such as abuse and exploitation have further complicated this issue and with the total fertility rate remaining at 4.1 with several recent births being reported as unwanted, the risk of neglect is ever-present. The rise in the number of street children in Pakistan is primarily due to the influx of Afghan refugees; more than 1.5 million refugees were assisted by UNHCR in Pakistan in 2001 and of these 59% were children. A significant number of these children end up on the streets. A growing child population in times of poverty and instability, with limited economic opportunities, makes increases in street children in Pakistan inevitable.

The recent economic crisis and subsequent increases in levels of inflation in Pakistan have decreased accessibility of basic foods which will worsen the health situation of street children as 44% of street children were already found to suffer from stunting, wasting, or malnutrition. The levels of HIV considered to be rising in Pakistan and the street child population is at particular risk due to their drug abusing practices and engagement in risky sexual behaviour. The poor police response to street children and their community’s complacency and neglect has compromised their safety and security, as exemplified by the Javed Iqbal incident in 1999. The UNODC reports that 90% of street children in Pakistan are now sniffing glue; in addition to the physical and mental health effects of inhalants abuse, this practiceadds to the stigma of being a street child and potentially fuels streets children’s perception of the public’s hatred towards them. Ultimately, these factors combine to denote that the health and safety situation for street children in Pakistan is deteriorating.

With their numbers increasing and their health and safety situation deteriorating, street children in Pakistan are in great need of appropriate policies and interventions. Government policies on education, poverty-reduction, and protection are well-intentioned however their practical implementation has been limited due to lack of political commitment and enforcement. Furthermore, the government has not formally acknowledged the problem of street children in Pakistan. A limited number of local and international NGOs have attempted to assist the street children however Muslim Hands is now planning to launch its various projects for Street Children in Pakistan.

The current political climate in Pakistan makes it difficult to imagine prioritisation of street children in the foreseeable future; however the way forward entails celebrating and recognising the achievement of the Pakistani team in Street Children World cup andlearning lessons from examples of successful interventions internationally.

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