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Pakistani Street Children need more than National Assembly Resolution

I overjoyed the news last week that National Assembly of Pakistan has unanimously passed a resolution for the development and implementation of a social protection policy for Street Children in Pakistan. It was also heartening to know that Pakistani Federal Minister for sports and Tourism has also made an announcement to award the national colour to Team Pakistan as a token of appreciation for them; establishing their national sports identity. This is first time that the Pakistani legislature has formally acknowledged the problem of street children in Pakistan. I tried to highlight the problems of the street children across the world in one of my article of 3 May, 2014, on ARY Blog entitled, ‘Slum Stars can Shine the Nation’. The same article felicitated the success of this Bronze medal winner Pakistani team in the street Children world cup.

Muslim Hands, UK has also announced to support the professional training of 4 of these players in the UK. This is an excellent example of positive advocacy and social intervention from a third sector organisation. So far only a limited number of Pakistani and international NGOs have attempted to assist the street children in terms of their health, safety, and social wellbeing. Dealing with the problem of street children in Pakistan needs the cooperation of various governmental, non-governmental, and voluntary efforts by the Charities like Muslim Hands and Azad Foundation.

Azad foundation will draft a Street Children social protection policy in the near future which is promised to be backed by the Government of Pakistan for implementation. Such developments are very encouraging as providing multi-sectoral and multidisciplinary care for street children calls for coordination between NGOs and authorities facilitating sharing and replication of field experiences and approaches. But it also requires these approaches to be institutionalised and maintained over time and even to be enshrined as public policies. The policies and interventions in place to deal with street children in Pakistan are both qualitatively and quantitatively inadequate. Most of these policies are incapable of measuring, let alone managing, the street child phenomenon. There are no precise estimates of the exact magnitude of the problem of street children in Pakistan but all the stakeholders believe the problem is growing. There is an estimate that the number of children on the Pakistani streets exceeds one million. The lack of awareness of the magnitude of the problem by the Government and service providers hinders overall planning of national projects targeting the issue, and in most cases planning ends up being carried out on a small-scale rather than a nationwide basis.

Street children in Pakistan are exposed to a wide range of risks affecting their physical and psychological health and personal safety. These children are vulnerable to exposure to physical, verbal, psychological or sexual abuse, from passers-by, from employers and supervisors, or from other street children. They face other risks due to frequent economic exploitation, including working long hours for low wages, working at night or working without health or accident. Additionally, their education is frequently in jeopardy and they may be either exposed to or directly involved in at-risk situations, such as drug use or distribution, or gang activity. Due to the harsh environment in which they are forced to survive, street children are often characterised by stubbornness, aggressiveness, apparent selfishness, unstable emotional behaviour, lack of concentration, constant rebellion against authority, mistrust of others, and, sometimes, abusive behaviour towards other children, among other characteristics.

The existence of street children in Pakistan is a social phenomenon that should be analysed in terms of the underlying economic, social and educational factors that either trigger or exacerbate the problem. Although each child has his/her own experience that drove him/her to the streets, the reasons contributing to this phenomenon are similar in most of the cases.

Poor economic situations are a major factor contributing to the problem of street children in Pakistan. Poverty, unemployment, elevated prices, declining income, poor distribution of wealth within society, and the increasing gap between the rich and the poor are all factors with a direct impact on the rise of the phenomenon of street children in Pakistan.

The family situation and the type of relations within a family are, thus, important elements in shaping the features of the child’s life. Often, the phenomenon of street children is reversely proportional to the prevalence of normal relations within the family. The size of the family has a strong impact on the family’s economic situation. Families with more children incur more costs and require more efforts in terms of provision of care. Often in Pakistan poor families are unable to assume complete responsibility for raising and supporting their children if there are many. Large families provide less time, care, and money for each single child. In spite of attempts to eliminate illiteracy from Pakistan, there remain high levels of illiteracy among the families of street children. As a result of their own lack of education, parents remain unaware of the importance and value of education and do not provide appropriate educational provision for their children. This situation encourages children to drop out of school and remain in the streets.

Wars and natural disasters has led to massive spikes in the street children population. The War on terror and Taliban insurgency has contributed to the deterioration of Pakistani economy, the destruction of homes, the killing and displacement of thousands and the dispersion of families. This, in turn, leads to an increased number of orphans and homeless children. The same applies to natural disasters, such as earthquake and floods. For example, the earthquake and floods in Pakistan have resulted in the existence of thousands of street children due to the death of their family members, full demolition of their homes or dispersion of their families.

The image of street children in Pakistani community is often negative and based on stereotypes. For example, a sweeping and negative commentary that treats all street children in Pakistan as ‘though they are the same’ denotes that these children represent a severely complex problem. They can bring the Pakistani society health, psychological, and social disasters. This problem is more dangerous than the problem of child labour because working children are practicing a positive role, even though it is a small role, while a homeless child has no job, and no familial supervision. It is imperative that Pakistani society view street children as being nothing more than ‘criminal elements’.

We must not forget that offering support to street children first requires ‘access’ to the children and “acceptance” by them. Building a relationship of trust is an essential prerequisite to any form of aid. Medical care is essential when providing support for street children, whose vulnerability to disease is exacerbated by life on the streets (skin diseases, lung disease, gastric infections, malaria). Exposure to the risk of HIV/AIDS transmission is a constant factor, especially in cases of prostitution. Diseases such as tuberculosis and epilepsy may also be encountered; although infrequent, they are not uncommon. Many health and risk factors are associated with substance/drug abuse among street children, which include behavioural and health risk factors. Street children in Pakistan tend to use ‘Samad Bond’ glue, an industrial adhesive found in local hardware stores and shoe repair shops, and at 50 Pakistani rupees (UK£0.30) for a large container, it is both cheaper and more openly available than illegal drugs

Behavioural risk factors include stealing, begging, quarrelling, telling lies, or being sexually abused. The physical risk factors include chest troubles, intestinal, nutritional, and skin diseases. The medical care provided must be designed both to preserve physical health and to enable street children to regain self-confidence by learning how to take care of themselves once again.

The role of the doctor or nurse dealing with a street child is as much about providing psychological and educational care as it is about medical care. Finally, medical care often acts as the “gateway” into a relationship with the young person. It treats the injuries caused by living conditions on the streets and forms the basis for a relationship.

Educational aid must also be designed for the child as he or she is, and not as he or she ought to be. The pursuit of literacy with a view to remedial education is of little help to a child who has little or no sense of relationship to others, whose relationship with language is stunted by the relationship to his or her own body. It may be entirely pertinent, however, when its aim is to help the child re-learn the game of language and, through it, relationships with others. Many street children in Pakistan have dropped out of school or have never attended school at all, forced to work in order to support their families. Vocational training has the advantage of producing immediate results and satisfaction, and in a poverty-ridden country such as Pakistan, the possibility of a small, but psychologically significant, income.

Children should be protected while working. Legal support to working children and constant monitoring of cases of violations by employers is a vital preventive measure against the emergence and development of the problem of street children. NGOs should participate in the process, in cooperation of the Government of Pakistan.

It would be helpful to produce a Street Education Manual that suits the Pakistani culture and could act as a main tool for training NGOs, interested in dealing with street children on methods of street intervention and provision of rapid assessment. The Manual could be designed to target special issues of intervention such as substance abuse, health, community mobilization, or simply rapid assessment.

Providing care is essential to building a lasting relationship of trust with street children. The first objective is to make contact with them in order to restore a social bond: the contact in itself constitutes an act of social reintegration. Government of Pakistan and NGO’s should consider starting a mobile aid centre made up of a nurse, a social worker, a driver who acts as a “social facilitator” and a psychologist (on an occasional basis). The mobile centres may patrol the streets providing aid to children and young people on the streets at their night-time gathering sites and/or their daily activity sites. These mobile aid centre should offer comprehensive care (medical, psychological, social and educational) available directly on the streets.

The process of renewing family bonds, on the other hand, must be attempted unless unavoidable circumstances make this impossible. While contacting the family may not always be obvious in the light of geographical distance or family breakdown, it is nonetheless necessary as a means of trying to gain a better understanding of the street child’s situation.

The problem of street children is strongly affected by community attitudes and perceptions. To date, Pakistani communities have tended to see the street children phenomenon as an annoying problem in isolation from its causes. This perception often extends to proposed solutions to the problem, rather than developing holistic strategies targeting the culture of poverty which is at the root of the problem of street children. What is needed are strategies that target those communities, which spawn the phenomenon in the first place.

There is no doubt that after the success of Pakistan team in street children world cup, both governmental and third sector organizations has stressed the need and importance of carrying out collective action through joint projects. The media should also play its effective role in advocacy and raising awareness in cooperation with governmental agencies involved. We must not forget that Pakistan has made international commitments by signing and ratifying the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1990 and the optional protocol of the CRC. Articles 32-36 of the CRC explicitly indicate that it is the responsibility of the state to ensure that children are protected against violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of all forms.

The strategy to combat the street children problems should be based on a governmental approach and government should deal with street children as individuals with rights; this is also the responsibility of the entire Pakistani society, which should have a firm stand to give street children their rights to education, health, protection from violation, and a decent life.

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