Starved for love

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn


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 www.pavhna.com) 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 behavioral 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.

29 thoughts on “Starved for love”

  1. Every week you take your readers to yet another journey of rediscovering themselves. How pleasant to know that in thEvery week you take your readers to yet another journey of rediscovering themselves. How pleasant to know that in the seemingly endless sea of pessimism and despair there stand islands of hope and determination.

    But they are stand alone islands with no coordination among them, thus, missing synergy to produce visible impact. How can it be done?

    The second important question, which I have, you have raised in concluding part. My suggestive answer: O Malthus ! If one cannot support a child then the child should not be born at all. You've been heard the new of suicide commuting police cop with twelve children. I don't think you could have done it if by law he was shot at the count of six.

    So the question filtered as: why are we not doing enough to stop this runaway train? Or, am I too paranoid to name it as mother of all evils…

    e seemingly endless sea of pessimism and despair there stand islands of hope and determination.

    1. You ask: why are we not doing enough to stop this runaway train?
      The answer is that most people are not bothered because people still believe that this state of affairs does not affect them. Their children are doing well. Why should they worry.\? But the fact is that we are all sailing in the same boat and when it goes down we will all go down together, whether we are first class passengers or deck class passengers. The watery grave will be the same for all…

  2. A political transformation that moves towards equity and better education is essential. A firm population control program and the bigots on pulpits who refuse to push for 2 children (max) in a family!

    1. Absolutely correct. Development is a holistic process. Better education leads to smaller families. It is also a protection against the bigots on the pulpits. But my own conversations with mothers with big family leads me to the conclusion that more than the pulpit wallas, it is the low status of women that drives people to have more children until they have a few sons to boast about. The dismal failure of the government's population programme that has not provided contraceptive ervices to meet the unmet need which is huge.

  3. The Initiator Human Development Foundation (IHDF) has also been working with street children in Karachi for some years now. I met the four street boys featured in my book 'Karachiwala' in this NGO's office. Besides hearing their heart-wrenching stories first hand, I also learned about IHDF's various initiatives for this 'community'. Of course the root cause of the problem is large plus poor families where children get neglected / abused / discriminated by their own parents, hence running away from home to a mega city like Karachi is extremely tempting for them. Young and inexperienced, they have no idea about the horrors awaiting in those streets for them at every corner.

    1. Rumana many of the children are not runaways. They are actually sent by their parents to fend for themselves. They return home every night.
      True there are many who decide to leave home too. I have no idea how many fall in which category.

  4. I read your column in dawn news paper and I feel some pleasure that there is someone who loves this country and doing somethinhg for the betterment of the people. when every person is leaving it or just complaining on being a part of this country. I feel pleasure that there are some individuals lik you who are doing efforts for those unwanted childrents whose parents donot take pain to provide them a good life they do nothings except saying this they would be grown up automatically. I wish that people like you keep doing something for this country and I could do something to help people like you.

  5. What a pitiful and sad commentary of the state of affairs in Pakistan. ZM has wonderfully woven a story of abandoned and forsaken street children whom we simply choose to ignore amidst our surfeit and consumerist lifestyles – the children of the lesser gods who have no place to call their own except the generosity of a few philantropists and caring individuals.she gives us statistics of average family in poor households and lack of population control since zia ul haq's bigoted government that slashed all RH initiatives including Family Planning.

    now paksitan boasts the highest infant mortality rate and maternal mortality rates in south asia competing with african nations while bangla desh a basket case for our establishment has surged ahead

    one question that springs to mind: where are the billions of dollars siphoned off by our military and civilan governments and their sponsors and donors in the west? why can't they both see these blighted souls left to wander the streets of pakistan. worse in KPK where children are sold to suicide bombers and we hear of abductions of both girls and boys to the markets for bondage and prostitiution in other cities? when will this medieval painful living end for these unfortunate souls? any hope? is this the real face of a modern islamic state of pakistan?

  6. Thank you Zubeida. At least there are islands of peace and sanity for these children, but they are so few and far between. We have our little school in Chatha. I'd like to know if there are any programs for street children that use technology to help them into the future. You are right in that they are starved for love but they are also starved for knowledge and technology skills could be their ticket out of the desperate situations they live in.

    1. As I wrote earlier development has to be holistic. Knowledge is also important. But remember a very knowledgeable person who is emotionally insecure may not be able to put his knowledge to good use. He may not even be functional normally.

  7. Zubeida as usual so well written and captured the essence of the predicament. If we ask the govt. if it were sane and committed to this task they could do their bit by opening in every urban area DIC or community learning centres for children aged 5-18 for various learning and life skills options. The same could be supplemented by citizens/CSOs. However, the saddest issue is that in Pakistan after 64 years we are still no where.. our scale is so small that leads to small impact as well and it does not add up. Can we ask CSR in Pakistan to form a community chest or dedicated fund for out of school children which can be given as grants .. but it needs to be organized by someone. Can the government through its Bait ul Maal and the umpteen Benazir enterprises for social safety nets be looking that this problem. ITA has 10 such centres in Rawalpindi, Islamabad and lahore and two more starting in Karachi in Korangi and Chanesar Goth. but this is not adding up for the 1.2 million children. .
    Baela

    1. Baela I would love to visit your centres some day. Actually we should also be working towards a solution which lies in population planning, alleviation of poverty, education and development

  8. ZM, excellent article. How can expat Pakistanis help? The obvious answer is financial help, but there is this huge trust deficit that unfortunately permates in their minds. Give me ideas to help this and similar organizations.

    1. I can understand the trust deficit. I have experienced it whenever I have travelled abroad. People have actually given me cash saying they trust me more and I could spend it on the flood victims as I deemed best (that was last year). I can suggest two ways. !. Those who visit Pakistan should try to establish contacts with various organisations and when they are here they should go and check out for themselves. They should reserve some time for them in every visit to keep in touch.
      2. Those who don't visit very frequently should keep in touch with family and friends who can do the checking on their behalf. They can follow up by asking questions by email

  9. State has failed to fulfil her responsibilities. There r many responsibilities like which u have identified. I hope u will not only point out those bt also will introduce hidden treasures of the society like junaid.

  10. It is the responsibility of the incumbent Government to take good care of its subjects, but here in Pakistan the situation is other way round. Children are the future masters of a nation, they need assistance to stand on their own feet for which they deserve. But in Pakistan what is in store for the children is any body's guess.
    Though poor parents want their offspring to get better education but there seems no sign for their dream to come true.They at best get their ward admitted in State run school where standard of education is always on the decline.
    If the children are to be transformed into good citizens the the Government ought to revamp the academic system as well as making the parents financially sound.
    Abdul Wahid Shabab

  11. Though we all see this around, your article raised a number of questions for me who is in a position to contribute some thing. I am not referring to the financial support it is in fact my responsibility and role towards betterment of community at large. Believe me when I stop at a road signal and see innocent faces and small hands begging or cleaning the windshields I feel terrified that what will be the future of Pakistan since this is our future generation.

    I am not a pessimist by nature but some times feel so when I don't find a way to take a start. Surely there is a lot that can be done.

    1. You are right Tahira. If each of us who are in a position to help could adopt a family it could make a difference. Of course you will have to spend a bit on them — not something beyond most of us who can read this.But more important we will have to give this family some time. Listen to their point of view and explain many things without sounding snobbish. By giving many of these families, including the children, respect and a sense of self esteem and dignity one can change the world for them and it costs no money. At kirnay the children stopped stealing once they realised that the tings were theirs and they were repected,

  12. It is a brilliant article. Please go on using the magic of your pen.
    I hope it would strike the conscience of concerned section of society.
    One section of civil society is trying to run schools and centres for
    poor children, I’m myself one of those. But keeping in mind the
    magnitude of the issue, such steps seems to me just drops in the
    ocean. I feel Time has come for the civil society to come on streets
    and demand Governments to implement 25-A (18th Amendment), that
    guarantees for the right of education of a child between 5-16 years
    of age for provision of compulsory and free education.

  13. education is part & parcel of today’s life………..m glad to see that people like u r wishing to help the street children…

  14. Zubeida, You are a sensitive human being to touch on so many civic issues. I lead a busy professional life but am doing my share of educating the street children in our chain of 21 home schools in katchi abadis, and a mobile school. We have been working for 25 years now and have touched nearly 10,000 children. We teach them literacy and numeracy for a year and then admit them to government run schools. We follow each child each year and provide them books and uniforms- until they matriculate, then help them into vocational training. Not all are successful but at least they are pulled off the streets or kept out of madrassahs. 50% students are girls
    Our organization is Citizens' Education Development Foundation (CEDF). http://www.cedfpakistan.com

    Naseem Salahuddin

  15. Thanks Naseem. You have been doing wonderful work. I think what we need is that all people with a social conscience who are rendering such noble service to society should create a common platform to make their presence felt. You (that includes Baela and many others too) could strengthen each other's work and offer advice to one another. The challenge is enormous.

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