In cities across South Asia there are children working and living on the streets. While UNICEF has quoted the numbers as running into the tens of millions across the world, nobody has as yet provided a credible estimate. It seems clear that the number of children living on urban streets are increasing due to population growth, migration and increased urbanization. In spite of this, street children appear to be neglected in South Asia. In its latest report, on Children in an Urban World, UNICEF notes that “in principle, the deprivations confronting children in urban areas are a priority for human rights-based development programmes. In practice, and particularly given the misperception that services are within reach of all urban residents, lesser investment has often been devoted to those living in slums and informal urban settlements.”
Why do children end up on the street?
It has been a long held belief that children primarily end up on the streets because of economic poverty within the family. For instance, a child may live on the street in order to lessen the burden on parents while also seeking new livelihood opportunities. However, as The Consortium for Street Children (CSC) highlights in a 2011 report on existing research on street children, other issues such as natural disasters, parental deaths and violence within the family play major roles. A study from 2006 on why children in Bangladesh migrate to the streets found that economic poverty and shocks are a limited explanation. In fact, the authors found many instances of children from non-poor families living on the streets. Rather, it is violence, and physical and sexual harassment that were the primary reasons for children leaving their families behind and moving to the streets. While physical punishment is a commonplace and socially accepted form of child rearing in South Asia, as evidenced by the South Asia Initiative to End Violence Against Children 2011, children living on the streets made a clear distinction between reasonable and justified punishment, and punishment that was unfair and out of proportion. It was such an extreme form of violence that drove children away from home. Additionally, several children had run away because of forced marriages and sexual abuse either related to marriages or from within extended families.
Bringing in a gender perspective, the same 2006 study also highlighted that a partial reason for fewer female street children in Bangladesh is that girls are brought up to be submissive, making them less likely to confront abusers and leave their families. Furthermore, life on the streets is likely to be tougher for girls than for boys in that the likelihood of sexual violence or having to resort to sex work–including being forcibly trafficked and put in brothels–is much higher for girls.
Programs, Policies and Support Systems
The governments of South Asia are providing very limited support to street children. Instead, the little infrastructure and assistance that exists comes from NGOs, both national and international. For instance, in India, due to pressure from NGOs, the government created the Scheme for Assistance to Street Children in 1993. However, the scheme has had very limited success, in part because it is difficult for NGOs to participate in it. Today, support is carried out under the Integrated Program for Street Children. Through the program, local, state and voluntary sector organizations can apply for grants to set up shelter, and provide education and vocational training as well as capacity building for support groups.
The most common form of assistance to street children are drop-in centers and shelters. In fact, a report on interventions and policy for street children around the world by the CSC highlights the issue of international agencies almost ‘competing’ for children due to a proliferation of centers. An excess flow of centers is problematic as it may just provide children with a solution to continue living on the streets, rather than empowering and enabling children to move off the streets long-term.
More interesting are organizations like Indian NGO CHETNA, which works both directly with street children to support and empower them, and with adults working in the vicinity of street children to raise awareness. The Delhi-based organization focuses on busy railway stations across India, since many migrating children come to cities through the rail network, and often base themselves at stations. CHETNA works with railway staff, vendors and police to increase their understanding and awareness of street children and their issues. New arrivals are particularly vulnerable to traffickers and other street crime. In its work with street children, CHETNA builds peer groups among the children, and even trains the more experienced children to help new arrivals and direct them to CHETNA centers. The organization also works to reunite children with families. In its efforts to better the lives of street children, CHETNA runs a number of programs, including education initiatives and health camps. It also offers drug rehabilitation due to the increasing number of children using drugs today.
In Bangladesh, Aparajeyo-Bangladesh is a rights-based organization that works primarily with children in slums, but also operates several innovative programs that target street children. For instance, its multi–tiered education program includes the Open Air School, which operates for two hours a day in places frequented by street children across Dhaka and Chittagong. These Open Air Schools are used as an initial contact point for Aparajeyo-Bangladesh and educators working on creating trust and nurturing relationships with the children. They can also attend literacy and numeracy classes at drop-in centers. Children that are showing an interest in more regular schooling can attend residential shelters with education facilities, and even re-enter the formal education system. The Open Air Schools also provide first aid and health education, and refer children to sensitized hospitals if needed
Another unique initiative by Aparajeyo-Bangladesh is its Children Development Bank. Working with street children aged eight to 16, it is a bank for street children operated by street children. The bank not only provides street children with a place to keep their money safe, but by encouraging savings, the bank helps children to learn to be more careful with how they spend their money and what they take loans for. Furthermore, members–the street children–have made a rule that nobody on drugs can become a member, which has significantly cut the use of drugs in areas where the bank operates, according to Aparajeyo-Bangladesh.
In Lahore, Pakistan, SYBAN is a center exclusively focused on working with sexually exploited children. It is a street youth Information and counselling center based in the city’s red light district, and raises awareness with street children about their basic rights, sexual abuse and the prevention of HIV/AIDS, STDs and other health problems. It is estimated that there are presently 15,000-20,000 child sex workers in Lahore, many of whom live and work on the streets. The center also provides for free medical check-ups. In 2010, SYBAN expanded its services by providing vocational training programs for street children in the sex trade industry to find alternative forms of livelihoods.
The private sector has also taken an interest in helping the plight of street children. Exa, an Australian software development company with a branch office in Mumbai, has launched an interesting corporate social responsibility program initiative. The employees wanted to reach out to vulnerable street children in the city, but rather than direct intervention, they looked to offer their expertise. So, the company created the Mumbai Street Children Empowerment Network, a website that acts as a networking site, connecting NGOs across Mumbai that work with street children, as well as a one-stop-shop to those interested in helping out or getting involved. It is also a place for NGOs to showcase their work.
That street children are all around those of us who live in urban South Asia is evident. However, not many programs are dedicated to helping this vulnerable population. Governments seem slow at providing education, health facilities and empowerment opportunities. On the contrary, street children are often ostracized from society, and few steps have been taken to deal with the cultural issues facing these children. NGO efforts are largely focused on providing shelter, but what is interesting today are the alternative initiatives emerging across South Asia. These new initiatives see children not so much as victims, but as individuals that are able to survive very harsh conditions. By providing access to health, education and finance, these children have the ability to empower themselves and their lives.
The innovative approaches discussed in this article are of particular interest because they go beyond providing shelter for street children. Dhaka-based Aparajeyo-Bangladesh is providing both finance and education, and the way the organization is able to do so while putting the participation of the street child at the center of each intervention is what makes its approach innovative. SYBAN in Lahore is commendable because it is tackling a social taboo in the open: the sexual abuse and the use of street children. Lastly, CHETNA’s effort to involve and train experienced street children to identify and help newly arrived children at railway stations handles their transition to the city and, most importantly, their safety.
Nonetheless, underlying the issues of street children and the fact that extreme violence–physical and sexual–within the family is an oft-cited reason for leaving home and migrating to the streets, are cultural issues related to how children are perceived, treated and brought up in South Asia. Unless these deeply rooted cultural beliefs are dealt with, it will likely be difficult to find a way to provide children with equal rights.
Contocini and Hulme, 2011, Escaping Violence, Seeking Freedom/; Why children in Bangladesh migrate to the street, PRCPB Working Paper No 10.