|Horrific fate awaits children spurned by society|
|KARACHI: Out of the approximately 12,000-14,000 street children in Karachi, 50 percent fall victim to commercial sex exploitation, a majority of them being male children between 7-11 years of age. According to data recently revealed by NGO Azad Foundation, the number of street children in the city rose from 10,000 – 12,000 in 2004 to 12,000 – 14,000 in 2006.
Consequently, an increasing trend in sex exploitation was also witnessed over the years. As disclosed by the street children near Bahadurabad and Allahwala Chowrangi, they continue to be harassed and sexually abused at the hands of passers-by. Due to this fear, these children prefer spending most of their time at drop-in centres that are operational during the day. “We feel more scared at night because that is when truck drivers and policemen harass us, but this centre is helpful because they teach us self-defence techniques,” says 13-year-old Umair Ali who has been living on the street for four years after he ran away from home because his family pressurised him to get a job.
Most of the children, spotted in Saddar, Karimabad, Tariq Road, Kala Pul and parts of Clifton, when refused job opportunities, resort to pick-pocketing or sell sex for their day-to-day survival. The money earned is then spent on addictives like cigarettes, drugs and inhalants, mostly glues such as ‘Samad Bond’. “There are a lot of small hotels and restaurants that offer us food so that is never an issue for us. We don’t earn to make a living. The streets are where we spend our lives. It’s the drugs we need money for,” adds Umair, who further revealed that he was addicted to glue sniffing, a habit he is unwilling to give up.
While most children are exploited by different kinds of abusers, many admitted that they indulge in sexual activity merely to satisfy their physical urge. “Male children usually become sexually active around the age of 11 years, and in some cases as early as the age of seven. The urge to satisfy this desire leads to a high number of sexual partners,” explains Dr Farah Iqbal, Professor at the department of Psychology and Research Coordinator for the NGO.
She said that street children are at a high risk of sexual abuse, targeted primarily because they are vulnerable. Consequently, some children begin to offer sexual services to these people and become involved in ‘survival sex’.
“Saddar is the hub of street children from all areas of Karachi,” says Aqsa Zainab of Azad Foundation, adding that child abusers are mostly found near shrines where ‘langar’ is distributed or near railway stations where they arrive from other cities. It is from here the young boys are kidnapped and sold as commercial sex workers.
It was also stated by another 12-year-old, who refused to reveal his identity, that mini cinemas in Lines Area is one such place where they are taken by abusers to indulge in sexual activity. Aqsa also adds that they do not have any trusted adults or a support system that they can access which is why they prefer living in groups which makes them feel safer.
Maqsood is one such leader of a group who, unlike most, tries his best to prevent the younger members of his group from abuse. “I have been on the streets for six years now and after several experiences of abuse, I have become well aware of people’s wrong intentions. I try to protect the younger children from abuse as much as I can and even fight for them if I have to, but there are times when abusers overpower us and kidnap the boys they like,” says the 16-year-old, who is mature enough for his age.
“Some molesters riding in expensive cars come to us also and insist on taking the best looking and youngest child among us to satisfy their urge,” he adds. Maqsood says he has seen himself change after receiving an education and counselling by psychologists at the NGO.
Apart from this it is reported that daily above 5,000 immigrants enter Karachi. Many of the international refugees, including Afghans and Bangladeshis, are mostly children who face even more exploitation and eventually become an easy prey for child abusers. Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) are found to be highest among these children too, who hardly survive their teenage years. When approached by The News, the children were particularly reluctant to share their sexual experiences and awareness about HIV/AIDS. Few of them admit that although they recognise the disease, they do not completely understand how it is transmitted and nor are they aware that the use of condom can protect against the disease.
Given the observed situation of street children exploitation that dwells in parks, under bridges and abandoned buildings making children extremely vulnerable especially at night, it is imperative that the government and civil society be made responsible for their safety. Night care centres be established to discourage the practice, and they must be educated about sexually transmitted diseases to help build the self-confidence which is required to challenge a physically and mentally stronger adult. Moreover, training and self defense programmes should also be encouraged to ensure their protection.