Happy days. Countless hours spent sniffing dendrite, smoking cigarettes, drinking "chyang", watching movies, playing cards, marbles, and video games. This is the life of a street child in Kathmandu. No responsibilities and fun with friends.
According to one child, "I don’t want to go home because I earn money here. I earn 100 to 150 rupees per day by rag picking. I eat meat and rice and with the rest of the money, I buy dendrite and drink alcohol. I’m the leader of my group."
Comments such as this reinforce the public perception of unruly, uncontrollable, and unreformable children. Many children do not regret their decision to live on the street. One child explains, "I like to stay on the street. Everyone loves me here." For most of us, leaving behind family and friends to live life on the street is an unappealing choice. However, for these children, the home life they are leaving behind is often more abusive than street life. "When my father died, our family situation got very bad. We didn’t even have proper food. When I left, my mother was beating me badly, so I took a bus and left home." Stories of abuse and neglect are common among street children. Coming from hostile home environments and the need for personal security on the street, it becomes easy to understand the intense bonding that occurs among street children.
At the same time, strong bonds can become a source of peer pressure and exploitation among street children. Inhalant use, also known as "glue sniffing", is a popular social activity among Kathmandu street children. Those who choose not to inhale dendrite are forced to inhale by their peers through physical coercion. One child explains, "when I start sniffing, it becomes an addiction. What to do? I get sick. Friends force me when I quit. I can’t say no to friends." Once addicted to dendrite, the child is subject to exploitation by older street children and shopkeepers. "I am living on the street and I’m the leader of my group of 6 to 7. They are totally under me. I don’t beg anymore. They give me their earnings, if they don’t I beat them badly."
Another child reports exploitation from the shopkeepers who sell dendrite to addicted street children. "In a group we use 7-8 tubes to sniff. Each tube costs 50 rupess. Sometimes I’ve paid 100 rupees for a tube when I’m sick. Some shopkeepers are bad and charge high prices." These shopkeepers are consciously profiting from a child’s addiction.
A number of child welfare organizations such as Child Workers in Nepal Concerned Center (CWIN), SAATHI, Child Protection Centers and Services (CPCS), Association for the Protection of Children (APC), and Sath Sath have been assisting Kathmandu street children. However, long term solutions for dendrite addicted street children must consider the impact of strong bonds among street children and the absence of drug rehabilitation programs for children. Both of these factors dictate the effectiveness of long term interventions for children. One child spoke of his difficulty in remaining at a shelter for an extended period of time due to his strong ties to other street children. "I’ve been to a lot of organizations but fail to stay there because I miss my friends a lot. Nowadays, I’m having a lot of dendrite and cigarettes. I’ve become more dirty." Another child highlights dendrite addiction and withdrawal as the primary barrier in participating with long term reintegration programs. "I can’t live without taking dendrite. Feel sick without it. I try to leave it but I can’t. That’s why I can’t stay in any organization for a long period of time"
SAATHI recently completed a research project, "Street Children on Dendrite: Needs, Attitudes, and Desires", which examines the needs and concerns among street children to develop effective long term drug rehabilitation programs. From the data collected through interviews with street children in Jamal, Thamel, Basantapur, and Mahankal districts, SAATHI has found dendrite use to be an endemic part of street life. Virtually all research participants have engaged in dendrite use or are currently addicted to dendrite. Research participants indicated that dendrite is easily purchased in the Ason, Jamal, Kalopul, and Kalimati districts of Kathmandu and the Kumaripati district of Lalitpur. Dendrite sniffing typically takes place in a group setting. Groups as large as 30 street children inhale dendrite together. A group of 12 children can inhale up to 8 tubes of dendrite per day. Milk packets and polyurethane bags are generally used to contain the dendrite for easy inhalation.
Recommendations stemming from the SAATHI research project include the immediate need for a drug treatment program for children alongside an activities based outreach program for street children. Dendrite use has been a key method in which street children establish friendships. A peer based outreach program will provide another environment in which street children can build friendships which are not centered upon drug use.
Most of the children interviewed expressed a desire to end their dendrite addiction, however, many did not know how to achieve this. The children participating in the study ranged from 6 years old to 13 years old. One child states, "I want to change myself but I can’t and I don’t know why." Another says, "I don’t want to die soon. Feel like I’m mad. I don’t like drugs because one of my friends died because of these drugs."
It is up to concerned citizens, child welfare organizations, and the government to address the problem of dendrite use. Aside from their peers, these children have no guidance or support in overcoming addiction. This is not only a moral obligation but also mandated by Article 24.1 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which states that no child should be deprived of the right to access health care services. This convention was ratified by the Government of Nepal on October 14th, 1990. It is crucial that this commitment is fully implemented with regard to dendrite use because the lives of hundreds of children in Kathmandu are at stake.
[The author is a Canadian National presently an intern at the Sancharika Samuha Nepal]