* Children rights groups estimate over 50,000 street children living in Pakistan
* Police says criminal gangs of street children are patronised by influential people
* Psychologist believes street children likely to become criminals and terrorists
By Terence J Sigamony
RAWALPINDI: Going to bazaars, shopping malls, schools, mosques and shrines in the city has become difficult not because of tight security but because these places are thronged by street children who swarm around visitors.
Pirwadahi, Faizabad, Raja Bazar, Mareer Chowk and Sawan Adda have become havens of such children who have reached these places from rural Punjab, Azad Jammu and Kashmir and NWFP.
The term ‘street children’ was introduced in the 1980s to refer to children who live on or spend a lot of time on streets of the urban areas. NICEF categorises street children in two main categories.
The first category includes children on streets who are engaged in some economic activity. Most go home by the end of the day and contribute their earnings to their family’s earnings. They may be attending and retain a sense of belonging to a family but because of the economic fragility of their families, these children may eventually opt for a permanent life on streets.
The second category is of children who actually live on streets or outside a normal family environment. Family ties may exist but are tenuous and are maintained only casually or occasionally.
The number of children living on streets worldwide totals between 100 million and 150 million, while it is forecast that by 2020 the number will increase to 800 million. In Pakistan children’s rights groups have estimated that over 50,000 children live on streets.
Children at Pirwadahi and Faizabad are living in unhygienic and squalid conditions. They live in under-construction buildings, hotel basements and verandas of bus stands. Majority of such children has come to the city with expectations to fend for themselves or their families through various occupations but after arriving here, they discovered that streets were not paved with gold.
Kamal Ahmed alias Kami at the Pirwadhi bus stand said he ran away from his house five years ago because his father used to beat his mother on trivial issues. He never bore Kami’s expenses but always abused them.
He said, “One day my father came home drunk and when my mother asked for money, he started thrashing her. When I tried to protect my mother he thrashed me too. I decided to leave the house and come to Pindi but I did not know that I would land in more problems.”
Police in these areas are aware of criminal activities but are reluctant to put a stop to them. A police official confided to Daily Times that these gangs were very strong and had links with local influential people. He said they had arrested some street children on charges of pick pocketing three times, but superior officers ordered their release.
Saiqa Ashraf, a psychologist working on child sexual abuse, said these children become criminals, terrorists, revolutionaries, drug addicts and abusers. “They are starving and ignorant, destined to become thieves or victims of child sexual abuse. The girls become prostitutes but there is also male prostitution. The boys are uncontrollably violent and have lost the ability to feel emotions such as love. For the most part they are amoral,” she commented.
Some children say their parents asked them to beg or perform menial jobs like shoe polishing, car washing, cleaning in restaurants and selling flower garlands or small items. Their income rarely exceeded Rs 100.
“We have good days on Chand Raat, Eid and festivals,” said Mohammad Abid, a street child studying at Gharib Nawaz School.
He said he wanted to study but his father told him that he could not afford his school expenses and forced him to wash cars.
Street children have a sense of ownership to markets, bus stops and footpaths and do not allow outsiders, which are other street children, to ‘invade’ their territories.
A young girl, with a bandage around her head, said she had had a fight with another girl a day before because she was begging in her area.
Manizeh Bano, executive director of Sahil-an NGO working on street children’s issues, said street children are free and they do not have any obligations. There is no actual reason for street children to have any form of routine or stay in an area for a long time, but despite their freedom they often choose to stay in one place.