Every day, I shake my finger at a little boy struggling to spray water on the windshield of my car. He is a bite-sized conman who will furiously wet and wipe a perfectly clean sheet of glass within the time it takes for a red traffic light to turn green, so the driver gives in to guilt worth 10 rupees. These encounters are routine for inhabitants of urban Pakistan who feel that all they can do is to drive on.
However, what we need to do is to stop to take a closer look at the little urchin being left behind: a picture of poverty, neglect and exclusion. His story could be that of any one of the 1.5 million children ‘on’ and ‘of’ the streets in Pakistan. Maybe he’ll learn the alphabet, maybe he won’t. Maybe he’ll turn to drugs, maybe he already has. Maybe he will roam the roads till late rather than face the prospect of returning to abuse, squalor and hunger at home. The alternative to a home is terrifying: development organisations estimate that 90 per cent of children ‘of’ the street are sexually abused on their first night on the street.
According to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), children have four indivisible rights: the right to survival; to develop to the fullest; to protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation; and to participate fully in family, cultural and social life. Pakistan is a signatory to the CRC since 1990, which means that for over two decades the state has had a formal commitment to ensure these rights. It is also a signatory to the oft-cited Millenium Development Goals and has set lofty targets in terms of promising to provide education for all under the age of 16. And yet, just beyond the window of the policymaker in Islamabad is living proof of deep cracks in the systems for child protection and delivery of education.
The elite hardly give a second thought to the hordes of rural migrants who have settled just beyond the parameters of well-kept lawns. The mushrooming slums point to great economic problems — the inability of the job market to absorb an expanding population, and the unequal development that drives rural-urban migration. For those who find these stories familiar, the picture of the street child is just one of several hundred up for public consumption on development websites. Often the question asked by the jaded is: And then what?
This question embodies the worst form of development fatigue. One reason for this fatigue of the development practitioner is that it is singularly difficult to work with street children, especially if they belong to mobile or transient communities. They are resistant to interference, measuring impact can become a problem and there are donors to answer to. At the same time, there are ways of working around these constraints — of recognising the fact that their economic activities supplement household income and that they will need either incentives or a vision to be drawn to school.
There is a lot of hope among the youth of this country and a new spirit of active volunteerism among youngsters. In Islamabad, at least, initiatives of private and small non-profit organisations are coming together to form synergies and bridge gaps between classes within the urban landscape.
What is worrisome is the inaction of the state in this regard. There is a need to speed up the process of defining post-devolution roles, so that the responsibilities of child protection and education can be assigned. Then only can the purpose of the Eighteenth Amendment be understood by those marginalised groups who fell through the cracks of the centralised system.
If asked, individuals working directly with children can testify that there can be no experience more rewarding. When handled right, children are responsive — far more so than adults — and demonstrate the most cheerful kind of resilience. Beyond the windscreen, for those who care to look, there will often be a cheeky smile in spite of the streets.
Published In The Express Tribune, June 8th, 2012.