ISLAMABAD: They roam our streets, crouching under the weight of enormous bags, rummaging through heaps of garbage - fascinating to some while others no longer acknowledge their existence.
Search requests on Google will get you quite a bit of information about scavenging children, studies upon studies published by international research organizations - statistics, recommendations, hypotheses and so on.
But have you ever heard a ‘scavenger child’ speak … for herself?
“While collecting garbage,we come across hospital waste, such as syringes and containers filled with blood, animal carcasses and even dead infants,” the 14-year-old girl said with a disturbed look on her face.
A small group of scavengers, most in their early teens, spoke to The Express Tribune near the Bari Imam shrine in Islamabad.
A brief glance at these children reveals the nature of their dreaded profession - most have visible symptoms of various skin-related diseases.
Let’s face the facts, these children wade through squalor every day. Garbage is their bread and butter.
But dirt is the lesser devil here. Even broken glass or nails do not pose the most significant dangers as these children scour the dumpsites with their little fingers.
Najib Khan, a 12-year-old, said that he is often bitten by rats.
It is not unusual for these children to come across poisonous materials. Falling prey to serious infections is inevitable.
According to a report published by the International Labour Organisation, these children are exposed to chemical risks due to the presence of toxic substances in dump sites. These scavengers also “suffer stigmatisation and exploitation because handling waste materials is disdained by society at large.”
The children appear least concerned with the stigma attached to scavenging but protested against being underpaid.
“We collect around 50 kilograms of garbage every day, and we get only 100 or 150 rupees in return,” said Najib.
Medical treatment is a luxury these children cannot afford. “We do not earn enough to buy medicines,” said Farhad, a 14-year-old boy who hails from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
These days, they prefer working in the evenings - or before the sun rises. “Working in the daytime is almost impossible now,” said Najib.
After a hard day’s work filling up their bag of recyclable treasures, these are transported - mostly on their frail shoulders - to contractors who will buy them.
It is learnt from the children that there are at least four contractors working in different areas of the twin cities.
From the scavengers, they buy used paper, shopping bags, rubber, damaged slippers, discarded containers, animal carcasses and so on.
Late at night, they visit hotels to collect leftover food for themselves and their families.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ABUBAKR KHAN
Published in The Express Tribune, May 10, 2010.