LAHORE: Walk around any of Pakistan’s major cities and you will see poor children, some as young as five, roaming the streets without any guardian. Some beg for money while others sell flowers, newspapers or clean windshields of cars to make ends meet.
Most may see these children as nuisance on account of their unruliness, but few wonder about the harsh realities street children experience day-to-day. From poverty to violence, sexual abuse, exploitation and disease, street children are at the mercy of it all.
According to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, street children are the responsibility of the state, must be given the same rights as other children and have the same laws applied to them. Although the plight of orphaned and street children is highlighted by media, activists and NGOs from time to time, no concrete action has been taken to alleviate their deplorable condition.
Now, for the first time in Pakistan, the province of Punjab has drafted a new policy to address the issue more seriously. The draft – which has been named the Child Protection Policy – has been prepared and sent for approval to Punjab Chief Secretary Yousuf Naseem Khokhar.
Per the new policy, the Child Protection and Welfare Bureau – with the assistance of other public departments – will be given the responsibility of providing food, shelter, and basic necessities to orphans and street children.
In February 2019, the government of Punjab also held a province-wide emergency meeting wherein measures necessary to eradicate sexual assault and improve conditions which force helpless street children into beggary were discussed. After the meeting, the Director General of the Child Protection and Welfare Bureau Punjab, Sara Ahmed, was directed to initiate and run an awareness campaign focused on anti-beggary laws and curbing of sexual assault against street children.
Speaking to The Express Tribune, Sara Ahmed said that the Child Protection Bureau was formed in 2004. Unfortunately, however, no policy to protect helpless, orphaned street children could be drafted.
“For the first time in history, the present government has drafted a policy to protect helpless children,” Sara said. “In drafting the rules, the government took suggestions from various NGOs, socio-economic experts from Punjab University, and various other departments.”
At present, the responsibility of street children does not lie with a single department; as a result, they continue to suffer in the form of forced beggary, sexual abuse and violence, drugs and diseases, abandonment in hospitals, and no access to basic facilities.
If minors are forced to work, then the department of labour is responsible for the matter. Similarly, if these children are out of school, the matter lies with the education department, and when it comes to their physical and ental health, the department responsible for overseeing these kids is the health department. Likewise the police are responsible to protect these children from sexual and physical torture.
However, once the Child Protection Policy is approved by the government, all the aforementioned responsibilities will come under the Child Protection and Welfare Bureau of Punjab and all other departments will be bound to provide them services.
The Express Tribune further learned that action against those who force street children into beggary has been restarted across Punjab, particularly in Lahore.
Currently, the Child Protection Bureau has more than 800 children in its protective custody and its centers are spread across eight different districts of Punjab.
“In the Lahore Centre alone, there are about 50 children whose parent and heirs could not be searched. Therefore, the Child Protection Bureau has released their pictures and other details so that their guardians (if any) can contact the centre,” Ahmed said.
From 2013 to 2018, the Child Protection Bureau has rescued 30,992 children. In 2013, a total of 2,093 children were rescued while in 2014, 4,707 children were saved. Similarly, the figure was 4,536 in 2015; 7,087 in 2016, 7,412 in 2017; and 5,157 in 2018.
“Throughout these years, a total of 121 new-born babies were brought to the centres, majority of whom comprised children who were abandoned by their parents in the hospital,” Ahmed detailed.
Akin to that, a total of 117 children were taken into judicial custody, while another 113 children – who experienced domestic violence – were given protection.
Moreover, cases against 489 accused persons – who were charged with the crime of forcing children into beggary and subjecting them to physical and sexual abuse – were registered.
Throughout the five-year period, around 25,766 children were reunited with their families.