Pakistan's street children: Concrete dreams

Alternative initiatives pave a new path for street children in Pakistan.

Alternative initiatives pave a new path for street children in Pakistan. PHOTO COURTESY: KHAULA JAMIL

Home is not a place, but a reality — a set of circumstances that one is born in. But for the nearly 1.5 million street children in Pakistan, the only home they know is cruel, crowded and concrete. Their condition is the natural consequence of decades of poor governance, poverty and state and institutional failure and the only way to reverse this trend in the long run is through macro level, preventive interventions.

Vocational training is provided by the Aman Foundation to young men and women in order to help them escape the poverty cycle. SOURCE: AMAN FOUNDATION

However, in the short to medium term, it is imperative to introduce bespoke initiatives aimed at creating an enabling environment, conducive to the ‘natural’ development of those children who have already taken to the streets and protect them from marginalisation and taboos that have become synonymous with street children. “Sustainable alternative measures such as entrepreneurial and vocational training, sports, music and art are being employed as tools across the globe to tackle this longstanding predicament,” says Ali Khan, department chair for social sciences and humanities at the Lahore University of Management Sciences and an expert on child labour in Pakistan. He quotes the example of El Sistema, Venezuela’s programmeme of social uplift through classical music and distancing children from the inevitable consequences of poverty such as crime, substance abuse, trafficking, child labor etc. “Whilst El Sistema has been underway since 1975, the concept of alternate approaches to such socio-economic issues is relatively recent in Pakistan. Today, however, it is encouraging to see ubiquitous initiatives being propelled in diverse parts of the country, including the rural hubs where these issues are rampant,” he adds.

The Pakistan street child football team celebrates after a goal during their match against India at the World Cup held earlier this year. SOURCE: AFP

Scoring right

There was hardly any Pakistani who wasn’t rooting for the Pakistan squad, led by the Azad Foundation, at the Street Children World Cup held in Brazil this year. The team comprising of street kids from various under-privileged neighbourhoods not only managed to bag a bronze medal but also put Pakistan on the football world map. However, more pivotal than winning or losing, was the initiative’s role in filling the mounting void in these children’s lives and rehabilitating them to a quasi-regular existence. “They have been exposed to many things, some of them were also into drugs, but now they are role models,” says coach Abdul Rashid. “This was their first step towards returning to normal life.”

To add to these efforts, Aman Sports, also joined hands with the Real Madrid Foundation to open up a Social Sports School in the country. “Every child has the right to play and learn through sports. At Aman, we aspire to put sports into the DNA of the schooling system starting at the bottom of the learning pyramid,” says Ahsan Jamil, the CEO of Aman Foundation. “We are trying to execute a strategy that achieves this and consequently galvanises the sports industry.” He elaborates that in an education system where there is a dearth of quality teachers and a sound curriculum, the idea of harnessing the learning process through sports holds immense potential. The programme will cater to 400 neglected children between the ages of six and 17, with the first academy being established in Ibrahim Hyderi, Karachi.

Teach, don’t preach

Until recently, Kulsoom was one of the many children roaming the streets of Pir Wadhai in Rawalpindi but things took a turn following a visit by the community mobilisers from the World Vision Manzil Drop in Centre (DIC) — a non-profit organisation that supports local schools and communities and creates awareness about the importance of education for all. In addition, it also educates children about their rights and responsibilities along with other essential issues such as hygiene, health and environmental problems.

Young men are taught skills such as welding at The Hunar Foundation which enables them to earn an independent living.  SOURCE: THE HUNAR FOUNDATION

The mobilisers helped convince Kulsoom’s father to let her attend the educational programme at the centre. Soon enough, due to her outstanding performance and commitment, Kulsoom also managed to secure a spot in a public school. Today, she spearheads advocacy and outreach programmes to enable other street children and collectively become a catalyst for change. “I grew up in these slums and know what issues are faced by these children and their families in sending them to schools — that’s why I feel I have a moral responsibility to help these children in getting them to school and an education,” she says. So far, Kulsoom has supported the enrollment of seven street girls at the Drop in Centre while The World Vision Manzil DIC itself has enrolled 72 children in formal schools and enrolled another 1,042 at various levels. It also intends to launch a similar centre in eastern Punjab to reach out to 3,600 children and 900 families in the near future.

Counseling sessions are offered to children before and after reunification with their families by the Roshni Helpline. SOURCE: ROSHNI HELPLINE

Along with academic education, initiatives like The Hunar Foundation (THF) in Karachi also impart vocational skills to young people in order to enable them to source economically productive livelihoods and break the ensuing cycle of poverty. Boys and girls after completing their degree at THF have a better chance of earning a respectable living rather than labouring on the streets.

“From inception, the backbone of Hunar’s philosophy has been to provide alternate livelihood opportunities for the less privileged youth through vocational training of international standards. Our vision is [to create] a skilled Pakistan,” says Adnan Asdar who heads the project. THF teaches young men and women a diverse range of skills including electrical installation, fabrication and welding technology, plumbing, general fitter & plant maintenance, CNC machine operation, motorcycle mechanics, electrical home appliances repair and electrical and electronics technology. Muhammad Bilal Hafeez, who secured a job at Samsung, Saudi Arabia after graduating from THF with a diploma in mechanical fitting and plant maintenance is a testimony to the success of the programme. Similarly, Syed Muhammad Ebad Kaleem also graduated with a diploma in electrical installation and is currently employed as a visual inspector at a leading soft drink company. “I have explored numerous technical training institutes but am yet to come across a facility that works sincerely towards the development of students’ skills,” says Kaleem. “When we see these young people successfully graduating with the UK City & Guilds training diploma and attaining employment across various industries, it is immensely encouraging,” adds Asdar. However, he feels that more of such endeavours are needed, especially through synergised support of the public, private and donor sectors to build scale and address the socio-economic issues countrywide.

A training session on plumbing at The Hunar Foundation. SOURCE: THE HUNAR FOUNDATION

Some roads lead home

Another key issue linked to street children is the increasing problem of ‘missing children’ i.e. those children who are no longer in touch with their parents. In many cases these children may have taken to the streets, and are likely to have become victims of exploitation, sexual assault, sodomy, trafficking, crime and bonded labor. In some cases, girls have been found raped and murdered with their bodies recovered much later. The majority of these cases go underreported as the law enforcement agencies often dismiss them as a ‘non-cognisable’ offence, even when parents lodge complaints. Over the last decade, Roshni Helpline has been working towards bringing this issue to the forefront through a combination of awareness campaigns amongst public and private sector and donor communities. It has collaborated with youth bodies including the khwaja saras (eunuchs) for help with the reporting and tracking of these children. “I started this initiative in 2005 as there were no existing avenues to redress the missing children issue,” says Muhammad Ali, the founder and president of Roshni Helpline. According to data collected from police stations, general public, mosques, referral partners’ volunteers and newspapers by Roshni, there are 3,000 children who mysteriously disappear every year, just in Karachi. “On an average we receive 110 calls each month on our 4-digit helpline ‘1138’ to counsel and support families of these children,” says Ali. He elaborates that the organisation’s main objective is to collaborate with relevant groups that can help them create awareness of the issue and hence mitigate the problem of underreporting. The organisation has also produced a guideline for the police to follow in case of reporting of missing children. The challenge, however, is for law-enforcement agencies to implement the outlined procedures effectively and consistently.

Collective problem, inclusive solution

Whilst painstaking efforts to tackle the issue of street children are underway in Pakistan and must be lauded, one hopes that such initiatives are sustained over time. The scale of the issue in the country is quite pervasive; hence interventions have to be multi-pronged and should be executed through a synergising of strengths across the public and private sectors rather than in silos.

The Pakistan team led by the Azad Foundation landed a bronze medal at the Street Child World Cup held in Brazil this year. SOURCE: AFP

Most of these children are light years ahead of their more privileged peers due to the daily adversity, coerced exposure and necessary troubleshooting they have endured, making them far more resilient. Whilst their actions cannot be entirely justified (in some cases), it is critical to realise that it is the state’s inertia that has landed them in this position and hence, our empathy must reign beyond our indignation. It should also motivate us to act collectively and responsibly to help alleviate their circumstances and enable them to regain their self-respect, both preventively and through integration — it is the only way to ensure that Pakistani roads do not become a ‘one-way street’.

Definition of street children
According to the definition used by the United Nations, ‘a street child is any girl or boy for whom the street in the widest sense of the word (including unoccupied dwellings, wasteland, etc.) has become his or her habitual abode and/or source of livelihood, and who is inadequately protected, supervised, or directed by responsible adults’.

Saba Karim is an anthropologist from the University of Oxford. She tweets@SabaKarim 

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, June 1st, 2014.


kami | 7 years ago | Reply

Very good... The writer should have included a sentence or two on how to support these organisations. It would help overseas Pakistanis like me to take part in this great work.

immortal_soloist | 7 years ago | Reply


Organisations such as the "AMAN Foundation" are doing an excellent job.

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