“Do you have water?”, he asked me with thirsty lips and tearful eyes. It was a hot and humid day. The little kid, one of the numerous street children in Islamabad, had been selling flowers on the main Margalla Road. He looked tired and worn out. His naked feet were burning.
But he did not have enough money in his pocket to quench his thirst or buy a pair of shoes. Luckily, I had a bottle of water in the car that I gave him. He quenched his thirst and sprinkled some drops on the flowers to keep them fresh.
Very politely the child said, “Thank You”, and bode goodbye.
The presence of the poor child, who seemed hardly seven or eight years old, was in stark contrast to my surroundings. On one side of the road were posh houses and on the other was the road leading to those elite restaurants in Saidpur Village.
The little child lay in between; poverty-stricken and unable to afford a bottle of water despite being surrounded all round by symbols of wealth and elitism. I wondered how on each morning he would envy little kids of the area being driven to their schools by parents on Land Cruisers, Honda Civics and Toyota Corollas.
And yet he asked for neither of that. All he desired was a pair of shoes and decent clothes so that he could at least walk with dignity. Moreover, in the evening, he would witness the same kids eating burgers and pizzas at Des Pardes, etc. Yet, he only longed for enough food to stay alive. But alas! Our state cannot promise him that much food or a few drops of water. That too in the capital city of Islamabad.
Street Children in Pakistan
According to some estimates, more than a million children have been condemned to live, work and beg on the streets of Pakistan. These children are unable to afford a healthy and balanced diet. In fact, they live off whatever food they can find on the streets.
Often, children can be seen in garbage dumps scavenging for food or items that they can sell. This makes them vulnerable to all kind of health hazards that come with living on the streets. Moreover, they also fall prey to sexual and drug abuse. The Beggar Mafias also exploit these children by forcing them to beg and earn money for them.
In addition to this, several factors force children onto the streets. Reportedly, a large percentage of street children in Pakistan comprises runaways from homes. Scores of children flee their homes owing either to domestic violence or displeasure with their schools and madrassahs.
Moreover, abject poverty has also caused many children to work on the streets. And now the impending economic crisis and rising inflation will only send more children onto the streets to search for means of subsistence. The problem can only be dealt with through a holistic and multi-faceted approach.
Government Needs to Tackle the Problem of Street Children
To begin with, governments (federal and provincial) must develop a keen understanding of the factors that cause children to leave their homes. Every child has his/ her own story and reason to be on the street. Therefore, any solution aimed at curtailing the presence of children on the streets has to be child-specific.
For example, a child who fled his home due to domestic abuse would need psychological counselling. His parents would also be required to be more sensitive to his feelings. On the other hand, a child working on the streets to support his family would need financial assistance and free education if he is to abandon the street. In short, every child may need a specific treatment.
Second, federal and provincial administrations must develop parental counselling programs in order to educate parents on how to be more receptive to their children’s psychological and social needs. Children who themselves or their parents (generally mothers) are victims of domestic abuse are prone to fleeing their homes.
Thirdly, it goes without saying that the government needs to steer the country out of the current economic turmoil as soon as possible. Without economic progress, poverty eradication will remain a far-fetched dream. And without poverty eradication, the problem of street children cannot be resolved.
We Need To Play Our Part As Well
Finally, we as the civil society can also play our part in helping the child on the street. Every effort counts; from buying a bottle of water for the child selling flowers on the street to helping a child pay his school fees. The civil society can help the poor families and their children by donating them the extra food at homes, buying them new clothes for Eid and giving the little child a pair of new shoes so that his feet don’t burn under the sun.
Moreover, it is only through the collective and concerted effort of the society that the problem of street children can be dealt with successfully. Therefore, the government, the private sector and the civil society must join hands to save these children from being forced to live a life of destitution.