April 12 passed quietly just like any normal day. The day, however, was the International Day for Street Children. Ever since it was launched by the Consortium for Street Children (CSC) in 2011, the day reminds us of the plight of street children around the world. It comes and goes every year, without significantly changing the lives of tens of millions of children for whom streets have become home, exploitation has become routine and extreme poverty the reality of life.
There is no reliable estimate of the number of street children around the world. According to a report by the UN International Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the number may be tens of millions. UNESCO estimates the number to be 150 million, mostly in middle- and lower-middle income countries in Africa, Asia and South America. Since the UNICEF report was published in 2006, the number of street children has surely increased due to increasing population as well as rising urbanization.
So who really are street children? Where do they come from? They are sometimes orphans abandoned by their families or sometimes they have run away from their homes due to abuse. In many cases, they have lost their parents to a conflict or accident and have no family to turn to and no home to take refuge in.
Natural disasters, family breakdown and poor socio-economic conditions also result in children’s living on streets. In order to make ends meet, they are forced to perform cheap labor or to beg. In a study conducted by the Manila-based Asian Development Bank in 2003, “the circumstances and experiences of street children overlap with several other categories of children, such as trafficked children, migrant children, and working children.”
According to the study, street children are more likely to live in large cities, often begging, collecting rubbish for recycling, scavenging rubbish dumps, shining shoes, selling flowers, magazines and newspapers, and sometimes engaging in street crimes (such as selling drugs, petty theft, etc.). Often they are forced into such activities by organized gangs who are not visible to the public.
By developing new programs for their rehabilitation and by supporting organizations that are already engaged in this worthwhile cause, we can transform millions of lives which otherwise would be at risk of being completely wasted.
A big issue with street children is that they have no identity, no formal education, no skill and no institutional support. They are very visible on the street but often ignored by their governments and rejected by the communities they live in. Streets do not provide any protection for such children. They are caught up in a vicious cycle of abuse, exploitation, mistreatment, violence, poverty and unemployment ending in a lifetime struggle.
Street children are not just numbers or faces on the streets. They are part of our society, living human beings who are deprived of a playful childhood, care, love and compassion. If we want street children to become productive members of our communities, they need to be provided identity, shelter, education and health care, skills and employment opportunities.
Several international organizations such as UNICEF, WHO and UNESCO have carried out commendable programs for street children in many countries. Many local and international NGOs around the world have taken it upon themselves to help street children through education, skill development and livelihood activities. One such organization is The Citizens Foundation (TCF) in Pakistan which started its work in 1995. To date, TCF has built 1,441 schools across the country, reaching out to more than 204,000 children, of whom many are street children. TCF’s aim is to serve marginalized communities and street children in Pakistan. Over time, thousands of TCF school graduates have attained college degrees and are leading a dignified life. Without education, most would still be on the streets.
Zamung Kor (meaning “Our Home” in Pashto) is another similar initiative. Launched by the government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province (KPK, Pakistan), Zamung Kor aims to rehabilitate the street children of Peshawar. It provides safe shelter, food, health care, education and vocational skills to children who once lived on the street. The facility also provides psychological and career counseling to children so that they can become productive members of society.
Through projects and programs such as TCF and Zamung Kor, the street children of Pakistan have hopes for a better and safer future. Several thousand other street children in Pakistan and tens of millions across the world are still waiting for help.
International organizations, charitable foundations and philanthropists should focus on this often “ignored” issue. By developing new programs for the rehabilitation of street children and by supporting organizations that are already engaged in this worthwhile cause, we can transform millions of lives which otherwise would be at risk of being completely wasted.
• Shamas-ur-Rehman Toor is senior program management specialist at the Islamic Solidarity Fund for Development, Islamic Development Bank Group. He is based in Jeddah.