eh watan tumhara hai, tum ho paasbaan is ke
To you belongs this country, and you are its sentinels
So run the lines of a popular patriotic jingle which articulates a responsibility that few Pakistanis would shy away from. However, it is equally true that the future of Pakistani children, and the future of this country, is being jeopardised daily in its bazaars and shopping centres, at its street signals and railway stations, while we, the sentinels, look on.
One needn’t look far to find a street child in Pakistan. Nor is there a dearth of news stories or reports on the issue. However, despite the coverage that this issue receives, and perhaps in part because of it, somewhere between 1.2 and 1.5 million children are thought to be on the streets of Pakistan’s major cities. These children, who often have little or no contact with their families, form one of the most vulnerable strata of society and are denied basic rights such as access to shelter, education and healthcare. To the extent that the basic rights of street children are not already being violated, they are highly exposed to the risk of being drawn into abusive situations including engagement in child labour and subjection to sexual exploitation, trafficking and arbitrary arrest and detention.
However, on a more selfish note, overlooking the issues faced by street children also translates into larger, tangible problems. These children, ostracised from society, are easy prey for those operating at its fringes with potentially disastrous consequences for the mainstream. Whilst reports that street children often engage in petty crime are unsurprising, many of these children are also opted into more systemised forms of criminal activity including recruitment into criminal and terrorist gangs.
Nor do the problems stemming from our desensitisation to this issue stop here. It is not news that untoward experiences faced by children during their formative years have the potential to deeply influence their behaviour as adults. Where such experiences involve sexual abuse, drug abuse and other forms of criminal activity, street children become yet another agent through which these ills may be perpetuated in society.
So the next time you’re faced by a street child in a bazaar, or at a street signal, please do take a moment to consider the compromised future that each child with a dirt smudged face and tattered clothes embodies; a compromised future that we are all helping create unless we take action now. We can take action in a multitude of ways: advocating for the rights of all children, including those on the street; increasing budgets for the social sector, mainly education and putting all necessary efforts to bring street children to school support through specific programmes for their families and the children themselves; ensuring that health services are accessible to these children on the street who are in dire need of social support; adopting a child and giving it a loving home, on an individual level.
By consciously trying to shrug off our apathetic stupor when we see these faces on the street, we can make a difference. We can stand up for someone’s rights.