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Old 29-01-2010, 11:17 AM   #1
Karachi’s slumdogs
momna gull momna gull is offline 29-01-2010, 11:17 AM


A morose little girl runs from car to car at one of Karachi’s busy intersections, selling packets of tissue paper to perspiring commuters. Such hand-to-mouth living is the fate of more than 10,000 street children here. Under-nourished, illiterate, homeless, subjected to police harassment, and vulnerable to abuse and addiction, these children need our immediate attention.
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“My father tells me that I shouldn’t buy anything from these children, so I don’t,” says 17-year-old Sana, who hails from an affluent family. “He says it only encourages the problem. These children should not be out on the streets like this. They should be studying, or at least working at a place where they are out of harm’s way. Still, I feel so guilty ignoring them.”
Sana’s guilt stems from her inability to help the street children. Like her, many Karachiites pity the little girls and boys who tap on car windows and beg for food or money. But the traffic signal changes, and most of the city’s denizens speed away from the memory of the hapless street kids.
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On the other hand, “society finds nothing wrong with children selling flowers at traffic lights,” says Raana Syed, the head of the UNICEF provincial office in Sindh. “We need to ask ourselves, why is this child on the street? Is he vulnerable? Is he being exploited?”

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Karachi, the commercial hub of the country with a population that exceeds 18 million, is estimated to have more than 10,000 children out on its streets. Thirty-four per cent of children of primary school age were listed as being out of school in 2007 by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, and only 28 per cent of girls and 36 per cent of boys were accounted for in secondary school enrollment.
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The dearth of up-to-date and reliable statistical data on child labour in general and street children in particular, and the fact that the last national census dates back to over a decade ago, further reflects the government’s lack of interest in the issue.
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Regardless of numbers, and whether we as a society choose to accord the issue its due gravity, these children are persevering on the city’s streets. They can be found at traffic lights and bus stops, petrol stations and open parks, marketplaces and road intersections, sifting through junk at garbage dumps and lugging around heavy bags at Sunday bazaar. And yet, for all their visibility, these children are eschewed by all and sundry.
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One such street boy, Shahbaz, is a plucky 11-year-old who wipes windshields to supplement his household income. His widowed mother pulled him out of a school managed by the Edhi Foundation three years ago so he could work full-time, and he has been doing odd jobs or selling trinkets on the Karachi streets ever since.
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“People are hardly willing to get their cars cleaned or buy what we are selling. They are often hostile towards us,” says Shahbaz. “Especially the police. Sometimes they’ll even keep us in jail for a whole day. Or else, they’ll drive us to a far away place from where we’ll have to get back home on foot. Once they even beat up my friend, who was wrongly accused of stealing.”
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It may not sound like it upon hearing his unfortunate account, but Shahbaz is one of the lucky ones, who gets to return to his family after a day of roughing it out on the streets. The fact is, many of these street children are homeless, living in gangs with others like themselves, and huddling together for warmth in open spaces at night. Apart from abiding unsanitary living conditions, these kids also fall prey to all kinds of exploitation and abuse, both verbal and physical.


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Starvation and disease are rampant, as are addiction and mental health problems. These kids are in dire need of bare essentials, such as food, shelter and access to clean drinking water. They require counseling to bolster their esteem and self-perception, and education to better their worlds. Most of all, they need to be kept away from the perils of the streets and provided with a safer and healthier option for living.
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The Dost Drop-In Centre for Street Boys that was opened in late 2005 in central Karachi with the support of UNICEF does exactly that. By taking street boys under their wing, the social mobilisers at the centre provide impoverished children with proper sanitation, counseling and therapy, medical care, life skills training and means for recreation. UNICEF’s Syed has said that the goal is to provide children with a safe space where they can enjoy access to “informed, concerned” adults.
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Karachi needs more places like the Dost Centre and more concerned individuals like the people who run it to act as veritable role models and anchor the children who roam the city’s streets. Helping these children out of their cumbersome state, a little at a time, requires no grand gesture or high-flown campaign.
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As individuals, what we can do for street kids – a small benefaction, a single voice raised to highlight their plight, or even a moment of our time – would go a long way. It is incumbent upon us, now more than ever, to stop resting on our laurels and start working actively to help these children.
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After all, as lead singer Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine fame says, “it has to start somewhere, it has to start somehow. What better place than here? What better time than now?”

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