What comes to your mind when you hear the word ‘street’? One day, I took a survey on what do people generally associate the concept of ‘street’, with. And unsurprisingly, majority of the folks answered ‘street car racing’, or the ‘scrumptious food on the street’, and few who are aware of the social realities said, ‘prostitution at night’. However, there is a characteristic of the street though large in numbers but the most overlooked, both socially and politically. It is the presence of people on the street. This article restricts itself to discussing in detail about ‘children’, which due to their distinct characteristics, are subsumed by others and the most neglected but highly vulnerable.
Even though there have been international developments with regards to the renewed interest on the issue of street children, eg. UN resolution on street children’s rights in 1994; the situation in India looks dismal for these children. Difficulties being faced in defining the street children or quantifying the same remains the same with justified notions of escaping the reality that street children exist and that too in enormous numbers. While global debates linger on whether the actual number of street children is rising or the awareness towards them has increased, it is important to note that in many cases, judgment on the number of street children by the policy makers may do more harm than informing the right way.
Though there is no uniformly agreed definition of ‘street children’, even when sociologists and social scientist have recognised that this category is a socially constructed category than a homogeneous one. At present, UNICEF’s definition of street children is taken as a parameter which comes close to defining the realities of street children in a right way. As per their definition, there are three major types of street children;
– Children ‘of’ the street: children who live alone on the streets
– Children ‘on’ the street: children who work on the streets during the day and return to their families at night
– ‘Street family children’ who live with their families on the street
How many of you have ever wondered about the reasons behind the state of these children? Have you ever stopped on the street to find out more about their lives, to find out how did they land up on the street at the first place, how do they feel? If your thoughts are inclined towards the former, then there is a need to re-look at your perspective towards them.
From my little experience, here are a few quotes from these children, which may give us some idea about the above:
“Didi, I ran away from home since my father used to beat me unnecessarily due to alcoholic behaviour. I straight away boarded a train, which landed in Delhi. It has been years. Though I had made friends with children like me, some of them were taken away by the Police.”- Rohit (name changed)
“My family and I are always on the go. Currently, we are staying under that flyover. Some months back, police had come and forced us to leave, citing security reasons. Here, I don’t have any friends. Though I am enrolled in the school, it is too far off from here. There is no privacy. We have to go so far to relieve ourselves, which is not safe either.”-Kusum (name changed)
The two quotes above indicate the nature and type of vulnerabilities being faced by these children. While there are many children who have run away from home, or forced to, due to varied reasons and are left to fend for themselves, there are incidences of displacement and the lack of roof security for the families. At a tender age, their health and hygiene, sanitation, education aspects are negatively impacted. One but wonders the consequences on their physical, social, cognitive and emotional development.
What needs to be seen is these children’s relationship with various stakeholders who have an influencing role in their lives. While for the majority, family remains the only solace, children also come in contact with police personnel, bystanders, employers, schools and the staff etc. In the absence of sensitivity and ignorance of children’s issues and vulnerability, these stakeholders end up creating a culture of enmity and unfaithfulness. It is a long way for the police at the field level to become sensitised to the children’s needs, who most of the time look at the latter as a nuisance to be tamed as per societal norms. Similarly, while bystanders shun them like they don’t exist, employers make them slog hard in inhumane conditions, difficult to even visualize. If school as an institution could be seen through the lens of “inclusiveness”, it has not been able to fulfil its spirit. More so, it has reinforced the concept of inequity and inequality. It wouldn’t be difficult to see teachers who already burdened with the imbalanced student-teacher ratio, in most of the cases are unable to de-link the individual child from his/her background. Thereby, maintaining the discriminatory attitude and mindset.
While there have been few initiatives taken by the government on the same issue but these have not been enough. NGOs and civil society on the other hand, who have been playing a predominant role, unfortunately, are stand-alone bodies, who have not been able to take the issue of a street child holistically, and linked to the environment approach/ perspective, but developed programs which may seem to be innovative but are not able to sustain themselves after a period of time. There is thus a need for the collectives of NGOs and the governments to bring together their learnings from the field to not only develop an integrated approach but a political space for these children.
And what do you do? Well, as a reader, you could pass this article as just another thorn in the bush and choose to maintain the ‘culture of silence’. Or you can, as transformational agents, start introspecting on the issues discussed and start seeing a ‘street child’ from the eyes that they would want you to look at. Till then, discover them to discover you!