There are about 11,000 children in street situations in Lucknow – 29% of them being girls. Few of them are ever heard when it comes to making laws for their care and protection or the enforcement of those laws. It is always the adults who decide what happens to them.
When Aradhana* and Mehek* realised what the street does to children in the city, they decided to change this. For them, winning their personal battles wasn’t enough. They have their own ideas about what children, especially girls in street situations, need – and they aren’t afraid to voice their opinions.
Unfortunately, this has come at a price. Mehek (16) was only two when her stepfather sent her to a children’s home without her mother’s knowledge. She says she doesn’t know what the condition at the shelter is now, but it didn’t feel safe back then. “The older girls there – they didn’t behave properly. The ma’am there also didn’t supervise what the children were doing,” she says.
Her mother brought her back from the shelter, but when she turned ten, Mehek’s father sold her off to distant relatives to work as a domestic worker. The relatives made her work from dawn to dusk – giving her barely four to five hours of sleep and no time to study or play. The calls she made to her mother were supervised, and the only way she could communicate her distress, she remembered, was by weeping on the phone.
“When I wrote down her phone number on my hand to call her later, they beat me up and erased the number. Almost the entire family got together to erase the number,” she explains.
Sensing trouble, her mother brought her back home, but home had another set of ordeals in store. Her father sexually abused her, assaulted her, and tried to rape her. Unable to bear this, she tried to get an FIR filed at a local police station, only to be rebuked. Fortunately, Childline learnt about her case and helped her file the case. Her father was convicted and sent to jail three years later.
Sexual harassment isn’t uncommon if you are a child in street situation. A Save the Children census of five cities found that around 6% of such children faced sexual abuse at least once in their lives.
An aide of a local goon operating in the slum colony in Lucknow where Aradhana (16) lives attempted to rape her when she was 14. She continues to go to court. “Even today when I go out, the guy threatens me with rape. He says, ‘When you are going to college, or if I find you alone, I will abduct you, I will get you raped, I will get you murdered’,” she told YKA.
It was after the men in her family sexually abused her that Aradhana decided that she must do something for the women in her locality. With the help of a local social worker who taught young girls in the area, she became a founder-member of an NGO called Red Brigade, training herself first in self-defence, and then those around her. “We thought we must do something different for the girls. So that we are safe,” Aradhana told YKA.
While she is enrolled in a higher secondary course, most of the children she trains live or work on the street and don’t have access to education. She wants the government to change this. “All children should be able to study. And they should provide housing for those who live on the street,” she demands.
Mehek, who was moved by the help she got from Childline and now volunteers with them to spread awareness in schools about sexual abuse, echoes this. “Safety and education is very important for girls. When girls study, they feel empowered,” she says.
Mehek also participates in Childline’s programmes in Lucknow to raise awareness about rights of children in street situations as well as make demands from the government. “We told the governor that the girls on the street aren’t safe there. Even today, they are not able to study. They also need safety to be able to study,” Mehek told YKA.
Both children think that the police sometimes become a hurdle in ensuring safety. They narrate their own experience as an example.
“The police talked to me as if I was the person who had committed a crime. They talk in a manner that even if women want to ask for help, they won’t – because of their behaviour,” Mehek says.
On the other hand, Aradhana alleges that the police tried to delay registering her complaint because the accused had already alerted them that she would be going there. “When I went with my application, they started saying, ‘We don’t have a female constable right now. How do we take the application? How can I ask questions?’ I asked them to call the constable. ‘She is on duty here, there,’ they started making excuses,” she told YKA.
A huge number of children in street situations in Lucknow face the problems that Aradhana and Mehek faced – and perhaps never get rehabilitated.
Through their resolve and assistance from authorities, the two girls are fortunately on the path to a fulfilling life. While Aradhana is enrolled in a higher secondary school, Mehek has recently matriculated from secondary school, despite facing difficulties due to interruptions in schooling.
When she grows up, Aradhana says she wants to continue training women in self-defence. “So that when they go out, they must feel strong enough to confront people who say anything. They must feel strong inside,” she says.
“When I see the women at Childline talking, I feel very good,” Mehek says. When asked about her future plans, she adds, “So I too want to become like them. I want to help them and I want to do a course in hotel management.”
The children’s resolve is evident in the way they negotiate the complexity of the world around them – between the laws that protect them and the realities they experience every day. The judge hearing Aradhana’s case warned the accused against threatening, but the threats continued. “So, I told him,” Aradhana says, “If you so much as touch me, or if you get me abducted, then you will of course serve time in jail, but you will also not return home. Just try me.”
Featured images used for representative purposes only.
If you are a survivor, parent or guardian who wants to seek help for child sexual abuse, or know someone who might, you can dial 1098 for CHILDLINE (a 24-hour national helpline) or email them at [email protected] You can also call NGO Arpan on their helpline 091-98190-86444, for counselling support.