We think twice before we allow our children or loved ones to venture outside on the streets after dark. We tell our daughters, “Raat ko bahar jaana mana hai, tumhare saath kisine chhedkhani kardi toh (You are not allowed to go outside the house at night, what if someone eve-teases you)?”
Imagine your worst nightmare as a girl: You are forced to leave the security of your home, your family does not want to take care of you anymore. You take your belongings and leave to go to the only possible place you can think of, perhaps a temple or a night shelter. With no food or money, you fear that this night could be your last night. You finally catch your breath and collect yourself for one moment, it doesn’t take you long to see that the world around you is cruel. Your whole life can be ripped to shreds, just like your clothes were when you were raped that same dreadful night. It is in that moment that you realise life may not be worth living. And you decide to end your life.
This is not a fictional story. Priya*, now 21, was once in that dark place. She found a single ray of hope and held on to it with everything she had. As a 16-year-old she decided to live and give up her baby, born out of rape, to a local NGO who takes care of infants in need.
Delhi, the national capital, is not safe for women and girls and there is enough data to bear evidence. As per a study by Save the Children, there are an estimated 51000 children on the streets of Delhi, 20% being girls. It was noted that more than half of the children on the street suffered verbal, physical or sexual abuse. You sit up and wonder what it will take to change this reality. With campaigns like #Metoo and #TimesUp the social media space is rampant with opinion articles and horror stories, but who is writing about those who do not have the resources to make themselves heard, the ones we see every day on the streets and call them Chotu or Gudiya, a population that is invisible?
Priya* is a woman. Priya* lived on the streets. She suffers twice over.
The lack of protection for children on or off the streets was captured rather starkly in the 2007 study on child abuse undertaken by the Ministry of Women and Child Development (MoWCD). The study covered respondents across 26 districts of 12 states from different zones of the country. Taking into account both severe as well as other forms of sexual abuse, 54.5% of street children confirmed experiences of sexual abuse. This was back in 2007. We can only imagine the situation as the population grows day by day to become an overflowing pot of boiling water with no respite for those who are homeless and unprotected.
Like Priya*, we know that 79% of children on the street do not have an identity proof. Similar to her situation, we know that every 3rd child on the streets of India has faced some form of abuse, physical or sexual. Priya* says, “After my own father asked me to leave his home, I developed a deep distrust of people in my mind. I’ve had a terrible life, but I decided to live and I know that I can come out of this.”
The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights in collaboration with Unique Identification Authority of India, Child Welfare Committee, Save the Children and Salaam Baalak Trust organised an Aadhaar Camp in a night shelter where Priya* lives. She got her Adhaar card made. When asked what this Adhaar card represents to her, she says, “Finally, I can get a job that pays me, no one wants to hire me without an identity proof. Now I will have the money to build my own home, live a better life.”
An identity proof can become a life-altering experience for children living on the street. The political commitment to provide identity, in reality, is the beginning of a movement to change the lives of 20 lakh children who continue to be #TheInvisibles, living on the streets of India. We are moving towards an India where children are safe and women are not afraid to venture out in the streets. It is possible, and society is coming together to make it happen. All we have to do now is be a part of the movement and do our bit.