Gaps and Challenges- Street Children

Legislative Gaps

Disharmony in laws

Article 25(A) (which deals with the right to education), Article 11(3) (which forbids employment of children) and the Pakistan Penal Code’s section 82 (which grants blanket immunity to children below a certain age) all have different upper limits for the age of children. This disharmony is also reflected at the provincial level. Standards and mechanisms need to be established for the protection of children under an agreed minimum age to address child labour, early marriage, school dropout, reporting, and case management of children at risk.

Criminalisation and status offences

There is a mismatch between the rights-based approach of UN General Comment No. 21, and existing legislation that discriminates against street children by treating begging as a status offence. Vagrancy laws in Pakistan is a vestige of a colonial past, used to keep people from “loitering” or possibly organising against colonial rule; enable law enforcement authorities to charge any child above the age of criminal responsible (10 years) for begging. Children arrested for begging can be tried as adults due to a lack of documentation to verify their age. Although according to protocols children are meant to be taken to protection facilities rather than detention facilities, in fact there are reports of juveniles being detained in adult prisons. In addition, those who are already vulnerable are made even more so, as parents are given a short window of time to produce documentation and proof of birth registration – requirements that are often incongruent with their reality. According to the UNGC 21, “Criminalisation of begging or unlicensed trading can result in worse form of survival behaviours, such as commercial sexual exploitation.”

Laws, policies, structures and systems

There is no specific law that deals exclusively with the problem of street-connected children in Pakistan. The implementation of other laws that address the issue of street children remains an enormous challenge. Rules of implementation of many laws have not been formulated or notified, including JJSA 2018, NCRC Act 2017, provincial education and labour laws, etc which are important for enforcement of laws. This shows that children’s rights are given low priority and there is a lack of political will, adequate systems, organisation, and adequate allocation of resources (financial and human) especially via Social Welfare Departments, Children Commissions/Authorities. The structures are often only symbolic, of good theoretical value but with little effort for actual implementation and sustainability. A number of committees proposed under various laws such as School Management Committees, Juvenile Justice Committees, District Vigilance Committees etc are either not notified or not functional.

Lack of Data

Uncounted and unheard

There is not enough information on children in urban poverty, who live or work on the streets. A widely quoted number from SPARC was that there are about 1.5 million street children in Pakistan, but in reality the number may be much higher. If they remain “uncounted, unseen and unheard,” then policies and programmes will not be crafted to match their reality and may be ad-hoc or short-term, without addressing long-term challenges (Madeeha Ansari, 2019). More information on children and consultation of their communities is needed in order to identify strategies that will not only take children off the streets, but keep them from returning.

Invisible and unseen

Data collection is complicated by the fact that many urban communities are unrecognised, or themselves prefer to stay under the radar because they fear forced eviction or – in case of Afghan-origin communities – possible repatriation. Even when families relocate from one place to another, there is no system of registration. Data collection to gauge the scale of the challenge, while avoiding stigmatising street children or exacerbating vulnerabilities will require commitment, resources and creative research methodologies.

Barriers to Education

Although Pakistan is committed to education for all in principle, in practice, street-connected children face issues in access due to multiple reasons. To answer the question, “Why are children not in school?” It is important to understand the interplay of contextual factors. This includes individual child-level factors (including age, gender, health and cognitive skills) household (including income, ethnicity, size, parental education) school (quality, distance, use of corporal punishment) and community (general attitudes and lifestyle)(Naeem et al., 2021).

In general, the barriers of urban poverty include:

Poverty and child labour

For many families, there is a trade off between sending children to work on the streets, in homes or workshops or send them to school. Time at school translates into lost income. SPARC survey results revealed that 73% parents believed that children should not work, however, financial constraints were a major hurdle in pulling their children out of work. For others, children are viewed as breadwinners and it will take concerted efforts to change the mindset. For children “of” the street with loose family connections and no other support, it is a matter of survival.

Lack of identity or birth registration documents

Civil society organisations offering non-formal education to street-connected children have shared the difficulty in facilitating entry to mainstream schools, as non-literate parents find it difficult to navigate bureaucratic processes. Retrospectively obtaining B-forms can be a long and challenging procedure, especially when parents and whole generations do not have the required documentation. Urban refugees can face particular vulnerabilities and challenges, needing to deal with multiple departments and get clearance from SAFRON (Cities for Children 2019).

Perceptions about the value of formal school

One of the reasons for low enrolment shared by practitioners is the perceived value of schooling and its link with future employment opportunities. If school is linked with improved future income or prospects of social mobility, it would increase the incentive to enrol and continue.

Quality and learning poverty

Along with equity in access, the quality of learning determines how long children stay in school as well as their future options. The ASER survey of 2021 presents a snapshot of katchi abadis in four districts of Karachi and Lahore. It shows Institution wise, learning levels have reportedly been highest in private’s schools while being lowest in madrassas where only 7.4% could read a story and 4.4% were able to solve division (ASER,2021). The lack of foundational skills is partly due to a lack of quality early childhood learning options. Early year enrolment rate falls in katchi abadis fall behind at 38.1% as compared to 53% in urban areas. Given the range of mother tongues, a lack of a focused policy around this in early childhood education foundational years has exacerbated learning poverty percentage to 85% in Pakistan(ASER,2021). Children need to be able to build the skills to learn and perform well in school, and for street-connected children these would include important socio-emotional skills that they may lack because of experiences of abuse and neglect. They need tailored and focused solutions in order to overcome disadvantage.

Re-enrolment of Out-of- School Children

Pakistan has the second highest number of out-of-school children in the world, with about 22.8 million children aged five to 16. Nearly 10.7 million boys and 8.6 million girls are enrolled at the primary level and the numbers drop to 3.6 and 2.8 million, respectively, at the lower secondary level. In the five- to nine-year-old age group, five million children are not enrolled in schools, and after primary school age, the number of OOSC doubles. Even though education budgets have increased and account for 2.8% of total GDP, the 4% target is still not being met (Fizza Farhan, June 2021). According to the government’s own figures, one in every four children in Pakistan has never stepped inside a school. The Federal Ministry of Education has approved a framework to reenrol out-of-school children in 2021 but there has not been much progress especially since education is a provincial matter. The federal Ministry of Education had promised to work with the provinces and districts, but that is easier said than done, because circumstances vary from region to region, and district administrations are nonexistent (Kashif Abbasi, March 2021).

Protection Challenges

Domestic violence and abuse

This is one of the main reasons for children having loose family connections or running away from home. The existing child protection mechanisms lack the capacity to handle the scale of the issue; residential or shelter facilities would not be able to accommodate all children in urban poverty facing risks of domestic violence or exploitation. While helplines established by Child Protection & Welfare Bureau Punjab (1121), KP Child Protection and Welfare Commission (1121), Sindh Child Protection Authority (1121), Child Protection Institute Islamabad (1121), Federal Ministry of Human Rights (1099) are a great resource, reporting is limited by both lack of awareness and lack of faith that things will change. In a study by Pahchaan, it was found that more than 40% of runaway from Faisalabad and Gujranwala had run away 4 times, indicating failed attempts at reunification (Pachchaan, 2009). There is a need for longer term interventions with caregivers to ensure that children do not face protection risks at home or on the streets.

Sexual abuse

This is a particular concern for runaway children and can go unchecked in several types of places that children frequent, such as transport hubs (rail and bus/wagon/truck), shrines, roadside restaurants, manjhi bistra hotels (taverns), or even mini cinemas. They can suffer both physical and sexual abuse at the hands of employers, with little recourse or protection from police. In cases where the police are perpetrators, it leads to a lack of trust.

Substance abuse

The pathways to drug addiction and substance misuse can be influenced by combination of environmental factors – including extreme poverty and deprivation; physical and emotional abuse and neglect, including harsh treatment from caregivers; social exclusion and discrimination and peer influence – but also include personal characteristics including mental health and the resilience to cope with stress (UNODC, 2018). Street-connected children who face adversity early in life in Pakistan and exposure to drugs on the streets can get involved in misuse of substances ranging from glue-sniffing and smoking hashish – both of which are widespread in the larger cities such as Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar – to the less common but present danger of injecting heroine. Children exposed to drugs face a host of issues, including lifelong drug dependence, police exploitation and fatal infections such as HIV – but recent data is limited (DAWN, 2021).

Child labour and exploitation

Each urban context differs, but children engage in a range of survival activities on the streets including begging for alms, rag-picking or vending small items to fulfil personal or family needs. There is a whole spectrum of vulnerabilities, at the extreme end of which is the risk of forced begging, recruitment for urban crime, exploitation for sex work and child trafficking. Street-level outreach can help determine root causes and the appropriate protective response. In larger cities, children are at risk of exploitation by criminal networks force people to beg. The government remains inactive in the face of the powerful criminal networks, and district administrations have yet to develop an effective and workable strategy to take action against the real perpetrators.

Lack of access to facilities and funding constraints

There is provision for the establishment of Child Protection Units at the district level, but insufficient resource allocation on the part of the government to sustain them. At the district level, there are meant to be Child Protection Units (CPUs), but historically there has not been enough resource allocation to establish and run them. In KP, for instance, the Zamung Kor residential centre exists in Peshawar but 12 CPUs established with UNICEF support have been closed since 2015. Hiring is now underway to reactivate CPUs in KP. In Punjab, the Child Protection and Welfare Bureau has also set up three Child Protection Units (CPUs) in disadvantaged communities, but more are needed. CP&WB Punjab is not present in all districts of Punjab, as is the case in other provinces. Strict regulations on the operation of non-governmental organisations have resulted in the closure of many services that were previously available.

Stigma and harassment

Children on the streets are often stigmatised for being there, being treated as a nuisance or being labelled a “menace.” The language used to describe them and what they do often does not take their lives, their background and their own agency into account, either using a frame of victimisation or of criminalisation. Due to their vulnerabilities, related to “informal” status or lack of identity documents, they can face harassment from those who are present for their protection. According to a UNICEF report, harassment from police can include the following kinds of accusations: They accuse us of earning our money through illegal sex activities and demand their share; They take our personal things and call us drug addicts and thieves (UNICEF, 2004).

Addressing stigma has become increasingly relevant as children in urban poverty had their lives and livelihoods disproportionately affected by the pandemic and associated lockdown, leading to an increase in economic activities on the streets. Since late 2020, there have been efforts to conduct “anti-beggary” campaigns in various parts of the country, with the dominant narrative being that they are controlled by criminal gangs or mafias. While street-connected children may be vulnerable to exploitation by external groups, they are also increasingly associated with families facing increased economic stress. There is a need to review policies that penalise children and their families without addressing the structural problems that push them onto the streets



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