Who are Street Children?
It is a heartbreaking sight to see children begging, selling trinkets and working in the streets of Pakistan. Their ragged clothes, unkempt hair and sunburnt faces reveal the harsh reality of their lives. Street children are defined as “children of all ages who live and work in the streets and are not adequately protected or supervised” This includes both children who are homeless and those who have a home but spend a significant amount of time on the streets.
A report by SPARC, which surveyed 100 households in three provinces, found that 70% of children living on the streets were between 9 and 16 years old (SPARC, 2018). In addition, children aged 5-6 were found working on the streets in Multan, Peshawar and Quetta. In Pakistan, the public perception is that street children have no family and are associated with criminal gangs or mafias. However, the reality is different and varies depending on the context and the city. While some street children are unaccompanied, others may have a home to return to and strong ties to the community (NCRC 2022).
Types and Categories of Street Children
UNICEF’s definition includes three different categories:
- children ‘of’ the street (street-living children), who sleep in public places without their families
- children ‘on’ the street (street working children), who work on the streets during the day and return to their family home to sleep, and
- street-family children who live with their family on the street.
Prevalence of Street Children in Pakistan
The number of street children in Pakistan is difficult to estimate accurately as there is no reliable data collection system. However, according to a widely quoted figure from SPARC (Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child), there are about 1.5 million street children in Pakistan. However, this figure is probably understated as many street children are not counted or registered, so the actual number could be much higher.
Policy and Legal Framework
International Commitments (Conventions, Treaties)
Pakistan is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which affirms the survival, development, protection and participation rights of all children. While there are no provisions pertaining specifically to “street children”: the universal, indivisible, inalienable and interdependent nature of child rights means that the provisions apply equally to street-connected children. The relevant Articles pertaining to protection which should be taken into account for street- connected children include Art. 3, 19, 20, 24, 26, 27, 28, 32, 33, 34, 36 and 39.
The UN General Comment No. 21 on Children in Street Situations was released in 2009 to provide governments with guidance on developing comprehensive national strategies for street children, taking their respect, dignity and rights into consideration. Rather than a repressive approach that views street-children as “delinquents,” or a purely welfare approach with a “rescue” lens, the UNGC 21 argues for a rights-based approach which “ensures respect for the dignity, life, survival, well-being, health, development, participation and non-discrimination
of the child as a rights holder.”
While the UNGC 21 has programmatic and policy recommendations on specific sectors including education and protection, ultimately, it considers street- connected children as being “experts on their own lives” (Article 12) where they “should participate in developing and implementing strategies” using a cross- sectoral approach. By drawing upon their existing strengths and knowledge, they can become assets for policy-makers.
National Legal Framework
Depending on the nature of the work or the activity involved, or if the child requires special care and protection from abuse and exploitation, child protection and labour laws and their enforcement mechanisms may be relevant to the protection of street-connected children. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution in 2010 transferred responsibility for legislative reforms in the area of children’s rights to provincial governments.
Constitution of Pakistan, 1973
The Constitution of Pakistan is the supreme national law and guarantees fundamental rights to all citizens (Articles 8-28) including children. The Constitution contains specific prohibitions against torture and for elimination of all forms of exploitation (Article 3). Article 11(1) prohibits slavery and declares that no law shall permit trafficking in persons. Article 11(3) prohibits the employment of children under the age of 14 in factories, mines, or hazardous work. Article 14 declares the right of citizens to dignity inviolable, but that is mostly affected in the case of street-connected children who experience stigma and multiple violations. Article 15 guarantees freedom of movement to every citizen throughout Pakistan to reside and settle in any part of the country.
Article 25(1) of Pakistan’s Constitution states that “all citizens are equal before the law and are entitled to equal protection of the law.” Article 25 A requires the country to provide free and compulsory education to all children between the ages of 5 and 16 years. Articles 34 and 35 establish the full participation of women in all aspects of national life and the protection of marriage, the family, mothers, and children.
Article 37 deals with social justice and the elimination of social evils, and provides in subsection (e) to ensure just and decent conditions of work and to ensure that children and women are not employed in occupations unsuitable for their age or sex. Article 38 deals with the promotion of the social and economic welfare of the people, and the state is responsible in subsection (d) for providing basic needs (food, clothing, housing, education, medical care) for all citizens, including children who are permanently or temporarily unable to earn a living because of infirmity, illness, or unemployment.
Pakistan Penal Code, 1860
The Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) of 1860 is the main criminal code of Pakistan. It is a comprehensive code covering all substantive aspects of criminal law. In Section 82 of PPC if a child commits any offense under the age of 10 years there will be no criminal liability, not to mention the offense of a vagrant or a street child, which is considered a “status offense.”
Section 328 of the Code also makes it an offence for a parent or other person caring for a child under 12 to abandon the child altogether. Under the Pakistan Penal Code, 1890, amended in 2016 Section 328-A, neglect of a child is punishable as a form of cruelty to a child, which includes intentional bodily harm, ill-treatment, neglect and abandonment, provided it causes physical or psychological injury.
Special Laws Dealing with Street Children
The Sindh Children Act, 1955
The Sindh Children Act, 1955 provides for protective measures for a child who is homeless or destitute. A child is defined as a person below the age of 16 years who has no home, who wanders without a fixed abode, who has no visible means of subsistence or is found begging, who is destitute or illegitimate and has no means of subsistence other than alms, who has no parent or guardian or who has a parent or guardian who is unable to exercise proper care and guardianship or who does not exercise proper care and guardianship; is known to associate or live with prostitutes or persons of criminal or drunken habits; resides or frequently goes to a place or places devoted to prostitution, drinking or gambling; or otherwise falls into bad company, exposes himself or herself to moral hazard or engages in a life of crime. Under this law, the state must provide for the custody and protection of children and punish parents and guardians who wilfully neglect and abuse children.
Punjab Destitute and Neglected Children Act, 2004
The Punjab Destitute and Neglected Children Act 2004 provides for the rescue, protective custody, care and rehabilitation of destitute and neglected children in Punjab. The Act contains provisions to protect street children from the streets and other harmful environments while criminalising begging and to rescue children from begging under Section 24 of the PDNC Act 2004. It defines ‘begging’ very clearly and classifies a begging child as a ‘destitute and neglected child’. The Punjab Destitute and Neglected Children Act 2004 provides for the establishment of a Child Protection and Welfare Bureau (CP &WB) which has an inter-agency board of governors, local child protection units, child protection officers and a court. The functions of the Bureau and the units include the management and supervision of child protection institutions and the monitoring and supervision of the prosecution of violations of the law. Amendments to the PDNCA in 2017 gave the Bureau a mandate to register organisations that operate residential institutes or shelters for destitute and neglected children. Sections 36, 36A and 36B contain penalties for employing children or inducing children to engage in economic activities such as begging or selling goods or inciting children to rag picking, including fines and nonbailable terms of arrest.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Child Protection and Welfare Act, 2010
Under the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Child Protection and Welfare Act, 2010, the Child Protection and Welfare Commission, KP acts as the focal point for managing child protection and welfare work at the provincial and local levels and for the development and coordination of activities, programmes and plans for the development, protection, survival, participation and rehabilitation of vulnerable children. Its functions include the implementation of measures for the prevention, protection, rehabilitation and reintegration of children at risk; the establishment, management, supervision and monitoring of child protection units; and the provision of protection through the establishment, management and recognition of child protection institutions. The Act also requires the establishment of child protection units at district level, staffed by child protection officers. The functions of the units are broad and include prevention, early intervention and response. The Act contains several offences against children with prescribed penalties. The offences listed in the Act include: Child pornography, sexual abuse, sale of child organs, corporal punishment, begging and child trafficking.
Sindh Child Protection Authority Act, 2011
The Sindh Child Protection Authority Act, 2011 provides for the establishment of a Child Protection Authority to coordinate and monitor child protection matters at the provincial and district levels, ensure the rights of children in need of special protection measures, improve and strengthen existing services provided by various child protection agencies, set minimum standards for services and mobilise financial resources for child protection programmes. The Act provides that the authority may appoint child protection officers and establish a child protection unit (CPU) for a local area. When the Act was amended in 2021, street children were specifically mentioned. It also included a clause stating that “to support Social Welfare Department for establishing a well-coordinated child protection case management and referral system to protect children from all forms of abuse” and that a special court for child protection shall be established. Under this law, CPUs have been established in 30 districts of Sindh by end of 2022.
The Balochistan Child Protection Act, 2016
This Act contains definitions of various categories of violence against children, including psychological violence, physical violence, sexual abuse and exploitation, etc. It provides for the establishment of a Child Protection Commission to coordinate and monitor child protection, abuse, violence, and exploitation issues at the provincial and district levels, ensure the effective implementation of the child protection referral mechanisms, and support the provision of effective rapid response for child protection in provincial emergencies such as natural disasters or the outbreak of armed conflict. The law also outlines the child protection functions of the Social Welfare Department in the area of child protection. These include maintaining data on child abusers and persons convicted of crimes against children, establishing and maintaining a helpline for direct complaints, appointing, training, and monitoring child protection officers in each District Child Protection Unit, and regulating all child protection services in the province. The government must establish a District Child Protection Unit within the District Social Welfare Office, headed by a qualified Child Protection Officer, with full and comprehensive responsibility for case management and referral of all reported cases of child abuse in the district.
Islamabad Capital Territory Child Protection Act, 2018
The Islamabad Capital Territory Child Protection Act was enacted in 2018 to protect and take care of children in the Islamabad Capital Territory from any form of physical or mental violence, injury, neglect, maltreatment, exploitation, abuse and all related matters. The Act refers to street children as child in need of care and their right to protection in section 5 (b): ‘A child in need of protection and care is a child who is (b) is unattended, a victim of an offence, child domestic and such other workers, found begging, imprisoned with the mother or lives in an immoral environment. The law provides for the establishment of an Inter-agency Child Protection Advisory Board to advise the government on child protection and child policy matters, ensure effective coordination and implementation of child protection and care mechanisms, and recognise, regulate and monitor all child care organisations. It also mandates the establishment of one or more ‘child protection institutes’ with child protection officers to receive and assess reports of children in need of protection and care, manage individual cases and maintain data on children in need of protection and care. A Child Protection Institute (CPI) has been established for the protection and care of boys, which reports to the Ministry of Human Rights. Rules of Implementation of the ICT Child Protection and Care Act 2018 were notified on 13 March 2021.
Sindh Street Children Shelter Home Act, 2018
The Government of Sindh has enacted the Sindh Street Children Shelter Home Act, 2018 to provide for the welfare and protection of the rights of street children by establishing shelters for them. Under this Act, the government will establish ‘Hamara Ghar’ homes initially in Karachi and Hyderabad (for the first five years) and later in the remaining districts of Sindh. These homes will be managed under a public-private partnership. The children will be offered facilities such as schooling up to matriculation, sports and recreational facilities, and vocational skills. Within the shelter home, there will be separate facilities for boys and girls and the government will be responsible for their welfare, education and health until they are 18 years old. According to Dawn report (26 Feb 2020), two shelter homes were under-construction in Korangi and Malir to accommodate 400 street children.
The Sindh Vagrancy Act, 1947, was the first law in Pakistan that looked after the welfare of vagrants in Sindh province. This Act was repealed by the West Pakistan Vagrancy Ordinance, 1958. In this ordinance, a vagrant is defined as a person who receives charities in a public place or exhibits wounds or sores in order to receive charity. Under this Act, the government is directed to establish welfare homes for vagrants where they are taken into custody. Administrators are appointed to take care of the medical needs of the vagrants and give priority to the education and rehabilitation of the children. The law empowers the police to arrest potential vagrants and confiscate anything they carry. However, vagrants have the right to a fair trial before a judge. Vagrants who are found guilty serve their sentences in welfare homes, not to exceed three years.
Three provinces in Pakistan have passed the same ordinance under their respective provincial names. The government of Khyber Pakhunkhwa has repealed the West Pakistan Vagrancy Ordinance, 1958, by enacting the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Child Protection and Welfare Act, 2010. No province of Pakistan except Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has repealed the West Pakistan Vagrancy Ordinance, 1958 – an ordinance that considers vagrants as criminals and not victims. Section 7 of the said ordinance empowers police officers to arrest or search persons appearing to be vagrants/beggars or to seize anything found on them without a court order or warrant.
Child Labour Laws
All provinces and ICT regions have their own laws regulating and prohibiting child labour. In the Islamabad Capital Territory, there is the Employment of Children Act 1991, which states that a child who has not attained the age of 14 years cannot be employed in certain occupations or “workshops” The prohibition does not apply to children working in a family business. The Punjab Restriction on Employment of Children Act, 2016 applies to employment or work in any establishment, and the definition in Section 2 is broad and includes the formal and informal sectors. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Prohibition of Employment of Children Act, 2015 provides a broad definition of “establishment” covering both the formal and informal sectors, but does not apply to small scale agricultural landholdings producing mainly for self- consumption and do not employ hired workers. The Sindh Prohibition of Employment of Children Act, 2017 applies to employment or work on any establishment, with a broad definition covering both the formal and informal sectors.
The Government of Balochistan has enacted the Balochistan Employment of Children (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 2021, which both prohibits and regulates the employment of children. A child is defined as a person below 14 years of age. Under this Act, no person below the age of 18 years shall be employed or admitted to work in hazardous occupations and in the worst forms of labour. Article 11(1) specifically mentions that the problem of street children aged 5-14 years shall be addressed through a comprehensive, time-bound action programme to eliminate child labour and rehabilitate them. This law applies to employment or work in any establishment in the formal or informal economic sector where work is performed or carried out.
Children engaged in economic activity on the street often fall outside the scope of the labour laws, as most of these laws refer to children employed by others, while children working on the street are often employed independently or by their parents. There are some differences between laws in provinces. In addition to child labour laws that prohibit and regulate the employment of children, there are laws that deal with the employment of children in specific sectors or industries, such as Factories, Shops and Establishments and Mines. (Please see the Child Labour section for more details on child labour laws)
After the 18th Constitutional Amendment and insertion of Article 25-A, all provincial governments and the Islamabad Capital Territory have enacted laws to comply with free and compulsory education for 5 to 16 years. The first was ICT when the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act was promulgated in 2012. In 2013, the Sindh government passed the Sindh Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act. In 2014, the governments of Punjab and Balochistan passed the Punjab Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act and the Balochistan Right to Compulsory Education Act respectively. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Free and Compulsory Primary and Secondary Education Act was promulgated by the KP government in 2017. Of all these laws, ICT, Sindh and Punjab have comprehensively elaborated the roles and responsibilities: State/Governments (provincial and local), Private Schools, Parents, SMCs/School Councils, Teachers/School Principals and Boards of Supervisors for the implementation of the law.
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