|THE PROBLEMS OF STREET CHILDREN|
Many of the street children who have run away from home have done so because they were beaten or sexually abused. Tragically, their homelessness can lead to further abuse through exploitative child labour and prostitution.
Not only does abuse rob runaway children of their material security, it also leaves them emotionally scarred. Many of the abused children I-India encounters are traumatised and some refuse to speak for months. To aggravate matters, children often feel guilty and blame themselves for their mistreatment. Such damage can take years to recover from in even the most loving of environments; on the streets it may never heal.
Most Indian street children work. In Jaipur, a common job is rag-picking, in which boys and girls as young as 6 years old sift through garbage in order to collect recyclable material. The children usually rise before dawn and carry their heavy load in a large bag over their shoulder. Rag-pickers can be seen alongside pigs and dogs searching through trash heaps on their hands and knees.
Other common jobs are collecting firewood, tending to animals, street vending, dyeing cloth, begging, prostitution and domestic labour.
Children that work are not only subject to the strains and hazards of their labour, they are also denied the education or training that could enable them to escape the poverty trap.
In Indian Society females are often discriminated against. Their health, education, prosperity and freedom are all impacted. The problem is worse in conservative Rajasthan than almost anywhere else in India.
For example, because girls carry the liability of dowry and leave the family home after marriage, parents may prefer to have male offspring. Many female babies are aborted, abandoned or deliberately neglected and underfed simply because they are girls. This can be seen in the fact that the female mortality rate amongst 0-4 year olds in India is 106% of the male mortality rate, whereas the comparable number in Western Europe is 74%. The rate is 119% in Rajasthan. Further evidence of the imbalance is that the female/male ratio within the general population of India is unnaturally low at 927/1000, and even lower in Rajasthan at 909/1000.
Gender discrimination is particularly evident in education where boys are more likely to attend school and to do so for more years. The traditional place of the woman is in the home and many parents and children consider education for girls to be a waste of time, especially when the child can instead be working or performing domestic chores. The gender parity of adult literacy between men and women is 29%.
Child Marriage is another way in which girls are disadvantaged. In addition to limiting educational possibilities and stunting personal development, early marriage carries health risks. A girl under 15 is five times more likely to die during pregnancy than a woman in her twenties; her child is also more likely to die.
Poor health is a chronic problem for street children. Half of all children in India are malnourished, but for street children the proportion is much higher. These children are not only underweight, but their growth has often been stunted; for example, it is very common to mistake a 12 year old for an 8 year old.
Street children live and work amidst trash, animals and open sewers. Not only are they exposed and susceptible to disease, they are also unlikely to be vaccinated or receive medical treatment. Only two in three Indian children have been vaccinated against TB, Diphtheria, Tetanus, Polio and Measles; only one in ten against Hepatitis B. Most street children have not been vaccinated at all. They usually cannot afford, and do not trust, doctors or medicines. If they receive any treatment at all it will often be harmful, as with kids whose parents place scalding metal on their bellies as a remedy for persistent stomach pain.
Child labourers suffer from exhaustion, injury, exposure to dangerous chemicals, plus muscle and bone afflictions.
I-India provides nutrition, medical treatment, hygiene and reproductive health education to 5000 children yearly in our street schools and homes. We also operate a Shower Bus that regularly visits street points and offers on-the-spot showers and cleansing products. We employ several full-time nurses and have relationships with hospitals that are willing to treat our children for free.
Street children in India may be homeless because their family is homeless through poverty or migration, or because they have been abandoned, orphaned or have run away. It is not unusual to see whole families living on the sidewalks of Jaipur, or rows of individual children sleeping around the railway station.
Homeless children have the odds stacked against them. They are exposed to the elements, have an uncertain supply of food, are likely to miss out on education and medical treatment, and are at high risk of suffering addiction, abuse and illness. A single child alone on the streets is especially vulnerable.
Poverty is the primary cause of the street children crisis. Poverty dumps a crowd of problems onto a child. Not only do these problems cause immediate suffering, they also conspire to keep the child poor throughout his/her life. In order to survive, a poor child in India will probably be forced to sacrifice education and training; without skills the child will, as an adult, remain at the bottom of the economic heap.
The root causes of poverty are beyond a single NGO’s power to change, but I-India believes in helping where it can. Street schools provide some education, as does mainstreaming of children into government schools and offering scholarships to private schools. Vocational training centres are a pragmatic, but powerful, tool to assist children in escaping the poverty trap. Children at these centres learn skills such as jewellery-making and tailoring which can prove more valuable to them than additional formal schooling. The money children earn at the centres alleviates some of their poverty, and encourages the child and his/her parents to choose vocational training over child labour. I-India has also been active in promoting Child Rights.