Children on the streets are brave but profoundly vulnerable survivors. They have often run away from drunken and intensely violent fathers, cruel step-parents, incest, starvation, parents who cannot or fail to support or take care of them, and even horrendous massacres. Some are lost or abandoned, or their parents have died or are in jail.
They brave, usually with groups of other street children, the harsh adult twilight world of the streets. Like little adults, they negotiate with spirit and audacity the brutalised life of pavements, public parks, railway and bus stations, and waste dumps. They learn to live by their wits on the street, find food, work or beg to get money, fight for whatever they need, and fend off older bullies and the police. At an early age, they often learn to beg at places of worship or traffic lights or forage in rubbish heaps not only for food but also for various materials that can be sold for recycling. As they grow older, girls are often drawn into domestic or sometimes even casual street-based sex work, whereas boys may diversify from rag picking to working in garages and catering establishments.
Children and youth of the street have no adult protection, usually because they have chosen to snap their ties with their families and run away, or because their guardians have died, or in jail, or are lost. They are the most vulnerable, because a child needs the care of adults as she grows. Children and youth on the street do retain contact with their families in the city, who may also live on the street or in slums. However, because of extreme poverty, substance abuse or irresponsible parentage, the children are left largely to their own devices. At an early age they learn to find food and earn money for themselves, and often for their families; they may beg, forage in rubbish heaps for food and recyclable materials.
Street children live in the present moment and get what joy they can, when they can. Their backgrounds and experiences are colourful and the name ‘ rainbow children' (given to them by a pioneer in work with street children Sister Cyril Mooney) suits them well. You can also never hold a rainbow in the palm of your hand. Children from the street are free spirits. They rebel against being locked inside a gate, being supervised closely, and being corrected constantly. Therefore, they need intelligent and understanding guidance from adults that comes only with love. They prove to be able to learn and accept discipline when this is not accompanied by condemnation or rejection.
They are extremely resilient and some of them bounce back even after severe maltreatment. But all the time, they carry a well of emptiness in themselves because the significant adults in their lives have failed them. They seem to have created a space around themselves, which served the purpose of self protection when they were living on the street. They do not easily allow others to come into this shell. The children often carry scars of earlier negative experiences of which they do not speak until they trust people around them. They sometimes show a strange combination of the maturity of adults coupled with the joy, vulnerability and innocence of a child.
Street children typically suffer from many denials and vulnerabilities: these include deprivation of responsible adult protection; coercion to work to eat each day; work in unhealthy occupations on streets like rag-picking, begging and sex work; abysmally poor sanitary conditions; inadequate nutrition from begging, foraging and food stalls; a range of psycho-social stresses; physical abuse and sexual exploitation; and exposure to hard drug abuse.
Street children have seen violence, adult betrayal and death, and have survived. If they did not have confidence in themselves, they could not have done what they have done — survive and overcome — and in planning interventions with street children, the new adults in their lives must not undermine that self-confidence, but rather nurture it into maturity and emotional stability.
More and more children are taking to streets for a variety of reasons and an alarmingly miniscule proportion have been reached out to by state and non-state actors. It is estimated that out of these less than two per cent of street youth and children are reached by the custodial juvenile homes and less than five per cent by all NGO interventions. In Delhi, the national capital, for instance, there are, for instance, an estimated 50,000 street children. In a recent case in the High Court, it emerged that around 1,200 are reached by custodial juvenile homes of the state government, and 1,500 by all NGOs (but very few provide mainstream education and comprehensive residential care). There are also serious limitations to the conventional state approaches such as custodialising such children in unfree homes. NGO models are of uneven quality, and diverse approaches; those that have merit are often too cost intensive to be replicable on the scale which is a dire requirement.
The Government of India, through the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and other initiatives, has been able to work with state governments and citizen groups to expand significantly the availability of primary schooling at the doorstep of most children in the country. But there remains a stubborn core of children that an even more expanded network of schools would not be able to bring into school, even if the school is at the neighbourhood of where the children live. These are children who survive in the most difficult circumstances, and face formidable barriers to be able to access schooling. These include disabled children, children of migrant workers, rural working children and urban street children.
If the country is committed to bring these ‘last' children through the doors of our schools, and to retain them there, this would require the development of strategies that recognise and address those barriers that block a child from walking into schools, and staying there. This is even more imperative in the light of the obligations created by the fundamental right to education. In my next column, I will describe different approaches to working with street children.
In our own work with these children over the last five years, my colleagues in Aman Biradari and I have learnt that they have many strengths which children in families often do not display, such as courage, spirit, initiative, self-reliance and also caring and sharing. We have seen that these children are also very wounded; battered physically, emotionally and sexually by the adult world. These include often those closest to them, such as abusive, violent, alcoholic or irresponsible parents. Under their cocky exteriors, we find that sometimes they carry a well of emptiness — and on occasion suppressed violence — within themselves, because the significant adults in their lives have so profoundly and comprehensively failed them.
But we have found that many of these wounds can, with love, faith and persistence, heal and be overcome. We find that these children need intelligent and understanding guidance from adults that comes only with love. They prove to be able to learn — sometimes spectacularly — and accept discipline, when this is not accompanied by condemnation or rejection. We find in our care of our children who are formerly from the streets, that children are far more emotionally resilient than adults. And that love truly heals.