Street Children of South Asia
Author: Syeda Samrah Alam, April 2021
What would help address the dire situation of homeless children in the region? Here we explore the prevalence of domestic violence as a factor explaining the rise in the number of children living on the streets in South Asia.
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Over the past few decades, the issue of street children has gained prominence and acknowledgement internationally, in broader academic platforms, and across contemporary policy debates. However, widespread consideration for children and their rights is not new. In fact, “the eighties and nineties saw a growing global concern for their rights and welfare” (UNICEF, 2001, 89). This culminated in the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child by the United Nations’ General Assembly in 1989. Several 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) also aim a safer and fairer world for children, addressing practices that adversely affect them, such as child labor, child marriage, and female genital mutilation (FGM).
We can appreciate the progress that has been made on the protection of children’s rights, but one should also acknowledge the huge gap in the implementation of policies, plans, and actions when it comes to dealing with a minor who is severely dispossessed. “In line with this general concern for the rights and welfare of children in especially difficult circumstances, is the growing international problem of the rising numbers of street children in urban areas, mostly within the developing world.” (UNICEF, 2001, 89)
There is a clear tendency to examine the issue through the framework of poverty. Many scholars, policy makers, and researchers believe that children gravitate to the streets because they live in economically impoverished households; this is called the “poverty hypothesis” (Bhukuth, 2015, 136). The number of street children in India and Bangladesh is increasing. Notwithstanding, poverty rates in the regions have been falling consistently in the last few decades – excluding the current Covid-19 period. If an increase or a decrease in poverty rates does not fully explain variation in the number of homeless kids, then the “poverty hypothesis” does not hold up to the reality. In order to fill this gap, it is important to understand the different dynamics that are associated with the problem: this is a social challenge not limited to the abundance of street children in several regions of the world and the prevalence of poverty in the developing world. Other factors must be tackled to understand the phenomenon.
According to a 2018 survey in The Times of India (TOI), that nation was “considered to be the most dangerous country in the world for women” (Canton, 2018). In 2011, the same survey had ranked India in fourth place, and Pakistan in third. These rankings illustrate the prevalence of gender-based violence (GBV) and domestic violence, in general, in some South Asian countries. If a country is unsafe for women, it is logical to argue that it is equally dangerous for the most vulnerable population: children, especially girls, and minors living in the streets. This paper further argues that the issue of street children in South Asia cannot be managed simply by transferring resources to control poverty rates, as these measures don’t take into account the prevalence of domestic violence in South Asia. Therefore, the essay addresses the following research question: Is the prevalence of domestic violence contributing to a rise in the number of children living on the streets in South Asia? And, what could contribute to more assertively tackle the problem in this region?
The present essay starts with a general assessment of the issue. We then conduct a literature review to explore some previous research, for example Teresita Silva’s study on the street children of the Philippines. Through an outlined methodology, we look into how family violence could relate to the existence of street children in South Asia. We then present case studies, and conclude by outlining a series of plans and actions.
The overall condition of children living in the streets is deteriorating day by day. This is the most worrying feature of this phenomenon given the time, effort, and resources that have been invested in controlling poverty rates. This points out that the involved authorities are failing to take into account a very important variable. There is, in fact, a more malignant explanation to the problem: domestic violence.
Many governments don’t seem interested in keeping official records and documentation on street children within their respective regions. Thus, the general lack of official data makes it difficult to examine the issue systematically and the existent data is actually not reliable. In addition to the fact that there are inherent difficulties associated with measuring the number of minors living in the streets within a region at a particular point in time, most countries are reluctant and indifferent to exposing these numbers. As a result, governments end up turning a blind eye to this.
Many people still believe that poverty plays an integral role in influencing a child’s decision to leave his/her home and take refuge on the streets. The cited “poverty hypothesis” is based on the rationale that a minor chooses to move to the streets because they are economically disadvantaged. In the absence of sufficient breadwinners within their households, many kids either voluntarily move to or are forced to earn a livelihood in the streets. Researcher Teresita Silva explored the issue in her study on street children in the Philippines. While looking into the main causes that drive them to the streets, she pointed out that “poverty represents a glaring indicator of both the helplessness and the powerlessness of these children and their families and the inability of developing nations to meet the basic needs of their people.” (Silva, 1996, 279) Furthermore, an article by Mehak Sharma highlighted the role of poverty in pushing kids to the streets in India.
However, we assert that analyzing the issue purely from the poverty lens might be misleading. Attempts to deal with it by means of poverty have been carried out without any significant reduction in the numbers of street children in South Asia, but quite the opposite. India, for example, has pulled millions of people out of poverty in the last few years. More than 640 million people across the country were in multidimensional poverty by 2006. One decade later, there were roughly 365 million, “an impressive reduction of 271 million” (McCarthy, 2019). It is difficult to obtain the official numbers of homeless children in India at this point in time. However, it is important to understand that there is no drastic reduction in the numbers of these minors as a result of controlling poverty rates or focusing purely on economic factors.
In order to examine the given research questions and understand the relationship between domestic violence and street children in South Asia, I have made use of secondary data, literature, and sources.
Before moving on to a detailed discussion of why I chose Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan for a comparative study, and further opted to conduct a city-level analysis, I have attempted to define family violence and street children to examine my research questions based on existing literature and sources.
Family Violence – Independent Variable
The notion of violence is a multifaceted one. This ranges from physical violence to sexual violence, domestic , as well as psychological violence. This paper specifically looks into the effect of family or domestic violence on a child’s decision to migrate to the streets within South Asia. Since we couldn’t obtain comprehensive annual rates of family violence against children, we made use of violent child discipline data provided by the UNICEF Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS), as well as past studies and research.
Number of Street Children – Dependent Variable
According to a UNICEF study on the street children of Zimbabwe, homeless kids could be categorized into two groups – “children on the street” (UNICEF, 2001, 89) and “children of the street” (UNICEF, 2001, 89).
“Children on the street” are mainly those for whom streets serve as temporary abodes through the day. These kids utilize streets to make a living out of specific street activities, such as “pick-pocketing, begging, working on fruit stalls, cleaning cars, shoe shining and selling rubbish” (Flintoff, 2011) during certain hours. On the other hand, “children of the street” are those who use streets as permanent dwellings. “Children on the street” as well as “children of the street” have a strong attachment to and bond with the streets. However, the main distinction between these two groups, as discussed in the Zimbabwe study, is that the former have families and homes to go at night, whereas the latter “lack parental, emotional and psychological support normally found in parenting situations” (UNICEF, 89). At various instances, the two categories could overlap, such as in cases where certain street kids would sometimes go home at night, while other times stay on the streets.
To understand the relationship between our independent and dependent variables, we present a comparative study on Bangladesh (Dhaka), India (Delhi), and Pakistan (Lahore). As mentioned previously, the paper conducts a city-level analysis because more reliable numbers on the issue could be retrieved by means of this level of analysis as compared to national-level.
Within South Asia, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan present a unique opportunity to conduct a comparative study because these countries are alike in several aspects. In addition to mirroring each other’s cultural and historical backgrounds, they have similar economic statuses. Cultural features of violence are prevalent in all of them. Moreover, street children are quite common in each of these countries. According to the United States Census Bureau, Bangladesh (8), India (2), and Pakistan (5) are among the ten most populous countries in the world, and they also have significant numbers of minors living in the streets.
Excluding the COVID-19 period, poverty rates in Bangladesh have been declining since 2000. Within that period, poverty rates halved to 24.3 percent whereas extreme poverty rates fell by two-thirds to 12.9 percent. (World Bank Group, 2020, 3) At the same time, according to the World Bank’s findings in the Bangladesh 2012-2013 MICS, the percentage of children 1 to 14 years of age who experienced violent discipline–practices that involve parents or caregivers educating and training kids through violent and aggressive means–was approximately 82% on a national level and 81% in Dhaka. In the 2019 findings, it was 89% both on the national and city level. Conversely, the number of street children in the region is increasing; according to a 2014 study evaluating the vulnerability of homeless kids of Bangladesh to HIV/AIDS, there were approximately 445,000 street children in the country, and the numbers are expected to rise. This increase seems to coincide with a correlative increase in the rates of violent discipline within Bangladesh as a whole and in the capital, Dhaka, between 2012 and 2019. This analysis supports the hypothesis that rates of domestic violence–for example, in the form of violent child discipline–have an impact on the number of children migrating to the streets in Bangladesh.
Between 2011 and 2017, India’s poverty rate declined from “22.5 percent to values ranging from 8.1 to 11.3 percent at the international poverty line” (World Bank Group, 2020, 7). Although poverty rates in India were declining, according to some 2013 estimates provided by the child maltreatment report in the country, there were around 100,000 street children in Delhi alone and an additional 300,000 in the major cities of India (Singhi et al., 294). This means that in addition to poverty, other predictors come into play to determine the growing numbers of street children in India. Delhi is one of the major cities and a significant proportion of homeless kids reside in the city. “The 2010 census of street children in Delhi found that there are approximately 51,000 minors under 18. Almost all of them experienced verbal abuse and at least half were physically abused, mostly by parents/guardians, relatives/friends, the police or employers.” (Singhi et al., 294). These estimates illustrate that domestic violence in any form plays a crucial role in determining a child’s decision to migrate to the streets in India.
Unlike the other two case studies, Pakistan’ s poverty rates have not been on a downward trend since 2015. At the same time, the number of street children in Pakistan have increased. Muhammad Waheed Iqbal’s 2008 study on the street children in Lahore established there were about “70,000 children living on the streets nationwide” (Iqbal, 2008, 202). However, a 2018 article by Haroon Janjua on the street children in Pakistan pointed out that there are an “estimated 1.5 million under 18 sleeping rough in the country’s urban centres.” (Janjua, 2018) According to the 2014 and the 2018 MICS Punjab, 81% of children under 14 experienced violent discipline.
These numbers explain how family violence, in the form of violent child discipline, could lead to children migrating from their homes to protect themselves from recurring episodes of pain and suffering. While it is important to acknowledge the role of poverty in affecting the number of street kids in the country, various elements of violent child discipline come out as significant factors when trying to understand the phenomenon of street children in Pakistan.
According to our assessment of the issue, family violence has the potential to explain why a broader population of “children of the street” (UNICEF, 2001, 89) decide to move to the streets permanently and why “children on the street” (UNICEF, 2001, 89) eventually start giving preference to living on the streets rather than in their homes.
Following are policy recommendations to address the issue of street children in South Asia:
● It is important for all organizations, concerned authorities, as well as individuals to focus on the implementation of current laws and policies that seek to protect and safeguard children. For example, “identifying neighborhood ‘hotspots’ for violence and then addressing the local causes through problem-oriented policing and other interventions.” (WHO, 2020)
● Community initiatives could have a positive impact in the field of family violence. For example, working with community leaders to alter “norms that condone the sexual abuse of girls or aggressive behavior among boys.” (WHO, 2020) This also involves a gradual transition from the existing culture and values circulating around how a child should be treated by his/her parents and caregivers.
● Counseling, educating, training, and supporting parents/caregivers could make a difference as well. Concentrating on the root causes of a phenomenon is always a good strategy, and these actions will help us do so.
● State authorities and organizations should also facilitate the availability of emergency contact numbers, information, and services. This involves “ensuring that children who are exposed to violence can access effective emergency care and receive appropriate psychological support.” (WHO, 2020)
● The provision of proper schooling and educational facilities should also be a priority. Proper education helps a child learn new skills, nurture, develop a basic understanding of good and bad, and, most importantly, speak up for themselves when it’s absolutely necessary.
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