|© UNICEF Pakistan/2006|
|At the Nai Zindagi drop-in centre in Lahore, Pakistan, a UNICEF-supported project is helping street children get off drugs and return to a normal life.|
By Mary de Sousa
LAHORE, Pakistan, 8 November 2006 – “Nobody, not even the police, dares to touch me,” says Rehan, a sharp, funny teenager with roughly cropped hair, dressed in a dirty shalwar kameez (the traditional South Asian trousers and tunic) and an oversized man’s wool jacket.
“I might look weak, but God has granted me the strength to fight,” Rehan adds.
Rehan, who may be “nearly 18,” does not have the physique of a teenage boy. That’s because Rehan is actually Rehana, a girl disguised as a boy to survive on the streets of Heera Mandi, Lahore’s red-light district.
“Can you imagine what would happen to me if I dressed as a girl?” she asks.
Life on the streets
There are few girls on the streets here. Rehana is one of only 2 among the 100 or more boys who regularly visit the UNICEF-supported Nai Zindagi drop-in centre, which offers drug addicts help with recovery. The centre also runs Project Smile, providing street children with a safe haven as well as health and social care, food, clean clothes, counselling, informal education and referral for advanced medical and drug treatment.
Rehana has suffered a brutal life. “I have been on the streets since I was born,” she says. “My father only wanted me to work and sent me to look after children and clean houses. When he started to sexually abuse me, I left.”
She was found on the street by Smile’s outreach programme. Now she has stopped injecting heroin and is trying hard to decrease her dosage.
|© UNICEF Pakistan/2006|
|A homeless teenager takes refuge at the Nai Zindagi drop-in centre, which provides medical care, counselling and support to street children in Lahore.|
From addict to mentor
Azar is another regular at Smile, and his life offers a parallel to Rehana’s. He thinks he may be 18 and ran away when he was “less than 10” because his parents died and he was badly beaten by his older brother.
“I joined a gang of runaways and started taking charas [hashish] and Samad Bond,” he says. (Samad Bond is a solvent that children spread on material and sniff.) Azar eventually began offering sex in exchange for drugs.
A friend brought him to Nai Zindagi and now he is a peer mentor responsible for marking down the names of children who arrive and checking in their drugs at the centre, where no drug use is allowed.
‘I learned to communicate’
“We help them to understand why they take them and how they could stop,” says staff training manager Bushra Rani. “When it comes to transactional sex, we teach them how to negotiate themselves out of the situation and protect themselves.”
Azar is happy with the changes in his life. “I have stopped drugs, and here I learned to communicate with people, to look neat and tidy and to have safer sexual practices,” he says. Smile counsellors have started negotiating for Azar to return to his family.
“I want to be a motor mechanic or have any job where people don’t call me a charsi [drug addict],” he says. “I want to live a healthy, happy life.”
As for Rehana, the girl masquerading as a boy to survive on the streets, her hopes for the future are modest but clear. “I want to work at weaving chairs or coats,” she says, “and I want somewhere I can live all on my own.”
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