Protecting the rights of Faisalabad's most vulnerable children
By Fatima Raja
In a tidy dormitory lined with bunk beds at the Child Protection and Welfare Bureau in Faisalabad, ten-year-old Tariq plays a game of carom with his friends. He grins as one of his discs falls into a pocket. He aims again carefully, and fires another disc in. "I won!" he cries out. His friends around the board challenge him to another round, and he refuses. "I have already won," he says haughtily.
"This is a good place. The places I lived last year were terrible. Slowly all the old thoughts and memories are leaving my mind, so I can be good and respectable and become a policeman when I grow up," says Tariq. A year ago, Tariq had no place to call home. He had run away from his own family where he is the eldest of five children. His father, who works at the looms in Faisalabad, a major industrial centre, had beaten him very badly. Tariq left home, left school and left the city to make his way over 100 km east, to Pakistan's second largest city, Lahore.
Here, he slept at a friend's house at night, and wandered the streets by day. He worked odd jobs and saved to invest in lentils which he roasted and sold as snacks. "This was my own idea," he says proudly. His face falls as he relates how he spent his earnings: on sniffing glue. "It was a sign of my independence," he says. "I thought to myself, I'll sniff glue, earn a living and never ask anyone else for help."
After a year in Lahore, a rickshaw driver alerted the Child Welfare and Protection Bureau to Tariq's situation. The bureau's staff rescued him from the streets and applied for protective custody. They sent him back to Faisalabad, where a new bureau had just opened with support from UNICEF through IKEA funds.
A safe environment
According to estimates, between 2,000 and 2,500 boys like Tariq live on the streets of Faisalabad. "These are children who need special protection, and whose parents, for various reasons, cannot provide it," says Shamshad Qureshi, the Child Protection Officer at the UNICEF provincial office in Punjab. Many of these boys live or work on the street.
The Child Protection and Welfare Bureaus were established by the Government of Punjab Province and empowered them with the legal mandate of providing vulnerable children protection. Children deemed to be at risk are rescued and brought to the residential centre. The bureau petitions a child protection court to grant protective custody. At the centre, the child attends literacy classes, plays sports, and receives counselling from a staff psychologist. Meanwhile, the parents are located and counselled in child rights, and are helped to prepare petitions that custody be returned to them.
Tariq's new home, the spacious building which houses the Child Protection and Welfare Bureau in Faisalabad, began operations in September 2007. In these three months it has already reunited 123 of the 184 children it has rescued with their families. Tariq is not among them. He is unwilling to return to his family, who in turn have refused several times to meet with the bureau's representatives. Another attempt to reach them is scheduled soon.
"This is a good place," he says. "The places I lived last year were terrible. Slowly all the old thoughts and memories are leaving my mind, so I can be good and respectable and become a policeman when I grow up." He adds, hastily: "I don't want a big moustache like a policeman, though. That is certainly not my style."
A Space to Play and Learn
The Child Protection and Welfare Bureau is empowered to act in the most extreme cases, where children either lack guardians entirely, or have a guardian but are subject to sexual, physical or drug abuse, or engage in beggary. Many more boys who live in this industrial town find shelter in the four Open Reception Centres established by the Hayat Foundation, a local NGO partner, with assistance from UNICEF and IKEA.
At these centres, adolescent boys identified as most at risk of physical, sexual or drug abuse, can play games and participate in creative activities, receive life skills education, and are referred to other services such as detoxification, confidential HIV counselling and testing. Perhaps most importantly, the boys find mentors who can guide them out of a life of sexual, physical and drug abuse. Mothers and fathers are also counselled on their child's needs and rights.
Behind the high walls of the Open Reception Centre at Kukianwala, an actor takes a bow to raucous applause. Aslam is sixteen years old, and drama had given a foundation to his life. He dropped out of school in class nine, and spent two years out of school. "My family is very highly respected in our neighbourhood," he says. "I was the black sheep."
"When I came here I started listening to how educated people talk," says Aslam. "I want to talk like that too."
He began spending the entire day wandering about with his friends. "My old way was to go to the bus and truck station and to the mini-cinema," he says. There were also more dangerous temptations: drug and alcohol abuse was rampant, as was prostitution. Aslam watched his friends become regular customers: "One friend of mine works but he gives almost nothing to his family. Instead he saves it and blows it all at the bus station every Friday night."
One day, Aslam realised that his slippers were missing: his younger brother, who spent his school vacations at the Open Reception Centre, had borrowed them. Prepared for a fight, Aslam went after him. There, he was spotted by the centre's staff. "They sat down and talked to me very seriously," he remembers. "They even came and talked to my mother."
Aslam started going regularly. He attended life skills education training and found it to be a revelation. "I didn't have any idea about diseases like HIV and AIDS. Even when we saw it on television, we didn't understand it, really," he remembers. Aslam feels his whole demeanour changed. He has started looking after his appearance and no longer falls into wild rages. Impressed, many of his friends followed him to the centre.
Now, Aslam is one of 200 peer educators who counsel other boys, and reach out to community members to get them to help identify vulnerable and at-risk adolescents. He has found new loves. "I've found my vocation in acting," he says. "A few of us have pooled in to buy a movie camera and we've made our own plays."
Aslam has also restarted his education. "When I came here I started listening to how educated people talk," he says. "I want to talk like that too." Now he is preparing for his matriculation exams (equivalent to O levels) privately, with coaching from the centre's staff.
An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 children and adolescents in Faisalabad fall in the vulnerable and at-risk category that is the target of the Open Reception Centres. Since operations began in 2006, nearly 2,200 have been registered and received life skills education here. Through this they are empowered to protect themselves and others, and to lead a healthy lifestyle. Safe, creative recreation is an important part of the Open Reception Centres. Aside from painting classes, the boys perform plays and dances. Each centre has its own cricket teams which compete with each other. Thanks to these two UNICEF and IKEA-supported initiatives, thousands of Faisalabad's children and their family members have a chance to leave behind abuse and neglect, and to take their lives and wellbeing in their own hands.