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Centre in Pakistan provides alternatives for children at risk of sexual exploitation

© UNICEF Pakistan/2008/ Sami
A vocational training class at the Education and Counselling Centre in Lahore, where women prepare dresses for sale at a street market.

By Fatima Raja

LAHORE, Pakistan, 27 June 2008 – About 20,000 children are estimated to be vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation in Lahore, Pakistan’s second largest city. These include about 9,000 children already involved in sex work, in addition to children from families of sex workers and from marginalised and poverty-stricken families who are often excluded from regular schooling due to poverty or stigma.

The Education and Counselling Centre in Lahore, is one of thirteen centres established by Vite-n-Hope, a non-governmental organization, one of ten supported by UNICEF.

Schools with a difference

These are schools with a difference: they cater specifically to children who are involved in, or are at risk of, commercial sexual exploitation.

Since their first establishment in 2004, the centres have registered over 2,600 children in Lahore.

The centres provide children under 17 years of age with basic literacy and numeric skills through different informal educational programmes.

The children also receive additional life skills educational courses and recreational facilities which allow them to participate in fieldtrips, sport competitions, and theatrical performances.

After course completion, the students are then integrated into their local formal educational facilities.

© UNICEF Pakistan/2008/ Sami
Seven-year-old Kiran (right), at the Education and Counselling Centre in Lahore with her best friend Mafiya. Kiran asked her teacher to persuade her mother to send her to school instead of going to work with her every day.

 “We encourage all children to come to learn at these centres,” explained UNICEF Pakistan Child Protection Specialist Shamshad Qureshi. “We do not discriminate between children. Instead of stigmatising vulnerable children, we try to integrate them into wider society.”

Providing alternatives

Since poverty is a major factor in children becoming vulnerable to sexual exploitation, vocational training is an important part of the centres’ activities.

Dressmaking, computer operation and other classes help integrate the children into mainstream society and find alternative career paths.

Fauzia Rafiq teaches one of these vocational classes.

“If I see a child sorting rubbish on the street, I speak to her gently, saying ‘Child, instead of spending your life like this, do you want to learn?’” said Ms. Rafiq. “She says ‘Yes, but how can I? No one wants me in their school.’ I bring her here, and seat her with boys and girls from all backgrounds. Within a day she has learned eight letters and her new life has begun.”

Educating children, educating communities

Recruiting children who do not attend school is also an important part of the teachers’ duties. Many parents refuse to send their sons and daughters to school, saying they cannot afford it.

Ms. Rafiq often finds herself counselling both her students and their parents.

“I try to make friends with them so they can confide in me,” she said. “Mothers feel able to tell me how their child has been abused in a factory and I can arrange for help. Girls involved in sex work talk to me and I tell them about AIDS and safe sex through small stories.”



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