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Lahore street children swap gender identities to survive

Rehana, disguised as Rehan

By: Mary de Sousa

Lahore, October 7, 2006: ‘Nobody, not even the police, dares to touch me,’ says Rehan, a sharp, funny boy with roughly cropped hair dressed in a dirty shalwar kameez and oversized man’s wool jacket. ‘I might look weak but God has granted me the strength to fight.’

Rehan, who thinks he may be ‘nearly 18,’ does not have the physique of a teenage boy. That’s because Rehan is actually Rehana, a girl disguised 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.

There are few girls on the street here. Rehana is one of only two among the 100 or more boys who regularly visit the Nai Zindagi drop-in centre, a UNICEF-supported NGO offering help to drug addicts. Originally established for adults, the centre now also runs Project Smile, providing street children with a safe place to go as well as trained health and social care professionals, food and nutrition, clean clothes, counselling, informal education and referral for advanced medical care and drug treatment.

Her story is just one stark illustration of the information gathered for the recently released United Nations Secretary General’s Study on Violence Against Children. The global study calls for legal and social reforms to end all types of violence against children.

Rehana has suffered a brutal life.‘I have been on the streets since I was born.’ ‘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,’ says Rehana.  She ran away from home and found her way to a shrine in the centre of Lahore where free food is given out but was kidnapped by prostitutes. ‘I ran away and I started taking charas, bhang (a drink containing cannabis) and powder (heroin) and now I sell charas in exchange for powder,’ she says.

She was found by Smile’s outreach programme and has now stopped injecting heroin and is trying hard to decrease her dosage. Today she is angry though that because of her appearance she has been turned away from a detoxification programme at the public hospital. Her hopes for the future are modest. “I want to work at weaving chairs or coats and I want somewhere I can live all on my own,’ she says.

Azhar 18, used to dress as a dancing girl to earn money.

Azhar is another regular at Smile and his life offers a strange 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 and Samad Bond,’ he says. Samad Bond is a solvent which the children spread on material and sniff. Azhar began offering sex in exchange for drugs. Like Rehana and most other street children, his forearms are lacerated with fine razor cuts from elbow to wrist, a practice used by street children for relief, to frighten off police or extract money from people.

Azhar was taken under the protection of a transvestite called Bobby. ‘Bobby told me I was beautiful and could work as a dancer,’ he said. “He dressed me as a woman and showed me how to paint my nails. He promised me I would not be sexually abused. Then Bobby fell in love with someone else and I had no one to protect me.’ A friend brought him to Nai Zindagi and now he is a Peer Mentor with responsibility for marking down the names of children who arrive and checking in their drugs. No drug use is allowed at the centre but children are not condemned for its use.

“Drugs are a problem for me and you but for these children they are the solution to coping with life on the streets. We don’t judge them instead we help them to understand why they take them and how they could stop. When it comes to transactional sex we teach them how to negotiate themselves out of the situation and protect themselves,’ says training manager, Bushra Rani.

Azhar is happy with the change in his life. ‘I have stopped drugs and here I learned to communicate with people, to look neat and tidy and about safer sexual practices,’ he says. Importantly too, Smile counsellors have started the lengthy process of negotiation for Azhar 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). I want to live a healthy, happy life,’ he says.

If funding was available Bushra would like to offer somewhere for the children to sleep. As it is the drop-in centre opens at 8am and at 5pm the children must return to the streets.



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