Giving At-Risk Children in Lahore a New Chance
By Sandra Bisin
Lahore, Pakistan, 24 May 2007 – Like other young girls, 17-year-old Saba* loves teasing her friends, laughing out loud and making plans about the future.
Like other girls her age, she once had the dream to become a singer. “Like Nasibo Lal”, she smiles, her eyes sparkling. “A famous Pakistani singer that comes from our neighbourhood”.
“I entered the sex trade two years ago”, Saba says without blinking. “I was just about to turn sixteen. My family was facing financial problems. Sometimes we just didn’t have lunch or dinner. My father is a guard, he only makes 4,500 Pakistani rupees a month (USD 75). Then a friend of mine told me I could make a lot of money if I entered the business. I thought that kind of work was the only way out of poverty”.
But Saba grew up in a challenging environment. And as she unfolds the story of her life in the shanty town of Shahdara, in the outskirts of the Pakistani city of Lahore, one realises there is more to the young girl than meets the eye.
“The root causes for child sexual exploitation are poverty, lack of education and information, as well as domestic and even peer pressure”, says Dr. Ikram Ul-Islam, president of the NGO Vite-n-Hope, which set up ten Education and Counseling Centres in Lahore for sexually exploited and at-risk children.
Since December 2005, with the support of UNICEF through IKEA funding, Vite-n-Hope’s day-care centre in Shahdara provides 200 children vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation with a protective environment where they receive formal and non-formal education and counselling. Children also engage in recreational activities and have the opportunity to learn news skills such as tailoring and computer skills.
“Most of these children have never been to school. About 30 per cent are being sexually exploited. We support their recovery and re-integration into society”, says Dr. Ikram. “The majority of the children at the centre are the sons and daughters of Lahore’s street-based dancers and musicians who shore up their families’ finances through prostitution”. Prostitution is illegal in Pakistan, but illicit activities are still taking place.
“What is extraordinary with Saba is that, unlike many of her peers, she has managed to step out of sex work”, advises Dr. Ikram. Since the day the teachers from Vite-n-Hope’s day-care centre in Shahdara visited her home and Saba decided to join the centre, the girl has learnt how to read and write in Urdu.
Saba has also learnt new skills. “I am now designing and stitching dresses”, she says proudly. “I encourage my friends to come and take part in the centre’s activities. But most importantly, I had my younger sister, Sheeba, enrolled. I don’t want her to go through what I went. I want her to become a respectable and responsible citizen. Maybe one day she could become a lawyer!”
“Shahbaz could not read or write when he came here”, remembers Ambreen, his 19-year-old teacher. “Now he knows the English and Urdu alphabets. He does his homework and comes to school regularly, which is an achievement as other students have a tendency to drop out”. In another room of the centre, Shehbaz, 9 years old, is actively taking part in recreational activities organised by the three female teachers. Surrounding one of the teachers, the children are singing and smiling mischievously. Shehbaz joined the centre just a month ago.
“He could not read or write when he came here”, remembers Ambreen, his 19-year-old teacher. “Now he knows the English and Urdu alphabets. He does his homework and comes to school regularly, which is an achievement as other students have a tendency to drop out”.
To keep parents committed to sending their children to the centre, Dr. Ikram and his team of teachers organizes monthly meeting with them. The three teachers also visit homes on a weekly basis to raise awareness on the centre’s activities and the importance of educating their children.
For the 200 children that visit the Vite-n-Hope’s day-care centre in Shahdara, supported by UNICEF and IKEA, the centre gives them the chance to learn how to read and write and to receive vocational training. The support provided by the Day Centre to children like Saba, Sheeba and Shehbaz helps them avoid exploitation and abuse and gives them key skills so that they can become healthy and productive members of their community when they grow up.
* Saba’s name has been changed to protect the child’s identity.