In Pakistan, one child’s scars reveal harsh life on the streets

By David Youngmeyer

UNICEF’s flagship report, ‘The State of the World’s Children 2012: Children in an Urban World’, was launched on 28 February, focusing attention on children in urban areas. One billion children live in urban areas, a number that is growing rapidly. Yet disparities within cities reveal that many lack access to schools, health care and sanitation, despite living alongside these services. This story is part of a series highlighting the needs of these children.

LAHORE, Pakistan, 16 March 2012 – The claw-like scars gouged on 13-year-old Zeshan’s cheek bear witness to his experience on the streets of Lahore.

VIDEO:UNICEF reports on the story of a 13-year-old who was left to fend for himself on the streets of Lahore. Watch in RealPlayer

He rolls up his sleeves to reveal more scars on his arms. Some of the marks come from fights, one with an older boy living at the same shelter. Others were the result of self-mutilation.

Zeshan said that if he feels threatened by people, he cuts himself with a razor blade, which he often carries in his mouth. “When they see blood, they run away and don’t steal our money.”

A constant battle for food and safety

Zeshan is one of the tens of millions of children living or working on the streets in urban areas around the world.

When his father died one and a half years ago, his family’s economic situation became bleak. His mother left Zeshan and his two younger siblings to fend for themselves. “I would beg for bread and bring it for feeding them,” he recalled.

Later, Zeshan was taken in by an uncle, and his siblings went to stay with another relative. He ran away to rejoin his mother, who had remarried, but his step-family refused to take him in. Unable to return to his uncle’s home, Zeshan felt his only option was life on the streets.

© UNICEF Pakistan/2012/Zaidi
Zeshan, 13, sits at the Lahore fort in Lahore, Pakistan.

Zeshan faced a constant battle to find food and shelter and to stay safe. For a while, he slept on a park bench.

“I was robbed several times by gangs of other children,” he said. “At times, the police would come and beat street children to make us move on.”

These days, Zeshan mostly lives at a shelter that is home to up to 20 boys at a time. Here he has meals, washing facilities, clothing and a place to sleep. Although the shelter is a big step up from the streets and “the food is good,” Zeshan doesn’t like it.

“Some children have bad habits like taking drugs and smoking,” he said. He says that he has been beaten at the shelter and feels threatened by some of the older children.

When he is not at the shelter, he works up to 12 hours a day in a gaming parlour, collecting money from customers, setting up games and cleaning. He earns just over US$0.50 a day. “It is okay,” he said, “but I don’t like it when people [verbally] abuse me or call me bad names.”

© UNICEF Pakistan/2012/Zaidi
Zeshan heads to his job at a gaming parlour in Lahore, Pakistan.

Finding some relief

Zeshan found some relief last year, when he frequented a UNICEF-supported child protection centre, a safe space for children living and working on the streets.

Run by UNICEF’s implementing partner, Global Vision Organization, the centre offered a range of activities including recreation, education and vocational skills training. Children could also access counseling services and learn about health, hygiene and the dangers of addiction and abuse. Hundreds of children attended the centre.

“The people who ran the centre were caring and compassionate and treated us nicely,” Zeshan said. “That’s what I liked most.”

Unfortunately, the centre closed at the end of 2011 due to a lack of funding.

© UNICEF Pakistan/2012/Zaidi
Zeshan walks along the wall of a park in Lahore, Pakistan.

But UNICEF has supported many other such centres in Pakistan, providing a variety of services and helping many children living and working on the streets reintegrate back into their families and communities. The centres have also provided a model for the government to set up a referral system for services such as transit shelters, legal assistance, and medical and financial assistance.

UNICEF is also working with government to identify gaps in protection services for children, and to develop policies and legislation that will increase protection for children living on the streets. The Sindh Government, for example, has allocated more than US$3.5 million dollars for public-private partnerships to provide social services for children living and working on the streets, and to prevent children from being pushed onto the streets in the first place. The provincial government has also enacted child protection legislation and taken over operations for four UNICEF-assisted child protection centres in Sindh.

Still, Zeshan continues to struggle to survive on his own.

“I wish my parents are with me and my brother and sister are also with me,” he said. “I could go to a school and in the evening and I could go to a madrassa. I could spend a decent life.”



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State of the World's Children 2012