Blog originally appeared on NDTV Every Life Counts.
“I want to talk about those kids on the pavements and at the red lights who knock on our car windows under the scorching sun. With our feet burning, out in the rain and in the cold, we face many problems, even violence.
At an age when we are supposed to go to school and get to play with friends, we are forced to earn a living.
Chhotu (small child), kale (dark-skinned), gudiya (doll) – these are just some of the names we are called every day; but never by our real names.
I was lucky to get a chance to escape the hardships. The life of a child on the street should not be a matter or chance or luck, but a matter of right because rights are for everyone.”
These words are of Salmaan, a 17-year-old boy who survived the streets and its harsh realities until he found a safe haven in Salaam Balak Trust, an NGO Save the Children partnered with.
Salmaan learnt to dream, to aspire. Today he is a theatre actor and wants to do films.
Unfortunately, as Salmaan says, he was lucky and luck does not often knock at the doors of 20 lakh children and their lives fade into oblivion of everyday trials.
Breaking the number myth
A look at the numbers – reveal the stark realities of children on the streets:
- 1 out of 4 children on street sleep hungry at least once a time every week
- Every third child has faced abuse
- 63 per cent of children on the streets cannot read or write
- 70 per cent children in street situation are employed in child labour
- 37 per cent of children in street situation sleep on the pavements
- 79 per cent didn’t have an identification document
(Source: Save The Children report: Life on the streets)
These numbers neatly wrap the vulnerabilities that young citizens face in our country.
These numbers are as real as the children we encounter every day, knocking at our car, selling books, toys, begging for money. At an age when they should be reading the books and playing with toys they sell, they are burdened with the task of earning for survival, bereft of their childhood.
At best, we as a society render these children as ‘invisible’. Let us step back and recognise them.
There is a solution hidden in the problem
When Save the Children undertook the study, ‘Life on the Street’, we found that the biggest problem was that children on the streets had no form of legal identity. They represent unnumbered, amorphous segment of population, who are precluded from access to essential rights to education, health services or protection schemes.
Little do we think that this label ‘street children’ has perpetuated a sort of invisibility that has a cascading effects on these young lives. Denial of basic rights – that we take for granted. From the right to go to school to access to clean drinking water, sanitation, and even schemes they could be entitled to. They remain on the margins, marginalised and vulnerable. This is the story of over 20 lakhs who live on the streets of India.
Movement has begun, change is possible
This February, Minister of Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi announced a policy framework for children on the streets. This is called Standard Operating Procedure for care and protection for children in street situation. This is a big win for children on the streets and for Save the Children who worked relentlessly for nearly two years with the National Commission for the Protection of the Children’s Rights.
What does it mean for the children on the streets? It means an identity for 79 per cent of India’s children on the streets who since the beginning have an identification document. Three essential documents that the government will provide are Aadhaar identity, health insurance and a bank account.
These would enable bringing children within the framework that recognises them first as a citizen and then enabling them to access essential rights.
A move we must all celebrate. A move that will change the lives of children.
Let us not turn our eyes away when they come knocking at us. They are not merely a Chhotu, Kalu or Ramu as we choose to christen them. Let us recognise them. Let us begin by calling them by their real names.
On International Street Children Day, let us help them claim who they are.