Original draft in laptop before being customized as “Wiping the Windscreen” – published in the Express Tribune, 9th June 2012.
Who knew that April 12th was International Street-children’s Day?
Not me, though every day I shake my finger at a little boy struggling to spray water on my windshield. He is a bite-size con-man, I know, who will furiously wet and wipe a perfectly clean sheet of glass within the span of a red traffic light, so the lady driver gives in to guilt worth ten rupees. These encounters are a matter of routine for inhabitants of urban Pakistan, who can only drive on.
To have a day dedicated to street-children is to stop and take a closer look at the little urchin being left behind: a picture of poverty, neglect and exclusion. His story could be any one of 1.5 million in Pakistan. Maybe he’ll learn the alphabet, maybe he won’t. Maybe he’ll turn to drugs, maybe he already has. Maybe he will roam the streets till night rather than return to abuse, squalor and hunger never sated.
For those among us who drive too fast, perhaps it is enough for UNESCO to provide some food for contemplation. By labeling a day, at least it has forced attention on how disparity is taken for granted. The elite don’t wonder where these children come from, or where they go. They hardly give a second thought to the hordes of rural migrants settling just beyond the parameters of well-kept lawns. The mushrooming slums, differentiated by ethnicity, point to far greater economic problems within the state of Pakistan – the inability of the job market to absorb an expanding population, the unequal development that drives rural-urban migration. For those to whom these stories are familiar, this picture is just one of several hundred up for public consumption on development-oriented websites. For them, the question is: And then what?
When it comes to children, that is an unforgivable question. It embodies the worst form of development fatigue: the shrug. By shrugging away the potential of a single young individual, the development practitioner is ceding responsibility for the future of a generation. That child could have been more than he will be for lack of opportunity and access to basic rights that should be guaranteed for all.
One reason for the shrug of the development practitioner is that it is singularly difficult to work with street-children, especially if they belong to mobile or transient communities. They are resistant to interference, measuring impact can become a problem and there are donors to answer to. At the same time, there are ways of working around their constraints – of recognizing the fact that their economic activities supplement household income, and that they will need either incentives or a vision to be drawn to school.
If there is hope, it is in young people. There is an increasing recognition of this phenomenon in civil society today, and a new spirit of active volunteerism among the youth. In Islamabad at least, initiatives of private and small non-profit organizations are coming together to form synergies and bridge gaps between classes within the urban landscape.
What is worrisome is the inaction of the state in drawing children from the fringes of society. There is a clearly defined need to speed up the process of defining post-devolution roles, so that the responsibilities for Child Protection and Education can be assigned. Then only can the purpose of the 18th Amendment can be understood by those marginalized groups who fell through the cracks of the centralized system.
If asked, individuals working directly with children can testify that there can be no experience more rewarding. When handled right, they are responsive – far more so than adults – and demonstrate the most cheerful kind of resilience. Beyond the windscreen, for those who care to look, there will often be a cheeky smile surviving in spite of the streets.