Many of the street children who have run away from home have done so because they were beaten or sexually abused. Tragically, the main causes of street children are homelessness and poverty that can lead to further abuse through exploitative child labour and prostitution.
Not only does abuse rob runaway children of their material security, but it also leaves them emotionally scarred. Many of the abused children I-India encounters are traumatised and some refuse to speak for months. To aggravate matters, children often feel guilty and blame themselves for their mistreatment. Such damage can take years to recover from in even the most loving of environments; on the streets it may never heal.
A large proportion of the boys and girls in I-India’s homes have suffered abuse. In addition to fulfilling their material needs, we seek to provide a warm and caring atmosphere. Our vocational centres, too, are safe, fun places where children gain confidence and self-esteem. We run a help line for children in need, and, unusual amongst Indian NGOs, we employ male and female full-time counsellors to support our children’s emotional development.
Most Indian street children work. In Jaipur, a common job is rag-picking, in which boys and girls as young as 6 years old sift through garbage in order to collect recyclable material. The children usually rise before dawn and carry their heavy load in a large bag over their shoulder. Rag-pickers can be seen alongside pigs and dogs searching through trash heaps on their hands and knees.
Other common jobs are the collecting of firewood, tending to animals, street vending, dyeing, begging, prostitution and domestic labour.
Children that work are not only subject to the strains and hazards of their labour, but are also denied the education or training that could enable them to escape the poverty trap.
Through I-India’s networking with Childline, police and district administration, the organization is identifying trafficked children, planning their rescue and facilitating statutory rehabilitation (post-rescue) and legal assistance to prosecute the illegal employers, agents and nexus as whole.
In addition, the organization also conducts non-formal street schools to ensure that working children get at least a basic education and information about Child Rights. We nurture community support for our schools and seek to mainstream suitable children into the government education system. We also provide popular and practical vocational training where older children can learn skills while also earning some money.
In Indian Society females are often discriminated against. Their health, education, prosperity and freedom are all impacted. This can be seen in the fact that human development report (United Nations report, 2011) indicates that India is one of the low performing countries in the world and ranked 132 out of 187 in terms of gender inequality. The problem is worse in conservative Rajasthan than almost anywhere else in India.
For example, because girls carry the liability of dowry and leave the family home after marriage, parents may prefer to have male offspring. Many babies are aborted, abandoned or deliberately neglected and underfed simply because they are girls. Evidence of the imbalance is that the child sex ratio within the general population of India is low at 919/1000, and even lower in Rajasthan at 888/1000 (Census 2011).
Gender discrimination is particularly evident in education where boys are more likely to attend school and to do so for more years. The traditional place of the woman is in the home and so many parents and children consider education for girls to be a waste of time, especially when the child can instead be working or performing domestic chores. Many newborn girls were killed by pouring sand or tobacco juice into their nostrils in the western desert state of Rajasthan where gender imbalance is highly skewed in favour of boys.
Statistically, only 47.76% of women in Rajasthan are literate, compared to 79.19% of men, and almost 22% of the women in Rajasthan had underage marriages. The figure gets worse in rural Rajasthan where almost 27% of the women were underage when they were married. This means that in rural areas of Rajasthan, every 4th marriage among women took place below the legal age during this time period. This is another way in which girls are disadvantaged. In addition to limiting educational possibilities and stunting personal development, early marriage carries health risks. A girl under 15 is five times more likely to die during pregnancy than a women in her twenties; her child is also more likely to die.
I-India emphasizes care and opportunity for girls. There are more girls than boys in our street schools, vocational centres and homes. Our young women/mother’s empowerment project is enabling women to become empowered in initiating the process of improving their lives and the lives of their families and communities through livelihood opportunities and sustainable income. I-India is organizing capacity building and entrepreneurship trainings to reduce gender inequality and to support the marginalized young women to gain access to the economic sector and leverage of economic independence. We also employ many women in our NGO and do so at all levels up to the founder, Abha Goswami, herself.
Poor health is a chronic problem for street children in India. At 400 million, India is a home to the world’s largest child population. More than 50 per cent of the children are malnourished and almost 50 per cent of them do not attend school. The proportion is much higher for street children and child labour. These children are not only underweight, but their growth has often been stunted; for example, it is very common to mistake a 12 year old for an 8 year old.
Street children live and work amidst trash, animals and open sewers. Not only are they exposed and susceptible to disease, they are also unlikely to be vaccinated or receive medical treatment. Only two in three Indian children have been vaccinated against TB, Diphtheria, Tetanus, Polio and Measles; only one in ten against Hepatitis B. Most street children have not been vaccinated at all. They usually can not afford, and do not trust, doctors or medicines. If they receive any treatment at all it will often be harmful, as with kids whose parents place scalding metal on their bellies as a remedy for persistent stomach pain.
Child labourers suffer from exhaustion, injury, exposure to dangerous chemicals, plus muscle and bone afflictions.
There is much ignorance about reproductive health and many girls suffer needlessly. A girl made infertile by an easily-preventable condition may become unmarryable and so doomed to a life of even greater insecurity and material hardship.
2.40 million Indians are living with HIV (1.93 3.04 million) with an adult prevalence of 0.31% (2009). The rate amongst children is lower, but because street children are far more sexually active than their Indian peers and because many are even prostitutes they are thus hugely at risk of contracting the disease. AIDS awareness, testing and treatment exist, but less so for street children than other demographic groups.
I-India provides nutrition, medical treatment, plus hygiene and reproductive health education to 2000 children in our street schools and homes. We organize regular awareness generation campaigns and assistance to at-risk children at railway station, street points and other critical localities. We also operate a Shower Bus that regularly visits street points and offers on-the-spot showers and cleansing products. We employ several full-time nurses and have relationships with hospitals that are willing to treat our children for free. I-India also providing education on tracking malnutrition and benefits of breastfeeding among different stakeholders, such as: health workers, students, families and caregivers.
Street children in India may be homeless because their family is homeless through poverty or migration, or because they have been abandoned, orphaned or have run away. It is not unusual to see whole families living on the sidewalks of Jaipur, or rows of individual children sleeping around the railway station.
Homeless children have the odds stacked against them. They are exposed to the elements, have an uncertain supply of food, are likely miss out on education and medical treatment, and are at high risk of suffering addiction, abuse and illness. A single child alone on the streets is especially vulnerable.
I-India prioritizes homeless street children. For them we provide: repatriation to their families, temporary and permanent shelter, street schools, vocational training, nutrition, medical treatment, shower facilities, AIDS awareness and a help line.
Poverty is the prime cause of the street children crisis. Children from well-off families do not need to work, or beg. They live in houses, eat well, go to school, and are likely to be healthy and emotionally secure.
Poverty dumps a crowd of problems onto a child. Not only do these problems cause suffering, but they also conspire to keep the child poor throughout his/her life. In order to survive, a poor child in India will probably be forced to sacrifice education and training; without skills the child will, as an adult, remain at the bottom of the economic heap.
The root causes of poverty are beyond a single NGO’s power to change, but I-India believes in helping where it can. Street schools provide some education, as does mainstreaming of children into government schools and offering scholarships to private schools. Vocational training centres are a pragmatic, but powerful, tool to assist children in escaping the poverty trap. Children at these centres learn skills such as jewellery-making and tailoring which can prove more valuable to them than additional formal schooling. The money children earn at the centres alleviates some of their poverty, and encourages the child and his/her parents to choose vocational training over child labour. I-India has also been active in promoting Child Rights.