April 14, 2021 

By Rehan Piracha & Xari Jalil


LAHORE

On either side of the Saggian Pull (Bridge), on the sludgy, sewage ridden banks of what was once the Ravi River, gipsies live in makeshift shacks. Once, wanderers, these gipsies are now part of the place, usually working as part of the begging community. They live in squalor, in the most unhygienic surroundings, but the worst off are their children who suffer from serious health issues, malnutrition, no access to any educational facilities, and are more than often involved in crimes.

These children take to the streets, at a very young age, become part of gangs and other criminal networks, spiralling into an abyss of drug abuse, and prostitution.

But this is not the fate of just the gipsy children. The number of children on the streets only continues to swell as time passes, and their problems are only increasing.

“There are at least a million street children in Punjab,” says Sarah Ahmad, the chairperson of the Punjab Child Protection and Welfare Bureau (CPWB). “The figure is based on estimates received from various non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working for the protection of vulnerable children.”

Ahmed defines street children as those who are found to be begging on the streets, who are lost or missing or those who run away from their homes. The category even includes infants who have been abandoned by parents. The issue is a major concern, as the International Day of Street Children fell on April 13, highlighting the extent to which street children in the country are vulnerable to sexual and physical abuse, prostitution, and drug abuse on a daily basis, among other things.

Now, the Bureau has planned to launch a crackdown on child begging in the wake of Ramzan, which is considered a very lucrative time for beggar gangs.

In order to discourage parents from forcing their children into organised begging, the CPWB chairperson says child beggars will be kept in the Bureau’s custody for a month, allowing the child protection staff to work on their rehabilitation.

“This will deter the parents of these children from sending their other children out to beg,” she said, adding that child-beggars who stay away from their family tend to stop begging.

Sarah Ahmad called for greater public participation in curbing the menace of child begging in the country.

“People should stop giving money and alms to child beggars, and instead should call the CPWB Helpline 1121 to provide information about such children,” she said. The CPWB rescue staff will take these children into their protection, she added.

In order to deter repeat offenders, the CPWB has started to shift some of the child beggars to the bureaus in other cities. “When the parents who pushed their children to beg, will have to travel to another city to see their child, they will think twice before giving the begging bowl in their hands again,” she said.

The procedure

The CPWB has the authority to protect and rescue children from begging under Section 24 of the Punjab Destitute and Neglected Children Act 2004. A rescue team of the CPWB takes a child beggar into custody and presents the child before a child protection court within 24 hours, a CPWB spokesperson told Voicepk.net.

The court then orders that the child beggar should be transferred to a child protection institute, managed by the CPWB. According to the PDNC Act, a child can be kept in the custody of the child protection institute till the age of 18 years.

The CPWB spokesperson says that the parents of the child have to apply to the child protection court to regain custody. The court has powers to impose a fine of Rs 10,000 to Rs 300,000 on parents for forcing their children to beg.

“Parents are granted custody of the children by the court usually after the payment of the fine,” said Ahmad.

The Bureau can act against beggar gangs and rag pickers under Section 36 and Section 36A of the PDNC Act. The CPWB has filed complaints for FIRs against them.

“The CPWB has the capacity to accommodate 1,200 neglected and destitute children in its various child protection institutes in the province,” she says. “Currently, there are 1,100 children in the custody of CPWB in the province. Most of the children in the CPWB’s custody are those who have been abandoned or orphaned or unable to locate their parents.”

This is indeed a dire number, seeing as in 2014, the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (SPARC) gave the estimate of 1.5 million children who were on the streets of the entire country. Today, approximately the same number of street children has been found in Punjab.

INFOGRAPHIC: How unsafe are children on the street?

Temporary adoption

Under the PDNC Act, a child court can grant temporary custody of a destitute and neglected child to a person. The court can ask the person to execute a bond or sureties that he/she will provide good care and education to the child. The court can also order periodic reports on the wellbeing of the adopted child.

According to the CPWB spokesperson, 14 children were handed over for temporary adoption on court orders in the last six months.

Domestic violence against child servants

Sarah Ahmad says the Bureau has acted promptly to provide protection and care to child domestic workers who have been abused and tortured by their employers. She says the law forbids the employment of a child less than 15 years of age as a domestic servant in the province, adding that the Bureau had lodged 293 FIRs only on domestic violence in a year.

However, she said the Bureau faced difficulties in pursuing cases when the parents of such children withdrew their complaints.

The CPWB chairperson adds that the law needs to be amended so that the offences are made non-bailable to deter the abuse of children.

“The PTI parliamentarians are in touch with the provincial law minister about bringing amendments in existing laws to enhance the sentences in cases of violence against children,” she added.

A case from the archives

The case for the protection of street children arose once before too when in 1999, serial killer Javed Iqbal confessed to the police about picking up little boys off the streets for his sexual gratification. The tragedy was made apparent, not just because Iqbal killed the little children after luring them, but because no one cared that they had disappeared. The fate and safety of these children were in their own hands only – but living on the streets, they were left exposed and vulnerable in front of predators lie Iqbal.

‘No long term goals’

Iftikhar Mubarik who has been working on child rights for years now, says that although the CPWB is trying to do the right thing, the focus is only limited to children who beg on the streets. But there are also others on the streets who are involved in far worse activities or fates who need to be rescued.

Ultimately, however, no Bureau or protection centre can rescue a million children and house them in their shelter.

“Sometimes children, at the pretext of selling something, or doing some kind of work, are actually begging,” he says. “To differentiate this is difficult. The fact is there should be no children on the street, whether begging or working. Rescuing them off the roads is a good gesture on part of the government, but it is far from being a long term solution. Their focus remains on rescuing not prevention.”

Mubarik points out that the children who are ‘rescued’ once may come back as repeat ‘offenders’. He refers to them as ‘street-connected children, a more all-encompassing term, and says that such children have no welfare or community centres, access to health and education, and all other basic rights of children.

“Which government department will be responsible for their health, education, etc? Who will register their births or provide them with healthcare services?” he asks. “There are no comprehensive studies by the government, no hotspots mapping…they cannot just pick up children and put them inside their bureau. First, these children need to be stopped from coming out onto the streets.”

This much is obvious: the children will need long term rehabilitation, otherwise they will end up relapsing.  The Bureau cannot act as an orphanage.

For those who know that the government department is going around collecting children from the streets, the Bureau’s act appears only as a convenient ‘band-aid’. But when the children are in fact removed from begging, what diversions or alternatives are they presented with?

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