By Haroon Janjua
Eight-year-old Zarmeena is one of the country’s 1.5 million homeless children, many of them Afghan refugees, who miss out on education and often fall prey to violence and abuse.
On a cold winter morning, as the sun rises above the squalor and stench of the slums of the Islamabad, frail-looking children are already up, picking rags from the dumps. It is a risky and competitive business.
Zarmeena, an eight-year-old Afghan girl, wears ill-fitting wellington boots slashed down to ankle-length, with clothes that are no more than thin pieces of fabric wrapped around her.
“I come daily here to collect garbage for the scrap dealer who gives me money,” she says. “I have been doing this work for two years or maybe more.”
Zarmeena’s work as a rubbish scavenger pays her less than $1 (70p) a day. The number of street children in Pakistan is on the rise, according to a recent study, with an estimated 1.5 million under 18s sleeping rough in the country’s urban centres.
A report from the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (Sparc), a thinktank working on the rights of children in Pakistan, states: “Street children are vulnerable to all kinds of hazards including: sexual abuse, street violence, psychological trauma, drug addiction, and falling victim to communicable diseases.”
Children like Zarmeena are homeless for many reasons: domestic violence, abuse, poverty, or because they were born to parents who could not afford to feed another young mouth.
Child rights activists have been calling on the government to establish rehabilitation centres with basic facilities to stop street children falling into the hands of the criminal gangs who increasingly prey on them. The government has responded by opening child protection offices in 12 districts but Rana Asif Habib, of the NGO Initiator Human Development Foundation, in the southern port city of Karachi, says the issue is linked to the Afghan refugee crisis and to Pakistan’s rising inflation rates.
“We are providing free education to street children, in mobile schools, but the problem with the Afghan children is that they don’t have their birth certificates and they are suffering a lot,” says Asif.
He believes that around half of all Pakistan’s street children are Afghan refugees. He also believes nearly 70% of them are runaways. The vulnerability of these children was gruesomely highlighted in December 1999 in Pakistan, when a serial killer, Javed Iqbal, was convicted of the murders of 100 children in Lahore. Iqbal sexually abused and murdered the children, before disposing of their bodies by dissolving them in acid. Child protection offices are being opened in 12 more districts to provide facilities for street children in their local areas.
Naveed Mukhtar, of the Child Protection Bureau, said: “Two vehicles are being used to get street children into protective custody. They are being provided with free education, accommodation and skills in order to make them responsible citizens.”
Unicef’s child protection chief for Pakistan, Sarah Coleman, says that collecting data posed “significant challenges”. She says Unicef has a focus on “the provision of technical support to federal and provincial governments for the generation of robust evidence” to show that child protection issues are improving. Pakistan has so far struggled to safeguard its children with an estimated 22 million not in education. Back on the dump in Islamabad, Zarmeena gets back to sifting through smelly piles of waste. “I have never been to school,” she says.