Silent: The Street Children of India

Delhi, Essays, India, Uncategorized

They are admittedly cute as they rush up to you with large eyes, grown-up bargaining words, and big expectations.

In their hands can be any number of items: keychains, snow globes, gum, snack mixes. Next to them are adults selling the same items at a competitive price you’ll never hear because your ears are blocked by the cuteness of the child offering up items for you.

They are the street children of India. Often, they look slightly too skinny, with either tattered shoes or none at all, and clothing that is either to big or too large for their bodies. They look like children who have scuffled and played and been roughed around with a few too many times, but here they are, selling whatever they think you’ll buy.

And even if you don’t want it, who could resist the innocent, large eyes peering up at you holding out handfuls of keychains with the exclamation of just being “50 rupees each.”

You bargain with them, but they shake their heads resolutely.

“I can’t go lower than 40 rupees,” they say, but it just takes a few more minutes to get the price you want.

I watched this happen my second time in India with a group of people coming out of a restaurant.

A child, no older than seven or eight, saw us coming and found the blondest of us to attempt to sell to. She was resolute in her price, but so was he. Eventually they came to an agreement, then the whole group of ten gathered around desiring elephant-shaped keychains.

In excitement, the boy told us to, “Wait, wait,” as he ran to get more keychains from some mysterious location beyond what we could see.

Meanwhile, my heart broke.

A cute little kid selling keychains using adult bargaining language was easy to sway emotions, but underlying that was a darker image. This was no child at a lemonade stand attempting to get enough money for some marbles or Pokemon cards. No, he was running back to find his boss—maybe his father, an uncle, a complete stranger—who would give him more of a product and take most of his proceeds in return.

The children aren’t selling this out of a young, entrepreneurial desire. They sell out of pure need.

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According to a census study recently done of the city of Mumbai, there are an estimated 36,154 street children. This is the low-ball number. Since some terrorists attacks in the country, it has been harder for children to live openly on city street and may have moved to the outskirts and suburbs of cities. It also doesn’t include a number of illegal slums in the city. (1)

There are three types of street children: those from street families, those classified as working street children, and those classified as children living on the street. Some children spend the day working and go home to their families at night. Others have abandoned their families in search of a better life in the city. Many attempted to escape abuse and neglect in their small towns and villages. (2)

In the city of Kolkata, it’s estimated that a child arrives at the railway station every five seconds. They run away from abuse, poverty, and neglect, but what they find isn’t much better. Instead, they must contend with pimps, pedophiles, traffickers, and drug pushers. It’s been estimated that as many as 15% of street children are also addicted to drugs. (3)

Journalist Shobhan Saxenai chronicled a small group of street children in an article for the India Times. In it he wrote of one of the children, “Rahul wants a dibba of ‘good boot polish’ before talking.”—meaning Saxenai—“He eats it. ‘Otherwise I can’t sleep.’” Rahul was 10 years old at the time of the story existing with a pack of children with similar tendencies. (4)

Of the street children, the majority are boys—a full estimated 70%. There are several reasons for the discrepancy between the amount of boys and girls found on the streets. For one, slightly closer numbers are found when the children still live with their families—there 61% are boys and 38% are girls. However, when the children live on their own more than 80% are boys. (5)

Some girls are forced into an early marriage, while others are quickly scooped up into sex trafficking or used by local gangs.

A relatively small percentage of the children classify as beggars. Many, instead, take up street occupations. More than 11% of children sell objects such as flowers or newspapers, while 20% work in shops or eateries, and 10% do anything from rag-picking to anything they can. (6)

Some of the children are used by people in power to do dirtier jobs. A group of street children collaborating together to create a newspaper found that police in railway stations were forcing children to “retrieve the bodies of people killed on the tracks.” (7)

There are other, possibly more shocking, statistics. More than 2% are children with disabilities. Some came to the streets disabled, others became disabled from the abuse and stress they undergo on the streets. Another 24% of the children are illiterate—and 15% have a drug addiction. The drug of choice, it seems, is sniffling glue, shoe polish, or typewriter fluid. (8)

They are also more susceptible to wrongful accusations. For example, a recent law would have allowed courts to try 16-18 year-olds as adults. There are several issues with this: one being that many street children have no birth records which have their ages thus making it easy to bump them up for a more severe punishment and street children are particularly vulnerable to act as scape-goats for crimes they didn’t commit. The common thought with both is: who would miss a street child with no family? (9)

Programs exist for children on the street. There is Salaam Baalak which attempts to take children from the street at their own pace and give them an education and future. There’s Railway Children, which attempts to help get children off the streets particularly around railway stations. There are countless NGOs, there are teachers giving free schooling, there are government-funded programs.

However, many NGOs also run into problems with the Indian government, particularly those with Christian values—many NGOs have been kicked out of India in the recent past. Another issue rests in the fact that as many as 77% of street children don’t realize that there is help out there for them. And those who have heard have grown so hardened and distrustful of the world that they don’t believe the help is genuine—and with good reason. (10)

The problems go far past bone-deep when dealing with these issues and it turns into a viscous cycle. The children need an education in order to get any sort of job, which is widely unavailable to them. Without the education, they end up running into the same situations they were running from or they die on the streets. And without an education the viscous cycle of drugs, trafficking, and horror continues.

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Street children are not a solitarily Indian problem. A recent survey found that one in 30 children in the US has been homeless at some point in the last year. Many of the NGOs set up to work in India also work in Western countries around the world. Street children are everywhere, in every country, all in need of compassion.

Over the last weekend, I went to a missions conference at my church. The main speaker there was the head of an NGO in Thailand that specialized in rescuing children from human trafficking. They are an NGO filled with people who trudge through the jungle for days in order to rescue a single child from being sold into human trafficking. The police know that when all else fails, when children go to this NGO, something changes in them, there’s a great work being done.

This NGO, which I will leave unnamed for safety reasons, once had the police approach them with two boys from a terrible situation. The NGO, at first, refused to take them because they had an inadequate facility for their mental and physical needs. The police chief, however, refused to take no for an answer saying, “Let’s see what your God can do.”

See, over the course of the years partnering with police, what the police saw is that when people were brought to this facility, a change was happening that wasn’t just from a smattering of psychology, healthy eating, and education. The workers here knew that any change that happens can’t come from a surface level, it must be a change in the heart. And only God can change hearts. And He changes them when we look to the cross and see his love displayed.

Oftentimes, we try to put bandaids over bullet wounds. We put perpetrators in jail, we put children in facilities to support them, but that doesn’t facilitate the change that’s needed. And that change can only come from seeing the love of God displayed through the gospel. It’s happening over and over throughout the world.

I’ve read many articles leading up to writing this, where everyone had a different idea of how to help street children in India: change the education system, break up the gangs, make more facilities to house the homeless. But, I believe that the answer lies with what the speaker said at the conference: we need change at a heart level. People need to believe that other people are important, so important, so loved beyond what we can see at the eye level because God so loved them first. Even the most educated of societies at the moment deal with rape, child pornography, violence, and racism. So it seems we need something more than more education.

If you are a believer, I am writing this to you: start with prayer. Pray for children to find the help they need, pray for the hearts of their families to be softened and willing to be molded to look like what a family should. Pray for the children’s needs to be met as they struggle day by day. Pray that they know they are loved by the One who is greater than all.

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For some of you, prayer may lead to physically going and serving in these areas. For others, some application could be to:

  1. Fight injustice. And by this, I mean when you hear someone saying things that aren’t correct, correct them. There are so many stereotypes over who people are out there. No person can be bound by a stereotype.
  2.  Support people who are in the field. There are thousands of NGOs, both Christian and non-Christian, who are trying to make a difference in the world. Oftentimes, they need financial support in order to do what they do.
  3.  If you’re in India, or another country, volunteer. In Kolkata, the network of orphanages, women’s and men’s shelters, and other areas are still arrive and thriving. Some people go and volunteer for a day, some for months at a time. Four years ago, I served at one of the orphanages that primarily catering to boys who with disabilities. It was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life as I saw how much the children needed to be loved.
  4. Be aware. When you read an atrocity in a newspaper happening in third-world countries, remember that there are people caught and effected by the atrocities. People, like you, who love to laugh, dance, sing, talk with friends, and eat delicious foods. And many of them are children.
  5. Also, if you’re in India, consider taking a Salaam Baalak tour, where former street children give you a guided tour of how the organization is helping them and what their role is in rescuing street children.
  6. Look for ways to help children in your own country. India and Southeast Asia are not the only countries with homeless children—every single country has this issue. How can you help where you are at?

Do you have any ideas of how to help?

You’ll notice that there aren’t any pictures of street children on this post. I didn’t take any. For me, it would be wrong to try to sell you on the fact that this is a major problem with the picture of a sweet child in wrong circumstances. The facts, the stories, the reality apart from a worth-1,000-words picture should be more than enough to reveal that there is, indeed, a major issue going on, one that we need to take part in stopping.

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Sources

(1)

“Resource Library.” Consortium for Street Children, http://www.streetchildrenresources.org/resources/making-street-children-matter-a-census-study-in-mumbai/. Accessed 23 Mar. 2017.

(2)

“Resource Library.” Consortium for Street Children, http://www.streetchildrenresources.org/resources/making-street-children-matter-a-census-study-in-mumbai/. Accessed 23 Mar. 2017.

(3)

“Away from the shadows of strangers.” Away from the shadow of strangers, http://www.railwaychildren.org.uk/blog/2014/07/away-from-the-shadows-of-strangers/. Accessed 23 Mar. 2017.

“Resource Library.” Consortium for Street Children, http://www.streetchildrenresources.org/resources/making-street-children-matter-a-census-study-in-mumbai/. Accessed 23 Mar. 2017.

(4)

Saxena, Shobhan, and Tnn. “India’s invisible children: Swallowed by the streets – Times of India.” The Times of India. November 06, 2011. Accessed March 23, 2017. http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/sunday-times/Indias-invisible-children-Swallowed-by-the-streets/articleshow/10626388.cms.

(5)

“Resource Library.” Consortium for Street Children, http://www.streetchildrenresources.org/resources/making-street-children-matter-a-census-study-in-mumbai/. Accessed 23 Mar. 2017.

(6)

“Resource Library.” Consortium for Street Children, http://www.streetchildrenresources.org/resources/making-street-children-matter-a-census-study-in-mumbai/. Accessed 23 Mar. 2017.

(7)

Venkatraman, Shai. “Meet the street children making their own newspaper in India.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 14 Apr. 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2016/apr/14/street-children-journalist-balaknama-newspaper-delhi-india. Accessed 23 Mar. 2017.

(8)

Flintoff, Corey. “A Strange Tourist Attraction: India’s Street Kids.” NPR, NPR, 23 Jan. 2011, http://www.npr.org/2011/01/23/133109831/taking-a-walk-into-the-lives-of-indias-street-kids. Accessed 23 Mar. 2017.

“Resource Library.” Consortium for Street Children, http://www.streetchildrenresources.org/resources/making-street-children-matter-a-census-study-in-mumbai/. Accessed 23 Mar. 2017.

(9)

Venkatraman, Shai. “Meet the street children making their own newspaper in India.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 14 Apr. 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2016/apr/14/street-children-journalist-balaknama-newspaper-delhi-india. Accessed 23 Mar. 2017.

(10)

“Resource Library.” Consortium for Street Children, http://www.streetchildrenresources.org/resources/making-street-children-matter-a-census-study-in-mumbai/. Accessed 23 Mar. 2017.

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