Street Children of India

The 10 million street children of India is 10% of the world's total and despite efforts by the government and many NGOs, the number does not diminish or their plight grow better. The film Slumdog Millionaire evokes a powerful vision of the both the dangerous predators that lurk seeking to exploit the children as well as an insight into the random violence that may set a child on the path of homelessness.

Poverty, abuse and frequently paternal behaviour are catalysts that provoke children to run away from their homes and very often seek their fortune in urban areas. 25 new homeless children arrive in Mumbai station each day on the trains from the rest of India. They are drawn there by images of Bollywood and a notion that the city offers riches for all.

The Causes of Homelessness:

Abuse:

Many of the street children who have run away from home have done so because they were beaten or sexually abused. Tragically, their homelessness 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 are traumatised and some refuse to speak for months after being rehomed. 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.

Child Labour:

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.

Gender Discrimination:

In Indian Society females are often discriminated against. Their health, education, prosperity and freedom are all impacted. 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. This can be seen in the fact that female mortality rates amongst 0-4 year olds in India are 107% of male mortality rates, whereas the comparable number in Western Europe is 74%. The rate is 119% in Rajasthan. Further evidence of the imbalance is that the female/male ratio within the general population of India is unnaturally low at 927/1000, and even lower in Rajasthan at 909/1000.

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. Only 38% of Indian women are literate and, at 64%, the gender parity between literacy rates amongst Indian women and men is one of the most unequal in the world.

Child Marriage 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.

The Indian National Government has banned the practice of "dowry", but it is still widely practiced that a wife will bring a dowry into a marriage. For children of impoverished families or homeless girls, the lack of family support makes dowry impossible. This further constrains their choices.

The ratio of female:male homeless children is 1:10. This is explained by the awareness among young girls that they are very vulnerable to exploitation: violence, sexual abuse or being sold into prostitution where many will die of AIDS or simply "disappear" out of sight.

Health:

Poor health is a chronic problem for street children. Half of all children in India are malnourished, but for street children the proportion is much higher. 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.

The HIV/AIDS rate amongst Indian adults is 0.7% and so has not yet reached the epidemic rates experienced in Southern Africa. However, this still represents 5 million people, or about 1 in 7 in of those in the world who have the disease. 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.

Homelessness:

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.

Poverty:

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.

 

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