It is time to improve the quality of life of street-connected children who continue to be one of the most vulnerable sections of the society
The multiple and complex challenges we face today because of the Covid-19 pandemic have fallen hard on children who live, work, or play in the streets and are known as street-connected children. For them, it is often impossible to follow the basic guidelines to “stay at home” and “wash your hands”. It is also difficult for them to access food, water, and medical services if they fall ill. In addition, they are at risk of being detained for being out during the lockdown or curfew.
The authorities say they are providing help. For example, the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights has been distributing food to street-connected children and vulnerable families in the Indian capital. In other cities too, local governments and charities have been doing the same.
However, the situation with street-connected children on the ground is very different. Sanjay Gupta works with street-connected children through CHETNA (Childhood Enhancement Through Training and Action), a grass-roots Indian NGO. He says that the scale of the problem is daunting and that many children are invisible because they live away from the main roads and in areas that are not accessible. He wants essential service passes to be made for his workers during Covid lockdowns as they work round the clock to try and reach these children whom the government cannot reach.
The Consortium for Street Children (CSC) is an international global network with more than 150 organisations, researchers, and practitioners across 135 countries that have been working since 1990 to protect the rights of street-connected children and making their voices heard at key forums. In its early days, the biggest challenge CSC faced was getting acknowledgement of the very fact that street-connected children exist. In the 1990s, many governments did not acknowledge them or recognise who they were. In many countries with dictatorial governments, they were actualy shot to ‘clean the streets’. It took a lot of persuasion and pressure on governments through diplomats in the UK to stop such practices. Being one of the founders of CSC, I had personally attended a lot of these meetings for securing funding and holding workshops with the police in Latin America to stop treating these children with such cruelty among other issues.
It took many years to get the term “street-connected children” accepted and included in common parlance - it is now widely used to describe children who depend on the streets for their survival. It does not matter whether these children have parents or some kind of support outside the street situation; it is important to understand that once they are on the streets, they are vulnerable. Along with these workshops and conferences over the past 20 years, CSC has also been working on long-term goals of making street-connected children visible on global platforms by pushing policy interventions that address the discrimination these children face on a daily basis by empowering them and improving the quality of their lives.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is the most widely ratified international human rights treaty that promises to protect and fulfill the rights of every child. There was never any mention of street-connected children in this convention. After many consultations with NGOs and street-connected children across the world, CSC finally managed to convince the UN to include a general comment on street-connected children in this convention. This comment gives all those working with street-connected children a high-level tool to hold their governments accountable for not adhering to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In the words of the UN: “The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child provides authoritative guidance to States on developing comprehensive, long-term national strategies on children in street situations using a holistic, child rights approach and addressing both prevention and response in line with the Convention on the Rights of the Child.” The obligation of States towards children in street situations is defined quite comprehensively in this comment. This is already being implemented in a small number of countries.
While global alliances like CSC and the efforts of local grassroots community organizations and non-government bodies attempted to improve the lives of these children, the present reality is that the Covid-19 pandemic has suddenly and severely deteriorated their condition. The need for rebuilding much more resilient societies and frameworks that protect and empower them could not be more vital than it is now. We must take urgent steps to better protect children in the coming months and years. A coordinated, consolidated effort is required for this and all segments of the society must be part of the recovery process. This is particularly important for children in street situations. We cannot and must not leave them behind and must ensure that all children are being counted and included in our visions of the future. In other words, we must have policies and laws that ensure that street-connected children are guaranteed the same rights as every other child, so that they can live with dignity, safety, and security. The pandemic threatens to set back the realisation of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which go to the heart of children’s rights, their well-being, and their development. We must act urgently to avoid this. As responsible citizens, we can identify the NGOs in our area working with these children and provide help in kind or cash as we see fit, guide them and participate in their outreach activities. In the meantime, we also need to put pressure on our governments and policy makers to implement the general comment related to street-connected children in more countries. The Consortium for Street Children, with generous funding from Abbvie, has been providing crucial support to street-connected children and has helped them access the services, information, and legal protection they need throughout the pandemic. It has provided safe shelters, access to safe food, water, and information on how to stay safe from the virus when the street is the home. Its member partners have collaborated with local governments to come up with innovative strategies to provide basic healthcare facilities, hospital care, essential medicines, and mental health counselling to street-connected children during the outbreak of the pandemic.
In India, Abbvie has partnered with CHETNA along with two other organisations and provided relief packages including dry food, health/hygiene kits, and basic supplies to 750 families of street-connected children who have been hardest hit by the lockdowns or are at the highest risk from Covid-19. These relief packages are making a difference on the ground as each package can sustain a family of six for two weeks. CHETNA has also provided educational support and materials to 300 children for remote home learning.
While international networks like the Consortium for Street Children and NGOs like CHETNA are making a tangible difference, the time has now come for each one of us to contribute in our spheres of influence to improve the quality of life of street-connected children who continue to be one of the most vulnerable sections of the society.
(The writer is the Co-founder of Consortium for Street Children and The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. The views expressed are personal.)