21 April 2022, Islamabad– The National Commission on the Rights of Child (NCRC) launched its policy brief on Street-Connected Children in Pakistan: Education and Protection Challenges, in partnership with Cities for Children Pakistan. Street children are one of the most vulnerable and marginalised groups in Pakistan, and there is no real or recent data on their numbers have grown.
The policy brief explores the current situation of street-connected children in Pakistan with a child rights-based lens, reviews policies and legislations in the focus areas of education and protection, and recommends informed solutions acknowledgeing the unique challenges faced by children on the street.
Speaking at the launch event, NCRC Chairperson, Afshan Tehseen Bajwa, spoke about the day-to-day marginalization faced by such children, “Street-connected children are one of the most vulnerable and ignored groups in Pakistan both by the State and the society – they face a multitude of problems and live in abject poverty, often exposed to deprivation and danger on the streets. NCRC calls upon the State to devise a national-level framework for decriminalization and de-stigmatization of street children. In addition, the existing legal provisions about vagrancy in special and penal laws should be done away with. It is the duty of the State to ensure their proper rehabilitation and reintegration in the society.”
Co-author of the policy brief, Cities for Children Founder, Madeeha Ansari, said, “It’s wonderful seeing the discourse around street-connected children evolving in progressive ways. We need to hear from children and communities, to design the systems of support they need. After all every child has the right to a childhood.
Susan Andrew, Child Protection Specialist UNICEF, said, “It is a call to action to the Government, the civil society organizations, and all partners involved working for the child right cause to focus on long-term, holistic child-rights centered approach to help children associated with the streets. Children are right holders, and should be given the dignity of education and protection, among others.”
Who are the street-connected children and what are their challenges?
According to the policy brief, ‘street-connected children’ is a wide-encompassing term, capturing the diverse backgrounds, experiences, and identities of children for whom the streets are a central reference point of their identities and a source of survival They can include, refugees, economic, displaced, ethnic and disaster-affected migrants. Some may be unaccompanied, but many also have homes and strong community ties.
The Commission’s policy brief touches upon two major focus areas: protection risks, including neglect, exploitation by urban gangs, physical, emotional and sexual violence, and exposure to substance abuse; and educational challenges – street-connected children are a part of the 22.8 million out-of-school-children demographic – which involves choosing between work and school, barriers to entry, and lack of accessibility and quality learning.
Mainstreaming street-connected children – recommendations for action and policy
The NCRC policy brief recommends holistic policy addressing the needs of the street-connected children, which centers on a child rights-based approach to ensure improved access to their rights, especially education and protection.
In terms of legislative reforms, there is a need to revisit the relevant federal and provincial legislations – especially decriminalizing poverty, homelessness, and deprivation of shelter. Further, the policy brief recommends addressing gaps in the child protection laws to include street-connected children, formulating rules of implementation, and harmonization of the age across the child-rights laws. But, these legislative reforms can only be implemented through a holistic governance mechanism with dedicated juvenile courts.
For increasing access to education, the policy brief recommends implementation of Article 25-A in letter and spirit by enforcing provincial compulsory education laws, expanding the reach of the social welfare net, reducing barriers to entry – age, formal identity documents, including life skills-based curriculum – and partnerships with CSOs.
Finally, to address protection risks, the policy brief recommends actionable items across the entire continuum of care ranging from first responder protocols, safeguarding policies, and capacity building of welfare workers to working with families and communities to create the conditions that will help children stay off the streets. The brief also recommends establishing ‘drop-in spaces’ for hygiene, learning, and recreation – where children can also receive adequate case management services like, counseling.
Street-connected children are a social and community concern requiring meaningful and sustainable ways of rehabilitation, assimilation and mainstreaming of these children. The policy brief spells out a comprehensive and multi-sectoral model for responding to education and protection concerns of the street-connected children.
Additional speakers included:
Shafique Chaudhry, Executive Director, Parliamentarians Commission for Human Rights, spoke about the responsibility of the government to address the issue of street children, “Street children are not just the issue of the direct stakeholders – parents, teachers, community – but also the direct responsibility of the State and the government.”
Akhtar Syed, Child Rights Movement, “We need to focus on the capacity-building of the social works, rehabilitation and recovery of street children. It is important to recognize the entire ecosystem of stakeholders working for child rights.”
Valerie Khan, Child Rights and Gender Equality Expert, said, “Socio-economic empowerment of families, curbing domestic violence, and child protection with a socio-cultural nuance are some of the actionable ways of keeping children off the streets.”
Munir Ahmed, Executive Director Devcom, “Civil society has a big role to advocate for reforms, especially when it comes to the ignored and vulnerable street children.”
Tazeen Akhtar, Editor Pakistan in the World, said, “I can state without apprehension that the number of street children is far more than what is approximated. These children are not going to schools but working forcibly at workshops, factories, hotels and homes where they are exploited every day physically and sexually.”
The policy brief launch comes at a time when there is a need to bring the focus of policymakers back onto pressing social and development challenges, such as those faced by communities in urban poverty.
National Commission on the Rights of Child (NCRC) was established by the Government of Pakistan under National Commission on the Rights of the Child Act- 2017. The mandate of the National Commission on the Rights of the Child in section 15 is to examine, review laws, policies, inquire into violation of child rights, examine international instruments and undertake periodical review of existing policies and programmes on child rights and make recommendations for their effective implementation in the best interest of children; advise the Federal Government to sign, ratify or accede to any proposed International Treaties, Protocols, etc.
Cities for Children Pakistan (CFC) was the official partner commissioned for this policy brief. Cities for Children was set up as a non-profit company under the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP) (registered as Chotay Shehri Education Foundation, license no 1493) to protect the “right to a childhood” for children on the margins of urban society – the right to read, play and feel safe. CFC creates programmes promoting learning and wellbeing for street-connected children, and has been working to create awareness around a rights-based approach as set out in UN General Comment No. 21 on Children in Street Situations.