According to recent estimates, more than 1,500 children are living in inhuman conditions on the streets of Kathmandu. Will anybody actually care?
It is 8 in the morning on a Sunday. Slowly but surely, Kathmandu is recovering from a cold and rainy night. Taxi drivers are cleaning their cars and eagerly waiting for customers. Boys and girls in uniforms are heading to schools with sleepy faces. Street dogs are busy running from one side to another, looking for yesterday’s leftovers. Though quite early, the sun is already burning bright to cause a blinding effect.
A small boy pops up from behind a neatly parked row of taxis. He approaches a tourist and begs for some biscuits.
“Don’t give him biscuits,” a shopkeeper shouts. His store is located right next to The Garden Of Dreams. “He will sell them and buy glue with the money!”
The young chap runs back to the other side of the street, wakes his friends, and returns to let his soaked blanket dry in the sun. For these kids, another challenging day on the street has begun.
No one seems to know the exact number of these children living in the streets of Kathmandu. Several NGO’s estimate the number to be between 1,500 and 2,000. According to the Child Workers in Nepal (CWIN), a children’s rights organization, there are many reasons why kids end up on the streets. Poverty and family violence rank as the lead causes behind the migration from the countryside to the streets of Kathmandu. Peer influence is also an element, which cannot be underestimated.
“Sometimes the street children go back home to convince their friends to come along with them to the city,” says CWIN spokesman Tarak Dhital. He indicates the vulnerabilities these children have to face each day, more than any other child. “They are exposed to drugs, alcohol and sexual abuse. It’s quite easy for pedophiles to approach these youngsters because no one cares for them anyway. Sometimes these men hire them as guides and pay them. So the kids are happy. But of course, they have a hidden agenda. It is very hard to get these men convicted because often the child does not know who he’s dealing with or it has become too attached to his abuser.”
The remarkable fact is that nearly all of the street children are boys. “Only 3 or 4% are girls,” says Dhital. What could be the reason?
“In the Nepali society, there is a perception that girls are harmless and will not get involved in crimes. That is why, people rather bring girls to their homes. Girls are also more employed in child labor such as the carpet trade. So it is less likely they end up on the streets,” explains Juju Kaji, founder of Heart Beat.
With his NGO, which, unlike many others, gets no funding, he tries to raise awareness among the young ones of the consequences of a life on the street and educates them through projects such as the mobile School on Wheels. Heart Beat is in direct contact with at least 350 street children.
Now it is noon. The sun has reached its highest point. The group of fifteen street boys is getting hungry, but there is no money and no food. A 10-year-old opens a bag. A dozen half-empty glue tubes fall on the pavement. He squeezes the last bit of one of the tubes into a plastic sack he found on the street. Visibly enjoying it, he inhales the glue fumes. Almost 95 per cent of all Nepali street children are addicted to glue. “It makes us feel less hungry, but also a bit psychopathic. If I feel like seeing a beautiful woman, I can actually see her after sniffing some glue,” 17-year old Anub says, smiling. He has his name tattooed on the knuckles of his hand. It gives him identity. Anub is a homeless orphan. “My mother died when I was six. Five years later, the same happened to my father. My sister is in prison because she was falsely accused in a drug matter. It was a setup. When she gets out, I want to live with her,” he declares his plan.
In the meantime, the 10-year old appears to be given the effect he was looking for. Stoned and sleepy, he lays himself to rest with his friends, holding each other and in lack of hygiene surrounded by flies.
These boys could go to shelters to get fed and cleaned, but they don’t want to. “They have become used to the freedom on the streets. There is no one to control them,” explains Juju Kaji. Tarak Dhital calls the phenomenon “street addiction”.
Change of mind
First things first. Kathmandu will not be free of street children before there is a change of mentality in the Nepali society, thinks Kaji. “Street children are the way they are because society treats them like that. They get accused of everything because they are powerless. It’s easy for the shopkeeper to accuse the small boy of selling the biscuits again. But he might be hungry as well, no? They do not only use the money to buy glue. They need proper food as well, like dal bhat. Hungry people are angry people.”
Due to his commitment, Kaji sees what street children give back to society. “Street children are the beauty of the city and the heroes for our environment. They collect dirt like plastic and sell it again to a collection center. The community is polluting the environment and the kids save it, in a way. Of course, these boys are dirty! They do the work the average Nepali would not want to do.”
Kaji also brings to mind that only money is not a problem solver. “Some NGOs treat these children as a project. Money alone does not work. Both heart and mind are needed. Accept them as a friend and become one of them. A lot of organizations just make reports in their office, so the output is very little”, he states. Questioning him if he is alluding to CWIN, he cannot provide an answer. Heart Beat has several campaigns, such as Tea for Free. By giving away tea for free, Kaji and his team of volunteers try to raise young street boys. He got criticized for that in the past. “People blamed me because I was not solving the problem. But if you don’t connect with them, you cannot solve anything,” he claims.
Both CWIN and Heart Beat are pleading for more cooperation between NGOs and the government. Kaji is quite critical of the government’s policy. “There is no policy. They think it is not a problem. Maybe if there would be more street children, they would focus more on them. The government should give these children identity. Some of them don’t even know their own name. They should build a system in a way that people want to offer jobs to these kids. Because who trusts them now? The government is able to create jobs. Maintaining the roads, for example. There is so much work here! If they are willing, many things are possible!” he proclaims.
Dhital is a bit more optimistic but admits there is room for improvement. “The policy is not worse than before,” he states, “even in the constitution, street children are mentioned. But the government has no practical programs on how to deal with them.”
Spokesman of the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare Upendra Adhikary understands the frustration among these NGOs. “We are still in the process of making Kathmandu free of street children. But money is an issue. We need more support from our finance minister. Right now, there is not enough budget for these children. We are formulating new directives. They will be completed in a few months. After that, we will search for more donors. Maybe the United Nations is interested as well. We have not talked with them yet.”
Adhikary supports the idea of more teamwork between the public and private sector. But what about handling the roots of the problem, like poverty? “That is our main priority, it is high on the agenda,” he defends himself. “Listen, in our latest policy, we have included everything that benefits children on the street. If we talk about the policy perspectives, we are good enough. But when it comes to implementing them, we are not as good as we want to be. Everything is ready, we just have wait until there is a parliament,” Adhikary declares.
Also waiting are the fifteen boys near the Garden of Dreams. It is late afternoon and two of them are making lunch. They were able to buy some rice with the 50 rupees they collected. Some kids are losing their patience and get into a small fight over a package of cookies they found. Anub interferes and tries to calm the boys down. “There is not enough rice for all of us, but we will share what we have. I try not to worry about what we will have for dinner. We are good in adjusting ourselves,” he smiles.