By Najma Sadeque
Published in The News, You Magazine
It’s known as a ‘drop-in centre’ because the boys, visiting the millions of garbage dumps on empty plots and along Karachi’s streets, drop in here for just an hour or two. They are not among those who can take going to school, playtime and relaxation, running water, soap and towels, or a mother brushing their hair or patting their cheeks, for granted. There are far more children – in the tens of millions – who enjoy none of these. Contrary to common belief, all are not automatically accommodated in orphanages by religious and other philanthropic organisations; even they have limited capacity.
But here at the centre the children have something they eagerly look forward to. To the more privileged ones it seems so little. But for the poverty-stricken working boys, it is a relief from their harsh world. They can clean up and rest for a while. They can sprawl and watch a little TV, get a health checkup by the medic or be immediately attended to for minor ailments such as coughs and fevers – someone to gently wash and bandage their cuts or soothe their bruises, or get treated for scabies if necessary, an occupational hazard with rag-pickers.
Most importantly, there is a counselor who they can ask personal questions about what troubles them and be advised about what to do to protect themselves. Groups of 15-20 attend regular sessions that explain to them the facts of life – already introduced to them in the worst possible way. Young girls are not the only ones who are prey to molesters; so are young boys — they are visible and easily accessible and far less protected. They are taught how to recognise human predators from their body language and to maintain a safe distance from them at the outset. They are given information, motivation, so that the world they have to deal with becomes more manageable; ethics enters their lives. They learn about HIV/Aids and other transmitted diseases and how to protect themselves.
There is only one condition to being allowed to access the drop-in facilities – before they enter any of the designated rooms, they have to take a bath. When they first come, they resist. They seldom take baths before and fail to see why they should. No one forces them, but then they aren’t allowed to use the facilities either. The choice is theirs. They relent soon enough. They never have to be told a second time. As soon as they arrive, they ask for soap, shampoo to get the grit out of their hair, and a fresh towel, and make a bee-line for the shower. Grimy, reeking urchins emerge unrecognisable, pleasant-smelling youngsters – even they get used to the freshness and feeling good about themselves. On a typical day, an average of 60 assorted children from among the 2,300 registered, walk through the doors.
The more fortunate don’t even want to imagine what it’s like to live on the streets, exposed to the elements, eating the cheapest and simplest of food – not always enough, quite unaware of the concept of the basics of life – even though it’s the only way to develop compassion and to understand how human rights and child rights are being denied and violated on a daily basis. People even tend to avoid the imagery that is spelt out.
Being without enough water alone, is bad enough. But there are some things even more terrible that haunt these children every moment of their lives. They range between as young as six years old to beyond their teens, their fight for survival beginning from the moment their parents or other guardians turn them out into the street to earn their keep. They do so by working as apprentices in vehicle repair shops or tea and food shops for the low-income, or as professional beggars, but mostly as rag-pickers, since jobs are limited and it is the only occupation that does not require an employer.
It’s hard to tell how many of such children flood the corners of Karachi. With a few exceptions, most are victims, not only of older youth and men who sexually abuse them as a norm which they are made to accept – later doing to other children what was once done to them – but exploited of their earnings as well without ever getting anything in return to bring some relief to their ugly lives.
The journey begins
Recognising the growing problem, PAVHNA (Pakistan Voluntary Health and Nutrition Academy), an NGO established decades ago by the late noted social worker Mrs. Zeba Zubair to especially provide reproductive health care for women, expanded its services to assist hapless boys. After all, the children were unwittingly not only a hazard to themselves but to the general public as well. Those living with their parents at least had a home to sleep in at night, safe from human predators, such as transitory truck drivers and other workers living alone far away from their families. It’s a different story for those who are sent to Karachi to earn and send money home.
In 2004, financed by The Global Fund, Geneva, for a four-year period, through the National Aids Control Programme, PAVHNA opened five ‘drop-in centres’ in North Karachi, New Karachi, Malir, Landhi, and Korangi where the bulk of poor workers were concentrated.
Most of the children were rag-pickers, but there were many others too who worked long hours from dawn to dusk. They were not allowed to return home – or whatever passed for home – at the end of the day without picking up trash that sold for at least Rs 200/- or 250/-. They were actually making minimum wages, but most of it didn’t go into their own pockets but into those of their keepers. And it came at enormous cost in terms of their health, their diet, their clothing and shelter and their physical safety and well-being, leaving them in a constant state of fear and loneliness that they were unable to express – because there was no one to listen. Most lived without running water and sanitation or any real sense of security. Starved of genuine friendship and compassion, children quickly got over their hesitation to embrace unexpected human kindness that they were unaccustomed to.
It wasn’t easy for PAVHNA at the start. Taps, bulbs and other fittings began to disappear to be sold to scrap merchants or second-hand shops. It was then explained to the boys that they were essentially stealing from themselves since the centres existed exclusively for them. If materials kept disappearing, there would be no more centres. They were required to monitor one another. The pilferage stopped.
When the project period ended in 2008, it had served over 15 thousand children. As such, another round of funding was expected from partner organisations if not the same one. For reasons not entirely clear, although the government applied for more funding, it failed to garner support, although the highly successful project turned out to be a model one for the world.
There were no takers. The centres closed down abruptly for a couple of years. Finally in 2010, the Asia Foundation provided funding for a 15-month period, to enable the opening of a single centre in Landhi. Funding for just the last three of the 15 months had been committed to be donated by a multinational corporation in Pakistan – marketing health and children’s products.
A new feature at the Landhi centre is job training, introduced as a result of requests from the boys themselves. They were certainly not interested in remaining rag-pickers for the rest of their lives. They wanted to get ahead and away from garbage, become skilled workers in an occupation that brought steady income and self-respect. They zeroed in on the use of industrial sewing machines used widely in industries. A kindly local philanthropist donated money for two JUKI industrial machines.
One of PAVHNA’s proud achievements, a drop-in from the earliest days later became a skilled factory worker, is now completing his studies as a certified pharmacist, while training older boys to work the JUKI machines. And the best part is that some industries have expressed willingness to immediately hire youths once they are fully trained.
The remaining funds that would have seen the centre through for the remaining three months gave PAVHNA just enough time to embark on intensified efforts to raise more funding. All went well until recently. when the multi-national corporation reneged on its written commitment. It sent a letter to PAVHNA saying they could not provide the balance promised, although it was a pittance compared to the billions of dollars made in global profits. Once more, the children’s modest dreams have been shattered. It doesn’t seem to matter – at least not to those who can make the funds available but who tend to channel them to loftier-looking goals than grassroots ones where most needed.
If you can help to save PAVHNA’s Landhi
“drop-in” centre – every bit counts. Please write to email@example.com
Whatever happened to “corporate social responsibility” ?
Just because a party has made a donation, does it absolve it of all responsibility after a project – especially a unique health and mentoring centre of another kind (needing a lot of medicines and towels) – suddenly has its funding cut-off? Had it had been a business undertaking with a contract signed, and the financing party decided to back off midway without a prior proviso for such an eventuality, it would be sued for damages. A hapless charity-dependant NGO cannot do that; it would also appear ungrateful for the favour already done. Does it make it less ethical and honourable? After all, charity is beneficial for companies too: it enables some tax write-off. Does the funder have no responsibility whatever? Or were the reasons different? Could it be because these children are not viewed as much of a future market?