Sunday, June 26, 2011

Street Children and Social Intervention

“But I don’t know why she left me” he wondered as he told us about himself, about his mother who deserted him and his family, about the home he decided to leave two years back, about the trains that took him to different places, about the police, he and his friends feared and about a middle-aged couple at Hubli who took him home for a few days before bringing him to the rehabilitation center for street children at Bangalore.

Raju (name changed) is one of more than two hundred and fifty children at six different shelter homes, across Bangalore, setup under the ‘Nele’ street children rehabilitation project. He is now eleven and is studying in his 6th grade in a Government school nearby. He told us that he is finding his studies interesting and has made many good friends. While he now sympathized with his mother, who he believes, only escaped the physical abuse of his alcoholic father, Raju was still not able to reconcile with the fact that his mother had left him behind.

Last Saturday, I had an opportunity of talking to many such children at Narendra Nele, one of the rehabilitation centers under the initiative. I was also part of a team that counseled the new entrants to the center. I could talk to a total of twenty children and in some cases also their parents. Through these conversations I tried to understand if and how social intervention can transform the lives of these children. The children included orphans, a few in number, some of whom had no memory of their families, some vaguely remembered the places where they were born. Some had families that they had fled and some others were single parent children whose fathers had died or had abandoned their mothers.

Unofficial estimates put the figure of street children in Bangalore alone, to tens of thousands, some put it at eighty thousand. There is also a huge inflow of such children every year from different parts of South India. Most of these children live on the railway platforms, pavements and other unhygienic and unprotected public places. Some start working in small eat-outs or take up other menial jobs, others are into begging, rag picking and many also get into petty crimes. While the circumstances they live in are tragic, some of these children live a life of valor and courage. As we found, while many wished to strive for a better life, the fear and mistrust makes them unlikely to ask for help. It is here that  intervention of active citizens and social organizations often makes a difference.

As we heard, story after story, there seemed to be some inescapable patterns to these lives. While economic degradation, lack of living space, degradation of health, marital discord, alcoholism and lack of parenting skills among their parents,  - all figured in their stories, the crumbling rural economies and the consequent rural to urban migration, lopsided growth and rapid urbanization could be identified as playing the macro-economic agents, spiraling the problem to pandemic proportions

Alcoholic fathers beating up mothers seemed to dominate most stories of ‘children of the streets’ who had fled their homes.  Most of these children had left homes after petty fights or altercations over small things that often indicated a lack of parenting skills among their parents. Did they think of going back home anytime? Almost all answers were in negative. They feared that their fathers would punish them for fleeing. Interestingly many of these children said that they found their fathers loving and even motivating, when not drunk, identifying alcoholism as a major factor in the degradation of the familial milieu. Many counted ill health of their parents and the consequent neglect and deprivation as the reason that led to their taking to streets.

For the ‘children on the street’, the problems were less acute. They had a family of their own and their parents still held considerable influence over them. These children spent most of the time of the day on the streets to supplement their family’s income or simply because they lacked  supervision from their parents (in most cases single mothers) who worked in cleaning jobs, as construction workers or in other daily wage jobs. The very fact that their mothers brought them to the centers showed that the parental intervention had not completely ceased. The mothers wished to supplement from other sources what they found difficult to provide on their own. Smitha and Ashwin (names changed) are siblings aged 6 and 8 years respectively, who were brought to the center by their mother that day. Their parents were agricultural labourers in a backward district of North Karnataka and had come with the two children to Bangalore in search of a better livelihood, three years ago. They worked as daily wage workers at a construction site till a few months back when their father deserted them to remarry another woman. Since then their mother has been the sole bread winner, working both as a security guard and a daily wage worker at the construction site. “So why did you not go back to your village?” one of my friends  asked. “Would I get any food or work there, in that drought prone village?” she replied. Like most rural-to-urban migrants she was compelled to choose between the starvation of the village and the degraded life of a city. And often then not, most of our rural population is opting for the latter.

It was apparent that the children enjoyed varying degrees of familial care and influence. Studies on street children consider family milieu as a crucial factor in the making of the street children. While poverty in its various manifestations coupled with shrinking living space, would many times seem to be the overarching cause for the problem of street children, it is important to understand the complexly inter-wound and mutually reinforcing set of factors that include economic degradation and which are equally devastating. These factors spiral around the familial milieu creating unsustainable, unstable and broken families from which emanate street children or ‘children in difficult circumstances’ as a UNICEF report puts it. A UN study on street children confirms this - “If one conclusion has to be drawn from the data [from the studies of street children] it would be that increase in the juvenile delinquency is not the inevitable result of poverty and rapid urbanization. The key intervening variable is the strength of adult-child relationships most notably family relationship”.  

It is important to understand that the ‘right to childhood’, if such a thing should exist, can not be ensured through bills, ordinances, legislation or budgetary allocations as many may want to believe. It could be ensured to a great extent by strengthening the “key intervening variable” which is the institution of ‘family’. Few structures that we can create, could be as equipped as a ‘family’, to cater to the child’s material as well as psycho-social needs and provide the child, a healthy childhood. We need a consciously developed public policy, that understands the importance of families and works towards supporting and strengthening them.

But that does not undermine the urgency and the importance of other interventions, especially those that can be rendered by social organizations, Government agencies and active citizens. These initiatives can supplement the functions that the broken family is not able to perform, which include providing care, affection, guidance, counseling and inspiration, apart from shelter, protection, food and nutrition, health facilities, hygiene awareness and emphasis on education. Social intervention becomes imperative, especially when the number of ‘children in difficult circumstances’ is only on an increase with a growing number of families facing the brunt of large scale disruptions at the macro economic level such as the breakdown of communities, starving villages and bleeding cities and towns. On the policy front, the lopsided paradigms of development resulting in such chaos have to be questioned but at the community level, it would be important to try and counter the fallout of these disruptions, through social initiatives such as the Nele project.

Many of the children who came to this center a few years ago, have now completed their 10th grade and are looking forward to professional courses. Some have gone back to work in jobs such as driving, to support their families. One of them is doing a course in fine arts and paints wonderfully. A few think, they too should be social workers one day, to give back the warmth that they once received. The staff and the volunteers recount with a sigh of satisfaction, how, many of these children, once had to be constantly persuaded to go to school, to follow hygiene and to give up delinquencies like stealing. Sometimes it seemed such a thankless job when a child would run away from the shelter home not to return again. But today all those experiences are seen as enriching. The stories of change that these social workers have catalyzed amply illustrate how social intervention can change a traumatic past into a transformed future and empower a generation to break out of the vicious spiral of ‘poverty breeds more poverty’. 

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