"I sleep in the park because I have nowhere to go," explained thirteen-year-old Bala* as we waited for chai that would never arrive. Bala described how she was raped by strangers on a nightly basis while trying to survive on the streets of India, "At night, the men come by drunk. There is nothing to protect me."
I'd met Bala in India's capital of New Delhi. She had been walking with her younger sister, Priya*, when she saw me handing out pencils to street children. Some of the kids had grown excessively eager, just like I'd experienced distributing food in The Philippines (Around the World in 80 J's: Chapter 18). Luckily, I was mentally prepared this time, so when one boy became aggressive as he attempted to make claim to a handful of pencils, I let him walk away with the spoils of his plunder. Even if this meant that there were no more pencils for the other dozen or so, a small fraction of Delhi's estimated fifty-one thousand, street children who surrounded me with pitiful expressions (statistic from Save the Children: 2014).
"He has greed," Bala suggested, "He just wants more for himself. He is bad because he steals and does not want to share." Bala's firm grasp of morals was what kick started our conversation. She was actually quite smart, and Bala's English skills were impeccable. She explained that she had needed to learn English in order to more effectively beg from the tourists.
"They seem to be the only ones willing to help us," she lamented. Bala wore her dark, unwashed hair slicked back. She had a blue and purple wrap around her body. Her scent was musty, as though she hadn't had the opportunity to bathe for a while. Yet her energy was exuberant and full of optimism. Bala's big, bright, almost silly smile was what really drew me to her. When she asked me to join her for chai, I accepted.
"I grew up in Punjab, but a few years ago, my family's house burned down," Bala recalled, "My father, mother, and two of my siblings were killed in the fire." She explained how she migrated to Delhi with her younger brother and sister, and has since been doing her best to look out for her siblings even though they are completely homeless.
"Isn't there a woman's shelter here you can turn to?" I asked. I admired Bala's strength, but hated the idea of this sweet, smiling girl being raped by strangers on a nightly basis. Bala looked baffled by the concept of a women's shelter, and I had to explain what the term even meant. Bala told me that, as far as she knew, nothing like that was available to her. How could there possibly be nowhere for Bala and her siblings to turn?
Several provisions in the Constitution of India impose on the State the primary responsibility of ensuring that all the needs of children are met and that their basic human rights are fully protected (Indian Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation: 2012).
These provisions include The National Policy for Children (1974), National Policy on Education (1986), National Policy on Child Labor (1987), National Charter on Children (2003), and the National Plan of Action for Children (2005). Yet, while these provisions look good on paper, it takes one stroll through the streets of Delhi to realize that there is a serious lack of opportunity offered to orphaned and underprivileged children. The challenge is in implementing these programs on major scales when the epidemic of street children is out of control.
Street children in India may be homeless because their family is homeless through poverty or migration, or because they have been abandoned, orphaned, or have run away...Homeless children have the odds stacked against them. They are exposed to the elements, have an uncertain supply of food, are likely [to] miss out on education and medical treatment, and are at high risk of suffering addiction, abuse, and illness. A single child alone on the streets is especially vulnerable (I-India: 2014).
According to Save the Children, at least 50% of street children suffer verbal, physical, or sexual abuse. In 2011, the reported incidences of crimes against children in India rose 24%, while there was a 30% increase of reported incidences of rape (Indian Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation: 2012). India's crime rate is highest in Delhi, where many children flock in hope of survival.
According to UNICEF..."Children of the street" are homeless children who live and sleep on the streets in urban areas. They are on their own and do not have any parental supervision or care though some do live with other homeless adults...[Street children] are most vulnerable as they are easy victims of abuse, and inhuman treatment. They often engaged in petty theft or prostitution for economic survival (Child Line: 2014).
Of the millions of children who live on streets around the world, many resort to crime, while others make conscious decisions to live for the good. I met Rolin*, who worked at my New Delhi hostel. Now twenty-seven years old, Rolin had been abandoned by his parents when he was just six-years-old.
"They couldn't afford to take care of me," he explained, so he began working odd jobs in order to survive. Rolin learned to speak English while working at restaurants, hotels, and as a valet. I asked Rolin if he was ever offered drugs as a child.
"Of course," he replied, "But I did not want to go down that road. I saw other kids who sniffed glue and got high on whatever chemicals they could find. They couldn't work, committed crimes, and some went to jail where they were beaten by police. I didn't want to live that life."
Not resorting to a life of crime meant that the only other option for Rolin was to work his childhood away. I asked if my stance against child labor was privileged. He replied,
"Absolutely. If I hadn't been able to find work as a child, I never would have been able to eat and survive." Despite Rolin's statement, I still can't help but believe that child labor is wrong. There should be alternative programs available that nurture these youths by providing opportunity so that they can learn and grow. There should be public awareness in order for children to understand how to access these programs. There should be more options for street children beyond crime, work, or starvation.
At the age of eleven, Rolin found himself busing tables for tourists in Goa. That's when he met a twenty-year-old woman from Israel, who led Rolin into his first sexual experience. Rolin recalled that the relationship was loving, yet, how would this situation be interpreted differently if it had involved a twenty-year-old man and an eleven-year-old girl? It would be naive to assume that the sexual exploitation of street children is strictly a women's issue, when boys are equally vulnerable to rape and sexual assault.
In any circumstance, an eleven-year-old who engages in sexual relations is likely an eleven-year-old who's forced to grow up too quickly. Work, sex, drugs: these are all incredibly mature concepts that millions of children are forced to face prematurely. Where are the innocent and care-free notions of childhood? When is the time to pursue education? Not unlike Bala, Rolin seemed intelligent, despite the fact that he'd never gone to school.
"The streets are our education," he remarked, "It's called street smarts." Rolin went on to express that he would have liked to have gone to college, but he never had the money.
"What if you applied for a scholarship, or for financial aid?" I questioned.
"We don't have such things in India," Rolin responded, "At least, not for people who were orphaned like me."
Back at the cafe, the chai Bala, Priya, and I had ordered was still missing in action. I needed to leave for an appointment and couldn't wait any longer. As I left, I gave the server enough money to buy Bala and Priya their drinks and some curry. He accepted my money and put it in his pocket. Once he figured I was out of sight, he promptly kicked the girls out of his restaurant and back on the street - without any chai, and without any curry. It was as if the girls were worth nothing more than stray dogs to him. I've seen roaming cattle receive better treatment than street children in India.
-Kat Vallera, NomadiKat Travel Media
Author of "Around the World in 80 J's", now on Amazon
There are numerous organizations that help children in India. You can help by spreading awareness, and by supporting one of the many foundations providing aide. These include, but are not limited to:
Note: NomadiKat Travel Media is not associated with and cannot attest to the credibility of any of the above mentioned organizations.
Children in India: A Statistical Appraisal. New Delhi, India: Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, 2012. Print.
"Street Children in India: Street Children Problem, an NGO Working for Indian Street Children." Street Children in India: Street Children Problem, an NGO Working for Indian Street Children. I-India, Web. 24 Apr. 2014. .
"Surviving The Streets." Save the Children India. Web. 24 Apr. 2014.
UNICEF India. Web. 24 Apr. 2014.
"Vulnerable Children - Street Children." Street Children in India. Child Line, Web. 24 Apr. 2014.
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