Living rough is hard but some kids prefer it to state-run shelters
Young boys who live on the streets talk to social workers at a trash collection center in Kathmandu in this file photo. (Photo by Pragati Shahi)
As evening rolls around, the old bus park in Bagbazar, Kathmandu teems with commuters. On its right, a narrow street lined with grocery stores and eateries leads to a junkyard piled with sacks of plastic bottles and cans.
Roshan Shrestha, 21, has returned to this junkyard, his home for almost a decade now. "I spent the afternoon in Bouddha where I had free food and then went to see a movie in Gaushala before coming here to be with friends," he said. Shrestha is with four other homeless children who often meet in the evening before returning to their nightly routine — picking scraps.
Shrestha is from a small village and has a third grade education.
"My father was a driver. I came to Kathmandu at a very young age along with my parents. But my parents never lived in one place and moved me frequently. Later, my mother left my father and went to Malaysia and father married another woman. I was left alone, so I decided to run away," Shrestha said.
Fifteen years later, Shrestha picks scraps to make a living. "We go out to pick rubbish in the late evening until midnight, when there is no one to see us. We bring the rubbish to our base, sell it in the morning and then wander through the city in the afternoon before coming back to the dumpsite in the evening again."
Shrestha earns around 400 rupee ($4) a day selling waste and spends most of his money on the glue he sniffs, a common addiction among street children.
Young girls are very vulnerable to various forms of abuse and violence, and those from the streets are most at the risk. Considering the risk faced by the young girls who are compelled to leave their family mainly due to poverty, Caritas Nepal is helping shelter street children, by setting up shelters for girls in Sindupalchok district, one of the worst-affected by the earthquake.
"The best way to prevent young boys and girls from living in the streets is by creating awareness and providing support for their education," said Sister Manjusa, who looks after women and children at Caritas Nepal. "We are helping children from rural areas and marginalised communities with education,” she said.
According to Child Workers in the Nepal Concerned Center (CWIN), Kathmandu is home to around 500 street children. They have come to escape poor conditions in rural villages, family disintegration or violence, or to seek opportunities in the city.
The children live, sleep and work on the streets. They are conductors, beggars, rag pickers, newspaper sellers, dishwashers and laborers. A 2010 CWIN study revealed that 75 percent of Kathmandu's street boys had been sexually abused by foreigners, locals and peers.
But there are positive signs. According to CWIN's executive director Sumnima Tuladhar, when the organization started in 1987 around 1,500 street children were reported to live in Kathmandu. Today this number has reduced by two thirds.
For those on the streets the challenges remain great, and include addiction and prostitution. "The young boys and girls are falling into drug addiction and sex work to earn a living," Tuladhar said.
On May 9, the government launched a program to rescue and rehabilitate street children. The government's Central Child Welfare Board launched the drive in collaboration with organizations like CWIN. It aims to rescue street children, where possible to reunite them with their family and to provide education and training.
The government has allocated 10 million rupees for this effort. In its first month, it has rescued 188 street children, sending them to shelter houses.
"We are also providing education and life-skill training to help those rescued find better life alternatives and discourage them from going back to the streets," said Tarak Dhital, executive director at the welfare board. However he notes that children do not always prefer government shelters to the street. Of the total 188 rescued, 38 have already left.
Shrestha is among them. "They [authorities] told me they will help me to go back home in Panauti, so I agreed to come along with them in the van along with other children," he said. "But, instead they took me to a shelter, where many other street children were being kept inside a building."
The police took them in their van, like prisoners, he said. After three days Shrestha and his four friends ran away. "I don't want to stay in that place where I am not allowed to come out. It is like a jail to me. I will try to run whenever they come to get me again."
Organizations that support the government initiative say caution, long-term planning and resources are needed to make it sustainable.
Bishnu Paudel is a former street child who was part of the 1998 Global March Against Child Labor. Now a CWIN field officer, Paudel said, "I support the attempt to rescue the children living on streets and provide them a better alternative to street life. But, at the same time authorities should be cautious not to make the children leave the street by force. They should have a pre-informed choice and their concerns should be understood properly before rescuing them."
"Other people when they see some of these kids, they do not take them as human beings. They are treated as some stray animals. This hurts their dignity," said Paudel.
"It is not good to round them up, put them in police vans and send them to further isolation."
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