There are 150 million children eking out a living on streets around the world – selling things, working, or scavenging.
And while street kids are visible in many major cities around the world, their voices are rarely heard.
But on International Day for Street Children last month, a special event in India’s capital gave street kids the opportunity to tell their stories for themselves.
From New Delhi, Jasvinder Sehgal has this story.
For one day last week, New Delhi’s cultural hub, the India Islamic Cultural Centre, was overrun with hundreds of children. Kids were dressed in the best clothes they could muster. Songs from famous Hindi films played, and children took centre stage.
18-year-old Chandni was MC. She told the audience that after the death of her father, she sold flowers at traffic lights to earn money. Today she says, other kids have the opportunity to share their experiences of living and working on the streets.
“The sole objective of organizing this program is so that street children can talk about the various issues they face, in their own words,” she explained. “Nobody is ready to listen to street children and working children. We just want to give their voices a platform, so that their issues can be approached with positive thinking.”
The event, Street Talk, was organized by NGO, Childhood Enhancement Through Training and Action, or CHETNA. Head of the NGO, Sanjay Gupta said that a proactive approach could reduce the number of children living on the street.
“Ten selected street children are sharing their life journey. Through this we want to convey that there are very small problems from which the children are suffering. If we take the action in time, there will be no issue of street children,” he stated.
16-year-old Akhilesh Hussain was first to share his story. It was met with plenty of applause from a captivated audience. As a child, Akhilesh was persuaded to leave home with his uncle, in search of work. Abandoned by his uncle in New Delhi, he told me he was left penniless. “I met a lady who took me in. Initially she was very caring and good,” he said. “But after a while she forced me to beg and earn money for her.”
Eventually Akhilesh got help from an NGO working for the rights of children, and he was able to trace his parents. “These days, I’m not begging on the street,” he said proudly. “I’m studying, and in my free time I sell soft drinks. The money I earn is enough to pay for my education, clothes, and boarding and lodging. I want to do a course in cell phone repairing so that my future is safe.”
18 million children work on the streets of India. Many are homeless and disconnected from their families. They’re often chased from their homes because of violence, drug and alcohol abuse, or poverty. Their work is usually illegal, leaving them vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, and poor working conditions.
16-year-old Poonam has been working since she was 5 years old, supporting her 5 siblings. She told me she’s no stranger to poor working conditions. “At the age my parents started school I started work. I used to make jewellery with a sharp edged knife that often pierced my palms. People I worked with got tetanus,” she remembered. “Later I made shoes, using long needles and scissors, I cut myself many times. We couldn’t afford a doctor, so instead my mother put herbs on my wounds.”
As the program wrapped up, Chandni called on participants to raise their voices against exploitation of all kinds. For 14-year-old Tanzeem, who sells balloons by the roadside, the stories he heard left an impression. And he says, his sights are now set on the highest office in the country.
“I came to hear the experiences of my fellow children. I’ve learned many things from this program,” he earnestly told me. “It has motivated me to be like Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was once a street child selling tea. I have heard him a lot and I want to become like him.”