STREET CHILDREN IN KATHMANDU

- Felicia Kazandjian, University of Roehampton, United Kingdom,-

After stepping of the local supermarket in Thamel I am greeted by a small boy. He puts his grey and dusty hand out and asks for a biscuit. I tell him to go to Kopila Ghar where he can sleep and eat Dal Bhat, but he shouts “No!” and pulls a plastic bag from his pocket. He breathes in and out through the bag for a while and then lies down on the middle of the street. Every time of the day these children are on call in front of the shops of Thamel hoping that a pitying tourist will give them food or money. “This is part of the problem!” says a local salesman. “As long as the tourists help them they will stay on the streets.”

Kopila Ghar is a house established by a Child Street to School aiming to help the street children of Kathmandu. It is a drop-in-centre, where the children can come for one night or for longer but can also leave whenever they wish. The concept is shared with several NGOs and so there are such houses available for the children in Kathmandu. From Kopila Ghar the children can be referred to rehabilitation or schools and can get sustainable help in order to integrate back into the society.  However the problem is that these children are not fully willing to commit to the help provided by NGOs and often run away from care.

The street children of Kathmandu come from various different backgrounds. Some are victims of child labor as well as trafficking but a majority of the children have families and willingly choose life on the streets. The extreme poverty in Nepal effects families in many ways and brings with it financial and social problems. 13-year-old Pawan (name changed) is a visitor of Kopila Ghar and like many others he has had to struggle with the consumerism of alcohol within his family. Pawan lived with his biological parents in a village called Sinamagal where his alcoholic mother beat him regularly. After running away and living on the streets Pawan ended up living within one of the organizations. He was reintegrated back to his family but the beatings continued, this time by his stepmother and so Pawan returned to the streets of Kathmandu.

It seems that a majority of street children are stuck in a cycle of reintegration and returning to the streets. Quite often after returning to their families children notice that nothing has changed; poverty, alcoholism and beating carries on. Furthermore the question remains whether reintegration is the way forward in helping the children.  As NGOs have different policies the children end up circulating from one organization to another creating a conflict as to whether there should be one mutual form of aid or more co-operation between NGOs.

Tourism has also contributed to the amount of sexual abuse of street children. In a report by Child Workers in Nepal on the sexual abuse of street boys 110 children were interviewed. Out of these 32.7 percent have had sexual relations with adults and 10.7 percent had solicited sexual acts with a foreigner.  As an addition to physical abuse the children are also exposed to voyeuristic and pornographic material. The report also showed that 46 percent of the interviewees had been bribed or forced by their peers on the streets to take part in sexual activities. It becomes clear that street children are quite unaware of their right to say no and their notion of sexuality has changed throughout abuse.  The children alternate between victim and offender, most children are likely to be both. 74.8 percent of the children interviewed in this report stated that in crisis situations the main services they go to are NGOs. This clearly reflects the children’s reliance on non-governmental aid but also shows the alienation from the society. Children do not trust mainstream institutions such as the police, families or educational systems. This dependence on organizations highlights the need for a more consistent and sustainable form of aid as well as the need for education among children in Nepal.

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A number of street children earn their money pick pocketing and begging but they also do small jobs such as work in restaurants, factories, transportation or rag picking; collecting and selling plastic and metal scraps at junkyards. The job is extremely health hazardous and the children are often bullied by the junkyard owners, other boys, the police, and worst of all, hated by the society.  A majority of child laborers have migrated from villages around Nepal often in the hope of getting a job in Kathmandu. Over 80 percent of recorded child labor cases in Nepal are internal migrants. The children work with low salary and often carrying heavy loads in unsafe conditions. The long hours prevent children from education and growing up healthily. A report by Child Helpline International stated that 86 percent of child laborers in Nepal have experienced violence or abuse in their work environment including verbal, physical or sexual. These children are in an extremely vulnerable position and easily emerge into gangs within the street children. It seems that the government has failed to create effective mechanisms to protect these children and furthermore should comply with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The trend of migration is one of the reasons children end up living on the streets of Kathmandu. While being alone in the big city their main dependent are friends. As they emerge with gangs or are peer pressured they often turn to drugs, most commonly sniffing glue.  Glue is cheap and easily accessible as it can be bought from shoe repairmen, hardware stores or even street vendors. The fumes are instantaneous and powerful and ease the feeling of pain, cold and hunger. It appears to be an easy solution to the cold winters but also boosts the children’s confidence helping them to commit thievery. Glue is claimed to be extremely damaging for the brain, and the effects are visible in the children of Thamel. The workers of Kopila Ghar and other organizations have noticed that the reintegration into education is truly challenging for these children. With long-term drug abuse and lack of education the children have severe problems in regards to learning and concentration.  The abuse of glue seems to be a growing phenomenon in Kathmandu. Some organizations have reported that it is increasing among school children as well. Children are somewhat aware of the health issues involved with glue as they can see the stomach pains and hallucinations in themselves and in their friends. However it is clear that a solution is needed and the society as well as the media should take more notice to the matter. A report by CWIN states that the street children hope that the society will stop looking down on them but they also stressed the importance of educating families in order to ensure loving family environments and furthermore prevent the children from ending up on the streets.