They jump around on the street like popcorn in a microwave. The open sky, betel stained pavements and busy roads are their home; they eat, sleep and play here. On an average day, you might see some of them inhaling drugs, while others eat titbits from the many restaurants of the city. Some are as young as six or seven, most are runaways, and all of them beg, clean cars and pick pockets for a living.
Though these street children act like a big happy family, there are secrets which they guard from the world, secrets that are too personal and painful. Although they would never accept being sexually abused personally, they open up as soon as they are asked if “a friend” has gone through such an experience.
“The police took away little Kashif, they beat him up, and did ‘ghalat kaam’ with him. Then they left him on the street; he was crying when he came back,” says 15-year-old Salman. “The police, they do bad things to our friends,” claims another child with a blood-stained chin. He fell off a motorcycle.
There are others who talk about being taken away, tied up in chains, beaten up and sexually assaulted. “Ninety percent of street children get sexually abused the first night they spend outside,” says Rana Asif, who heads the Centre for Street Children and has spent over a decade befriending people on the street.
Itfan, head of a programme at the Azad Foundation, an organization which has been working for the betterment of street children since 1998, says the numbers are probably even higher. “A child on a street has an almost 100 percent chance of being sexually abused; they are extremely vulnerable and make easy targets for offenders.”
Researchers agree that abusing a new member — either in the form of unpleasant touching, sexual harassment or forced sex — has become a part of the street culture. After such an ‘initiation’, the child becomes a survivor, and is welcomed into the clique.
A survey titled ‘Silent Shrieks’, organised by the Initiator Human Development Foundation, takes an in-depth look into the plight of the street children in Karachi. It reveals that 26 percent of sexual violence on the street is committed by police officials.
The other main offenders are gang leaders, strangers and drivers. Sexual harassment is the most common form of sexual violence (46 percent), followed by unpleasant touching and forced sex. Salman, a dark skinned boy with bunny teeth, still insists that he has never been sexually abused.
“I live on the street, I am poor but I am ‘izzatdar’. No one can play with my honour, I will fight till the death for it,” he maintains, as his eyes light up with anger and revenge.