The language of the streets



Bilal acts as my guide as I drive through the jam-packed streets of Saddar. When we reach Daudpota Road he asks me to head towards ‘Laal Farsh’ (Red Floor).

I must have looked confused, because he stops, laughs, and then corrects himself: “I meant Hong Kong Shopping Plaza”.

Bilal has spent eight years on the street, and has spent this entire time fighting for his survival: food, shelter and societal predators are just some of the things that he has to look out for on a daily basis. He is 18 years old now, and works for an NGO that helps street children. But, he says “old habits die hard”.

The street children are completely alienated from mainstream society, as the mainstream society has alienated itself from them. They have their own form of communication, their own process of identification, their own culture.

City landmarks are given names based on their personal interactions and understanding of the place—their reality is largely defined by the social and personal context through which they interact with the external world.

For them Zainab Market is ‘Thanda Garam’ (hot and cold), as there are shops with generators and shops with out them. As they walk around the corridors of the market, they can feel a significant change in temperature as they flit from one shop to another, hence the name Hot and Cold.

They call Bolton Market ‘Daal Chawal’, because the place is known for its ‘langar’, free food distributed among the poor.

Then there is Kala Pul, where they get Biryani for just seven rupees. They call it ‘7 ki biryani’.

The older lot, who have been introduced to mainstream society, often laugh when they look back in retrospect. Tanveer, an 18-year-old who has lived on the street since he was six, chuckles: “For a very long time our little gang had no idea that clothes could be washed. When our clothes got dirty we would just throw them away and steal fresh clothes.”

Drugs are a norm for them—they do it for recreation, but maintain that “a little bit does no harm”. But when they are caught red-handed using such substances, they seem unable to hide the fact that it makes them lose their senses. “I just woke up from a deep sleep,” says a six-year-old child, whose head bobs like a helium balloon tied to a string. His friends tell me that he just sniffed a large amount of Samad Bond.

But with awareness campaigns by the civil society, glue has become hard to access for these street children.

They stick together for survival and fend for each other, often forming groups of four or more. They give these groups names like ‘Chota Group’ and ‘Cheeta Group’, and assign each member with a job.

Tanveer, who once headed the Chota Group, shares how they would all care for each other like a family. “Each of us had a task, I would clean cars, and every day we would gather our money together and decide what to do with it. Those were good times, Rs250 were all we needed for a day,” he says with a smile. He harkens back to when he was fourteen, when political workers from the area captured and lashed him. “When I came back I was bleeding profusely from the cuts. My friends lit a fire from tree branches and used the fire to keep my back warm overnight. They took turns, and fed me for five days, till I had the strength to stand up.” He pauses, and then adds: “They cared for me, like a mother for her child.”

Child beaters seek refuge in law


By Sidrah Roghay


Tanveer is eighteen years old, overconfident and an aspiring artist. He has lived on the street for four years, yet he stands out from the rest of the ragged children on Zaibunisa Street as he is fashion conscious. He wears several wrist bands along with a large dialed watch and copies a mélange of Bollywood heroes. The teenager’s language and gestures speak his love for the world of cinema.

He sits at a ‘Dhabba’ which he calls the “best on the street”, orders tea for the group and begins the story of an incident, which even years later, sends shivers down his spine and those of his listeners.

On a street in Saddar, where he had just joined a rehab centre, Tanveer was busy playing cricket with his clique or ‘Chota Group’ when the ball landed on the roof of a house. He rang the bell several times, but when no one opened, he climbed the wall, and reached the roof.

“I was awestruck when I got there. There were at least 300 cricket balls there,” he says as his eyes still shine with amusement. The owner had clearly never returned the balls which landed on that particular rooftop.

In excitement, he called out to his friends and one by one began throwing the balls to them. But his happiness was short lived. “When I reached the fifth ball, Maulvi Sahab, the owner of the house, came out”.

The noise got his attention. He asked Tanveer to come down, took him inside and tied his hands with a thin leather belt. “Then he took off my shirt and whipped me again and again. He called me a thief and an abandoned child.”

Tanveer’s horror did not end here. Maulvi Sahab called up some political workers from Lines Area, who took him to a torture cell where “nine men beat me up in different ways. It was nine men against one tied up child”.

The boy was stripped, hung upside down, then caned and whipped. “They asked me to admit that I am a thief and that a certain person had forced all of us to beg and steal for him.”

“When nothing worked, they loaded a pistol and put it on my head, warning that this was my last chance. It was a spur of the moment thing. I did not want to die, so I admitted everything, even things I had never done.”

Tanveer survived to tell the tale, but his tormentors went unpunished because of several loopholes in Pakistani law. Being a street child, he could not report violence he was subjected to.

The state does not own a child on the street and since his legal guardians are unknown, he can neither register an FIR, nor hire a defence in the court as he does not have a permanent address. As a result, the court cannot summon him.

In other cases less complicated than Tanveer’s where children have been subjected to violence, such as a teacher beating up a student, the perpetrators usually take help from Article 89 of the Pakistan Penal Code. It allows physical punishment of a child under 12 years of age by the “consent expressed or implied by the guardian or other person having lawful charge” of the child, if it is done in “good faith or for the benefit” of the juvenile and the “intention” is not to hurt or cause death.

The idea is to use ‘reasonable’ disciplinary action, but in practice, the definition is somewhat unclear. Moreover the phrase “expressed or implied” is a woolly term, which signifies no written or verbal instruction of a guardian to caregiver.

Rana Asif of the Centre for Street Children claims that by definition, people allowed to hurt a child can begin from parents to uncles, cousins, teachers and caretakers at orphanages. “And it gets worse when Article 89 is used with articles 318 and 319 which talk about Qatl-e-Khata; death by mistake. Its punishment is Diyat or blood money.”

Provincial Manager Juvenile Justice at the Society for the Protection of the Rights of Child (Sparc) Madni Memon claims that every year, there are more than a hundred cases of child violence in Sindh alone. “Most go unreported and even if they are, the perpetrators go unpunished or the case is settled locally because of the loophole in the law.”

The most recent case he remembers occurred in Khairpur, where a fourteen years old boy was beaten up by his teacher “till his right arm broke”. The teacher escaped legal action.

While the society condemns extreme forms of corporal punishments, a survey by the Sparc reveals that 76 percent of parents agree that moderate corporal punishment is necessary to correct a child’s behaviour.

According to a study by the Centre for Street Children, 53 percent children on the street leave home because of physical violence at home, mainly in the form of slapping. Fathers are responsible for such violence in 50% of the cases.