Nepal’s street children are stigmatised by society, vulnerable to both mental and physical abuse
Himal is six years old and lives on the streets of Kathmandu. Every day he fights to survive by shining shoes, but most days he doesn’t have enough money for a meal. To ward off the hunger he sniffs glue – like 95% of the other children in the city.
Nepal is a country of contrasts, with soaring mountains, beautiful valleys, and subtropical forests. It is also one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world, with a quarter of its population living on less than 1 US dollar a day. The violent days of the civil war may be over, but Nepal is still fragile, both politically and economically. With an estimated 38% of the population aged 14 or younger, the problem of street children like Himal is not one that is likely to go away anytime soon.
Himal left home when his father divorced his mother and remarried. Himal’s stepmother didn’t warm to him and he was gradually pushed out of the family home. His father likes to drink, so he didn’t notice what was going on. Himal’s birth mother did not have the money to look after him and when things got really bad, he decided to run away to Kathmandu in search of a better life – like so many other children in Nepal. Every year 600 others like him arrive on the streets of this sprawling urban centre.
There are not many girls on the streets, but that doesn’t mean they are not running away at the same rate as boys. The disturbing truth is that most of them are immediately swept off the streets and subjected to sexual abuse, prostitution, exploitation, and slavery. The biggest problem with this occurs around towns on the Indian border, such as Birgunj.
This is the grim reality for street children; living hand to mouth, and often not even that, they are pushed into criminal activities through hunger. Stigmatised and viewed with suspicion by the general public, it is difficult to see a future for these children. Leaving the streets and becoming respected members of the community is virtually impossible for them. With little hope, many become addicted to glue, cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana. Local child health workers are extremely worried about the physical and mental health risks the children are exposed to.
In 2011, however, a glimmer of hope appeared for street children in Hetauda, a town about three hours’ drive from Kathmandu, in the form of a university tutor doing research for his PhD. He spent 52 days living on the streets with the children and provided them with food every day. In this way he gained their trust and slowly they started to open up to him. After sharing their experiences he started to understand what it would take to get them off the street, and armed with this new knowledge he set up a home for street children called Mamaghar, just outside Hetauda. Although the Nepalese government are not doing much to help the cause nationally, he has the support of the local police and authorities, who gave him a grant to cover the first year’s rent of the home. The home has helped reunite a few children with their close or extended family, and their safety and wellbeing is being closely monitored to avoid them running away again.
For the 15 children still at the home, life could not be more different to a year ago. They have enough to eat, receive counselling, and are attending the local school. Within just one month of having regular education, their dreams for the future are starting to emerge; one wants to be a pilot and another would like to run a children’s home. The hunger for learning in all of the children is striking, awoken by the care they now receive. With literacy levels at a low 47% across Nepal, this is a wonderful testament to the power of the right learning environment.
There is a huge gap in skills in Nepal, particularly in the area of social workers, psychologists, and skills trainers. Although the Nepalese government announced in 2008 that it was going to devise a five-year master plan to rehabilitate street children, disappointingly there has been little progress made to date. There has been some advancement in the area of legislation on children’s rights at regional levels, yet it remains to be seen how thoroughly these new laws will be implemented. This means, for the moment at least, the fate of these acutely vulnerable children is limited to the hope provided by benevolent individuals and institutions.
If you would like to know more about how you can help the Nepali street children, please visit www.oursansar.org. Our Sansar is a Brighton-based UK charity working with local organisations and assisting Mamaghar to expand and open a number of transit homes across Nepal, giving children from other cities the chance to find a permanent home at Hetauda.
Photo Credits: Our Sansar
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