Out of school and often homeless, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s (K-P) trash collecting children have no alternative to a life on the streets, which leads to poor health and in some instances sexual abuse.

Back in 2019, K-P’s out of school children population stood at around 1.8 million, which has now ballooned to over 4.7 million children, according to a survey conducted by the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP). Consequently, there has also been an upsurge in children below 15 years of age spending their time on the streets – scavenging through piles of garbage in search of food or plastic valuables to sell.

One such child is 7-year-old Tayyab, who was sifting through a heap of trash around the Peshawar bus stand. “I was not allowed to go to school due to a lack of uniform, so for the past 3 months I have been working as a garbage collector,” informed Tayyab, adding that since his father was an addict, he was the one responsible for earning.

On a good day, Tayyab can make up to Rs 200 with the junk he has collected but some days he can barely make Rs 150. However, it is not the measly amount he makes that peturbs him. “Sometimes, the junkies around here will try to touch us or offer money to some children to stay with them,” a visibly upset Tayyab explained.

Another child, a 13-year-old boy, who was collecting trash on the bridge of the railway gate near Peshawar Gulbahar Canal, concurring with Tayyab under the condition of anonymity, said that inappropriate touching was nothing new to them. “We have seen many children being beaten into submission by drug addicts. They try to force themselves upon us.”

Data from 2021 obtained from the K-P police reveals that even apart from the street children, sexual abuse of minors has seen an uptick in the province. A total of 360 cases were reported from across K-P, excluding the merged districts, out of which 49 cases were of girls. It is pertinent to mention that experts contend that the actual number of cases is likely to be much higher than the reported numbers.

Shehzad Kokab Farooq, Senior Officer of the Investigation Department in Peshawar, when asked about the increase in cases, concurred that it was true. “We register an FIR in every case of sexual abuse of minors.

However, in most cases, there are no major punishments because both parties reach a compromise and the accused is released after serving a year or 6 months in jail,” Farooq said, adding that the minimum punishment in such cases is 10 to 25 years of imprisonment.

Child rights activist, Valerie Khan, was of the view that the upsurge in children on the streets and in sexual abuse of minors showed that the government’s priorities were elsewhere. “The government has shown no regard for domestic laws or international conventions for protection of children. They need to increase awareness and make an effort to get children away from the garbage piles and back to school,” Khan remarked while talking to The Express Tribune.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 12th, 2022.


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