Human Rights of Street Children:
A Major Social Legal Issue of the Indian Society
Author– Prerna Mohan
A nation is not considered wealthy only by its economical structure or natural resources but more decidedly by the quality and kind of wealth of its children and youth. As children are considered to be the future of the nation, it becomes the responsibility of the society and nation to mother a healthy, strong and intellectual child or youth. But the irony of this world is that not every child is fortunate enough to enjoy even their childhood and get to live a basic and normal life. Education, freedom to express, a playful childhood, shelter, health, hygiene, love and care are the basic needs of ones life and important for both physical, mental and spiritual growth of a child. The problem is that, that not every child is fortunate enough and that many are forced to live a life which is absolutely inhumane and these children are the ones whom the society label as “street children”.
There is no specific definition of street children but they form a subcategory of destitute children. It is a term which basically denotes those children who live in a state of penury, are homeless, abandoned and have taken streets has their home, selling their bodies to strive. These children are constantly subject to exploitation, abuse by unsocial elements which pull them into practices like begging, bonded labour, prostitution or many unethical and anti-social activities for their material gains. These things raise many question but the foremost and the most important one is that what is the stand of law in providing this vulnerable group of the society those basic human rights which are guaranteed at international level and by our own Constitution as well.
Street Children and the Indian Society
The very first thing which comes to one’s mind when that person comes across the word “street children” is that a child roaming on streets in torn clothes and bare feet either begging or selling something, trying to find money or food from the heap of garbage or washing cars etc. to earn some money so that he or she can get to eat something for their bare survival.
India as we know is a poverty stricken country where more than half of the population live below the poverty line and this situation is swelling up. There are many families who come to cities in search of work but ultimately land up in a state where they don’t even get to have a onetime meal properly and the streets become their habitual abode or source of livelihood. Children of such families a likely to step into anti-social activities like begging, child labor etc. But it is not only these children who fall in the trap or in hands of unsocial elements. A child is considered to be vulnerable and innocent, unaware of the worlds evil face and to this advantage they get exploited by many inhuman and insensitive people. In India poverty has such deep roots that to sustain themselves families put their children to work rather than sending them to school for getting education. That is the reason that in spite of the Constitutional provisions which stand up against and prohibits child labour, a disturbing rise in the number of children working on streets has been observed over the years. Some estimates reveal that in India number of street children has reached up to 18 million. Though the Indian Government has formulated various public policies in past few years concerning street children but their ineffectiveness has led to a rise in the numbers unexpectedly, as their needs are not assessed and addressed appropriately.
Also the Indian society is not the one who welcomes all with equal respect and we do look down upon these vulnerable groups and unfortunate children as chattels and petty people. Our society has built up a mindset which doesn’t welcome these children to stand on the same footing as ours would. We expect equality in treatment and every other thing and move the courts if our rights get infringed in any way but we fail to understand that these people and children are also the creation of God Almighty and they to have the right to live a normal and peaceful lives where they are treated equally like we expect to be. We fail to understand that these children are equally entitled to get educated, have nutritious food, a shelter to live, a family to come home to and a society to accept them. The society fails to understand that it is not the choice of these children that they are born in such families or are put in to such activities, but somewhere we are the reason to their bedraggled and poor conditions.
Causes and Problems
It will be wrong to say that street children choose to be on streets, sometimes it is because of their families and sometimes due to some unsocial elements. There are many factors which pull or push children of tender ages to the streets. Some of these factors of streetism are-
- Poverty is one of the major factor which not only takes children to the streets but the entire families too so that they can earn something either by begging or selling things on road to survive. The rapid urban growth attract rural families to migrate to cities and towns in hopes of earning a better livelihood. But the glamorous life of the cities is not that easy to survive and these people land up unemployed having no place to live, nothing to eat and these circumstances open their way to streets. Children often drop out from schools so that they can help in earning a living for themselves and their families.
- The second factor is the neglect and abuse by the parents or relatives and peer group influence. These things have a major affect on a child’s mind and to run away from such situations the child gets compelled to leave the parental or guardians house. These children migrate to cities in search of work in order to fulfil their basic needs. These situations give others a good chance to get hold of the child and put him or her to prostitution, beggary or child labour or to many other criminal activities too.
- The third situation is where a child is abandoned, gets kidnapped or gets separated from his or her family due to any natural calamity, war etc. A child is abandoned by his or her parents in situations where parents fail to even their fulfil basic needs and consider child to be a burden. Another reason to this is gender discrimination which often leads to abandoning of the girl child as parents consider her to be a burden and some fortunate enough land up in an orphanage etc. rest are compelled to take streets as their place of work and home. As a result of this these children usually become prone to the perils of sexual abuse, prostitution, beggary, drug paddling, to many criminal activities and sometimes fall in shackles of slavery too.
The socio legal issues related to street children are numerous. But the problems which generally come into picture are related to exploitation of these children either mentally, physically, economically or sexually. They live a life where there is a constant danger of getting exploited at the hands of many people because they are not educated, lack parental guidance and security too. Not only are these children prone to exploitation but are also exposed to diseases, unhygienic conditions, malnutrition, hunger etc. Many a times these children are harassed by the employers and policemen as a result no complaints are logged because of wariness in police authority.
Though many legal safeguards are available against child exploitation and abuse and also for their development but there are many loopholes in them and many of these policies and legislations are not implemented properly to achieve the objective they are formulated for.
Example to such loopholes is that Section 359, 360, 361 talk about kidnapping but they mention that a child is said to be kidnapped when he or she is taken out of the keeping of the lawful guardian. But what will happen if a street child is kidnapped. A street child generally doesn’t have a guardian and are generally ones who are abandoned. This is a major reason that the complaints are not registered with the police because the absence of these children doesn’t affect or bother anyone. A similar example is Article 21-A of the Constitution which makes education a fundamental right and provides for free and compulsory education to children from 6 to 14 years of age, also Article 45 says that state should provide early childhood care and education to children until they attain the age of six years. But the application and execution of these provisions is very poor. Many children drop out of schools because of many family issues etc. and there is no one and no provision in legislations to track these things and look into such problems to find a solution to them. A special officer or rapporteur in every region should be appointed by the Government to look into the problems of street children, understand them and address them to the Government so that they can together work to solve them and provide a better life and future to such children.
Street Children and Human Rights
The most sad part is that these children don’t even get to enjoy basic human rights. According to UNICEF (2002) the number of street children have increased to be more than 100 million around the globe. The numbers have reached to approximately 18 million in India where it is not surprising at all to know that more than 50 percent of them have experienced physical, sexual and verbal violence.
After a survey was done it came to be known that more than half of these children are found using tobacco and cigarettes, etc. at a very young age and though it is prohibited to sell tobacco to children below 18 years of age the supplier and sellers without even considering the age of the buyer flours the stuff among these children. Chewing tobacco at this age and that too continuously may lead to cancer and many other problems.
Sometimes these children are detained unnecessarily by policemen and are abused and tortured, physically, mentally and sexually.
These children are prone to sexual abuses which make them vulnerable to health hazards like cancer, sexually transmitted diseases, HIV/AIDS etc.
The Indian Constitution too recognizes right to live with dignity and protection of personal liberty. But unfortunately these basic rights like right to lead a healthy life, right to livelihood, right to education, food etc. are just limited to books or to the rest of the society excluding street children. These children suffer because of the greedy nature of some anti-social elements and atrocious attitude towards them.
Apart from the Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles of State Policy which provide for protection of children, prohibition of child labour, free and compulsory education, directs state to work for the welfare of children, there are many other legislations and policies laid by the Government for protection and betterment of these children.
- Article 24 of the Constitution states that no child under the age of 14 should be employed to work in factories, mines or any type of hazardous work.
- Article 23 of the Constitution deals with prohibition of trafficking of human beings, begar and all forms of forced labour. To this effect Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act, 1956 was enacted under the power that was given to the Parliament by Article 35 of the Constitution. The apex court directed the state to eradicate child abuse and prostitution and also to work towards rehabilitation and safeguarding victims of child prostitution by initiating various programs.
- The Child Labour Prohibition Act, 1986 works on the same lines as that of Article 24 of the Constitution and aims at prohibiting employment of children especially who are under the age of 14 in factories and hazardous industries instead regulating employment in non-hazardous industries. The act focuses on children who are employed by others and not on ones who are self-employed. There is one loophole in it, as we have seen children often collecting garbage and picking rags which indeed involves various hazards to health and life. But these children are not covered under this legislation.
- Also back in 2001 a bill named The Street Children (Protection of Rights) Bill , 2001 was proposed in the Parliament which recognized that street children too have the rights like right to healthy life, education, training, security of life and protection etc. for proper growth and development both physically and mentally. It was also proposed that a Commission for Street Children to be established at National level and Street Children Development Fund in order to achieve the objective of the Bill. But unfortunately this Bill has not been passed till date.
No matter how many policies or legislations the Government makes for the protection and upliftment of these children they will have no effect till the time they hit the root causes of the phenomenon. Steps should be taken to implement compulsory primary education scheme properly so that every child gets the benefit of it no matter if he or she is a street child or a child from a well to do family and also a check should be kept that children don’t drop out from schools for reasons to work or anything else. Also measures should be taken to provide these children with basic facilities like shelter, food etc. so that they don’t get down to streets in search of work or food. Government should extend help to NGO’s which seriously work towards helping such children to get out of the lamentable state and also provide legal help and representation whenever required. Also the Government should work on removing disparities and loopholes from various legislations related to children and their protection. Also people should be made aware of the problems and atrocities the street children face so that the society come hand in hand to find out solutions to these problems and extend as much help as they can by changing their behaviour towards these underprivileged children. In this way their basic human rights can be saved. It’s just the matter of change in our approach and mindset which will change us from being inhuman towards them.
 2nd Year B.A.LLB student, Section B, 41151103818, Delhi Metropolitan Education, GGSIP University.
 Vishaljeet v. Union of India, AIR 1990 SC 1412.