My time in Pakistan is drawing to a close. Before preparing to head back to the UK, and looking forward to being reunited with my own family, I had the opportunity to see the devastating effects of urban poverty on children in Rawalpindi, Islamabad’s twin city. I visited World Vision’s drop-in centre for children, where we’re working hand-in-hand with a local partner to provide education, care and advocacy for vulnerable children working as rubbish pickers, beggars or worse on the streets of Rawalpindi. As I arrived, one of the children was leading about 70 others in a sung Muslim prayer, followed by the Pakistani national anthem, before they went off to their classes and activities while I got to hear about the work from the excellent local staff.
Child labour is a huge issue in Pakistan. Although the government has passed laws against it, at least 10 million children are thought to be working, often for long hours and in hazardous conditions, rarely able to get the education they are entitled to. In this poor part of Rawalpindi they estimate as many as 80 per cent of children work from the age of three or four, which I found so difficult to imagine and accept – recalling what my children were like at that age, it seems incomprehensible that we live in a world where this is allowed to happen. But, as always with poverty, the causes are a complex mix of social and economic factors.
For the past few years, the centre has provided non-formal education for more than 700 children under-11 and skills training for 120 young teenagers. The results are impressive: 62 children have “graduated” from the centre and moved into the formal education system where they had previously been excluded. 82 have graduated from the skills training that is provided for teenagers too old to move into formal education. Many have gained the formal birth registration critical for their future. What’s even more impressive as you talk to these children is to hear the change this has brought in their lives.
I was privileged to be able to speak for a while with children to hear about their lives and the difference the drop-in centre has made.
One of these children, Jaffir, is eight years old and loves the chance at education the drop-in centre gives him. Jaffir’s friends, who beg and scavenge for rubbish, tried to persuade him to drop out, but he wants to become a doctor and knows he needs to study hard. It’s clear from Jaffir’s story, how dangerous it is on the streets. He has to climb into the dirty canal to collect rubbish to sell for about 50p a day.
“I’m afraid I might drown, I can’t swim,” he tells me, and today his hand is bandaged from an accident with a bicycle. Jaffir experienced real trauma when his friend was kidnapped by armed criminals right in front of him and he only escaped kidnapping because his older cousin arrived to rescue him. As I looked at Jaffir, even younger than my nine-year-old, Luke, I thought no wonder you look older than your years.
The help that Sana, World Vision’s psychologist, has been to Jaffir is palpable as they talk about this incident together. Sana’s doing an incredible job dealing single-handedly through play, art and counselling with a range of issues, not the least being domestic violence, which seems very prevalent in the stories here. Children on the streets here experience things that no child should.
It’s a long way from our vision of life in all its fullness for every child, and reminds me of World Vision’s founder Bob Pierce’s reflection: “Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God”, back in the 1950s.
Sitting later in the day with a group of mainly Muslim colleagues, knowing that they’ll be here tomorrow, next week, next month, whatever this year brings to this complicated country with resilient people, a prayer I heard at the local Church in Islamabad on Sunday came to mind and is one I know I will continue to say for them as I return to the safety and comfort of England:
“O God, who knows us to be set in the midst of so many and great dangers, that by reason of the frailty of our nature we cannot always stand upright; Grant to us such strength and protection, as may support us in all dangers, and carry on through all temptations.”