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Samina Tuladhar (27) is one of the volunteers for the Child Workers in Nepal organisation.

Street children are a part of modern Nepalese society

Maria Seppälä

 

Life is not easy for street children in Nepal. They have usually taken to the streets because of a violent father or extreme poverty at home.

We leave the dust of Kathmandu far behind us in the valley and the closing gate shuts out the din of traffic. The head quarters of Child Workers in Nepal (CWIN) are located in a lush garden, almost like a miracle in a city totally lacking in greenery.

"Achieving all this has taken fourteen years. We've come a long way," Sumnima Tuladhar smiles. Only 27 years old, Tuladhar has worked with CWIN since she was fifteen. Established in 1987, CWIN was the first NGO working for children's rights in Nepal. Subsequently, the local workers of international aid agencies have focused their efforts in Nepal on children, in particular. "My father was a human rights activist, a civilised man interested in social issues. His example has inspired me a lot," Tuladhar says.

CWIN, originally part of a students' democracy movement, aims at raising people's awareness of childhood as something special and, most particularly, of the appalling conditions of street children in Nepal. It also combats the use of child labour. CWIN does not want to be an aid agency, but rather an active operator among the children.

"It's of no help to the children when the queen hands out sweets to them once a year. Before CWIN was established, children were remembered only on festival days. We think that children should be offered an opportunity to improve their own conditions. For a child who has never had a normal trusting relationship with an adult, coping on your own and belonging to something are extremely important things," Tuladhar explains how the organisation works.

Politically suspicious activity

The Nepalese government or the State police have not always viewed CWIN's activities with a friendly eye. "In the early years, the police repeatedly raided our premises. For the government, who would rather have shut its eyes to the awkward question, we were dangerous counter-revolutionaries," Tuladhar says with courage in her voice.

Now, however, Tuladhar is busy. She is preparing the 2001 report on the situation of children and child labour in Nepal. "The report shows that although a lot has been done, we have to continue the fight," she sighs.

The old problems, such as violence and poverty at home as well as illiteracy, have been joined by new threats: trade in human beings from Nepal to neighbouring India and circles of pedophiles who tempt children to follow them, promising a better life. To a great extent, it is also a question of what being a third-world child is all about.

"In Nepal, we have of old been unaccustomed to the idea of childhood." Tuladhar wants to emphasise that in developing countries, children have basically been seen as labour and security for old age.

Kathmandu attracts more and more children from the countryside

Anthropologist Petri Hautaniemi from the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Helsinki shares this view. His mind and research activities turn especially towards childhood and youth. He is currently investigating young Somali refugees in Finland.

In 1997, he visited Nepal to get to know the country's school system but changed his plans when he confronted the street children problem. "You just can't ignore street children when visiting Nepal. You find them in every city, although it is hard to tell how many of the children begging and peddling in the streets have a home to return to at night."

Kathmandu is a special case even in Nepalese circumstances. "Children escape from the utterly poor countryside to the capital, because there are children already on the streets. There they also have a chance of getting by," Hautaniemi explains.

Almost 90 per cent of the street children in Nepal are boys. Girls are few in number and their task is usually to take care of the youngest ones. In a traditional society like Nepal, girls are, however, sent to serve as maids in rich households. They may also live at home farming and doing household chores until they are married, which in the countryside may take place before they turn fifteen.

Hazardous streets

Hautaniemi's careful estimate is that the number of street children in Kathmandu has only increased since his visit. According to him, boycotting Nepalese carpets in the West may have played a part in driving more children out on the streets. The carpet factories are not allowed to employ children, which leads to increased poverty. On the other hand, local NGOs claim that working in the factories falls little short of slavery.

Unicef's 1996 report 'Situation analysis of street children in Nepal' also confirms that children do not get paid regularly and that they are beaten. "There is always another side to the matter when talking about the developing countries. Ethical decisions are difficult, although it is necessary to view the question from a varied moral stance," Hautaniemi says.

Sumnima Tuladhar has, for many years, observed the risks children run on the streets. "They are tortured at work, maybe beaten at home and on the streets the police are constantly after them," she lists and continues: "Without a normal relationship with an adult, the children are unable to trust anybody. It is sad, but also a challenge for our work."

Hautaniemi wishes to correct the western view of street children. "The children may keep some sporadic contact with home and live on and off in the streets. Some of the time they may well live with their families in the countryside."

Children on the streets often come from broken homes and poverty, which have forced them to find their own livelihood and also bring money home. Being a single parent in a country where social security is an unknown concept, also requires sacrifices from the children.

Little shoe-shiners

What is temporary easily becomes permanent. The children no longer accept the rules laid down at home and run off to a life on the streets where they are their own masters.

The children do not always have a say in whether to leave or stay. In Nepal, abortions are illegal and, therefore, the mother of a poor family may abandon her children when they are still young.

"Being abandoned or maltreated is something so extreme that it marks the child permanently. Not everybody can survive the streets, where every new person you see is a potential source of income, especially if he or she happens to be a tourist."

The relationship between a tourist and a street child, someone from a rich industrialised country and a citizen of a developing country, is filled with tension. "It looks like a kind of trade. The child may do cartwheels or shine your shoes and then you will give him money for these tricks and services. Blatant begging, as such, is even among the street children seen not only as a poor source of income but also as humiliating," Hautaniemi notes.

Inequality affects children as well

Hautaniemi reminds us that, hand in hand with the urbanisation, the middle-classes have become more prosperous in Nepal. In Kathmandu, some children are surfing the net, chatting on the Nepali Teen Online, and buying pop magazines. "In a society with a huge gap between the haves and the have-nots, even children are not equal."

Tuladhar thinks that many of the problems would be solved if all children went to school. "The problem is that street children are not seen as a potential. They are seen as losers, thieves and scoundrels, you name it, which is why they don't necessarily get a job when they get older, either. Childhood on the streets is like a stigma, it never wears off with time."

Is there no hope for Nepal, then? "It is hard to say anything certain about a society that is a complex mixture of cultures, languages and religions. It seems evident, though, that the children who have fled the countryside to the city, a result of urbanisation, are here to stay. They belong to modern Nepal," Hautaniemi says.