Over one million children live and work on the streets of Pakistan. Most are malnourished, have limited access to education or medical treatment, and have been involved in child labor from an early age. Child prostitution, sexual abuse and drug addiction are some of the major problems these children face.The following was written by LDM Fellow Sarah Asad, Executive Director and a founding member of Pahchaan (Protection and Help of Children Against Abuse and Neglect). In just four years, Pahchaan has improved the lives of over 3,000 children. Along the way, Sarah has received awards recognizing her contributions, including the International Society for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect’s (ISPCAN) first Presidential Award and the World Population Foundation’s Youth Icon of Pakistan award. She was also part of a six-member team who received the ISPCAN Multidisciplinary Award for helping to establish South Asia’s first hospital-based child-protection unit.
Pahchaan is an Urdu word meaning identity, and this is what we seek to do – to give an identity to the nameless, faceless children vulnerable to abuse and neglect. I first became interested in child rights while researching the nutritional status of juvenile delinquents languishing in prisons across Pakistan’s eastern Punjab region. I was deeply troubled by the injustices I witnessed and was not prepared to see the innocent faces of nine and ten year-old children accused of rape, murder and kidnapping.
Their stories echoed against the walls of all the prisons I visited. Hearing these tales and seeing the faces of these children filled me with despair. It also led me to make the firm decision that I wanted to work for them and somehow help to protect them.
As I explored the situation of children in prisons or on the street, I found one of the greatest hardships to be the sexual abuse and exploitation they faced night after night. I felt both appalled and helpless, and was compelled to do something about it. Though I had attended courses on NGO management, I had no leadership training linked to the special reproductive health needs and other vulnerabilities these adolescents faced. So I applied to the LDM program to hone my skills and understanding of these key topics. I participated in life skills training and hands-on field visits at drop-in centers, hospitals and training units in Thailand, Nepal, Bangladesh and the Philippines.
In the span of four years Pahchaan has established four offices (including one in the troubled Peshawar region) and expanded our core staff to 30 and emergency response staff to 100. We have helped more than 3,000 children and created awareness in more than 10,000 adults regarding child protection issues. We have just launched the first mobile kitchen for homeless children in Pakistan, which strives to enable street children to enroll in a rehabilitative program to support them to grow into safe and productive adults free from exploitation and neglect. We have also created material on psychosocial rehabilitation of abused children in disasters, hospital settings, and drop in centers. Pahchaan is also the local partner in a global campaign against child prostitution between The Body Shop and ECPAT International.
The LDM Fellowship and subsequent exposure to reproductive health issues through workshops, seminars, on-line groups and networking opportunities LDM supports have had a profound impact on my work. These experiences have helped me to identify best practices and provided me with a support group as I adapt to new challenges in my work.
Every day is a challenge because of the security situation and constant bomb threats, cultural pressures of being a working woman in a conservative society, professional exhaustion of arranging funds and relevant human resources for the NGO, and the general difficulties associated with working for a cause people do not regard as a priority. In spite of these, I continue to hear stories that move me and inspire me to do the work I do. I cannot help but smile when I see a young male commercial sex worker visiting our psychologist at a drop-in center, telling her confidently that he is ready to work with her to overcome his hashish addiction; or when a runaway child who was once severely emotionally traumatized proudly tells our teacher that he has learned the alphabet and is ready to return home to reconcile with his family; or when our trained doctor convinces the parents of a raped girl to press charges against the perpetrator despite their strong cultural reservations. It is this system of caring for sexually abused and exploited children that we at Pahchaan wish to further develop. Our goal is to have safe communities where every youth has an identity and a chance to live out his childhood.