Monday, 29 November 2010

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Street children and AIDS: a hidden time bomb

No one knows how many street children are at risk of contracting, or have died of, HIV/AIDS. They are not even listed as a vulnerable group, like commercial sex workers and homosexuals. Yet the sexual exploitation and drug abuse that is an inevitable part of their lives, points to a serious problem in urgent need of attention, says Charumathi Supraja

Geetha (14), Dara (9) and Raju (16) live under an unused bus shelter in Bangalore. They share food, habits, ‘solution’ (a substance they are addicted to) and attitudes to life. Geetha’s biological mother is the only adult their gang has regular contact with. She pimps, begs and sells sex for a living. The children pick plastic scrap and papers thrown around the bus stand for a living; some of them indulge in petty thefts and some sell sexual favours. All of them know about and have resided for different lengths of time in NGO or government homes in the last four years. All of them “escaped”. The street, they say, is their “choice” and they like the “freedom and friendship” it offers.

I meet Geetha on a working, weekday morning when the bus stand is teeming with people. She has stopped by to chat with a field social worker at the Child Rescue Booth, run by the NGO BOSCO, in the bus stand. “I live here,” she says, when I ask. She holds a plastic sack over her left shoulder and a blue, checked handkerchief stained white, in her right hand. Her eyes are yellow and glazed over, and her speech is slightly slurred but her gaze is direct and fearless. Her hair is unkempt, her clothes dirty. She reacts with shock to the social worker’s disclosure that “the boy from the platform” died of AIDS last week. His death led to the discovery of his HIV infection.

Geetha’s friend Raju takes me to their adda (den) under the bus shelter, where we meet Dara, who hasn’t gone to the hostel (a day-time open shelter for street children) today. Dara and Raju sniff ‘solution’ and tell me about their life. They ran away from their homes years ago. “My uncle used to beat me,” says Dara. “I wanted to come to Bangalore,” says Raju. They have worked in hotels, industries, and as coolies. They say they stuck to rag-picking because they were “cheated, used and beaten” in the other jobs.

Dara says, “They all beat. I’ll never go to any hostel full-time, especially the Government Home.” Raju says they each need three to four bottles of ‘solution’ per day. They bathe in the hamams or in railway station bathrooms, wear “good clothes” and watch two movies every week. They sometimes play computer games in the shop nearby.

They tell me that lots of people push “children like us” to do “bad work.” But “in our group, we stick together and don’t go for all that,” says Raju. “Except Geetha”, he adds. “She steals and picks purses. She goes with anyone who will give money - she’s more sought after than her mother. She tortures the stray dogs in the bus stand by twisting their ears. I beat her up nicely if she does that to any of my dogs.” Geetha’s mother “frees us when the police catch us. She is my mother here,” says Raju. He sums up his life in the bus stand: “Aaraamaagideevi. Bindaasaagideevi (We are comfortable and free).”

Street children are not basically depraved, lazy, trouble-mongerers. They are deprived, abjectly neglected children who are barely visible except as a threat or nuisance. Runaway children, missing children, children orphaned by AIDS, children of street dwellers (who do not keep in touch with their parents or vice versa) land up on the streets. If social service organisations do not interrupt their induction into street life, they turn into ‘hard-core’ street children. Such children are highly mobile, abused at multiple levels and totally deprived of adult affection and normal adult influence. They survive the threats of street life by joining gangs that introduce them to strategies like “sex for comfort, pleasure and money” and “drugs for bliss and loss of pain”. Lacking a nutritious environment in more ways than one, these children fall prey to the worst diseases that affect neglected groups and communities. HIV-AIDS is just one of them.

In 2001-2002, a clinical child and adolescent psychologist from the Netherlands, Meindert Schaap, conducted in-depth research on the sexual life-worlds of 25 teenage street boys, aged 12-16. The research showed ‘an early onset of sexual activity and a very rapid sexual career among street boys. Same-sex activities (mutual masturbation and anal sex) are far more common than sex with girls. Most street boys have sex with multiple partners and have had sexual encounters with (street) prostitutes.’

The motives to engage in sex include ‘pleasure, immediate lust-reduction and material gain (food, money, drugs).’ Meindert recorded that ‘sexual activities may start as experimenting for pleasure but soon become a sort of commodity as well as …an addictive means to get immediate pleasure. Only a relatively small part of the boys' sexual activities involve real force and are considered to be abusive. All in all, sex is not a big deal: “You eat, you drink, you have sex”.’

The study also found that only a few street boys seemed to have reasonably good knowledge of sexual health. The misconceptions were widespread and included beliefs like anal sex with boys is harmless and that ‘HIV/AIDS can be easily recognised by sight and that HIV is easily spread by mouth.’ Condoms are used, if at all, for heterosexual activities.

Meindert says that compared to 1994, when he started working in this sector, street children are less visible today. They now have recourse to odd jobs and solid jobs and not only rag-picking. “Though this may be good in one way, it is more difficult to reach out to them now as the situation is definitely still one of ignorance in regard to high risk sexual behaviours,” he says.

Vasudev Sharma, Chairperson, Child Welfare Committee (CWC), Bangalore, says that globally the concept of Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVC) with respect to HIV-AIDS is being discussed. “The situation of children who have lost either or both parents to AIDS is very bad. There are no statistics recording the numbers of such children. There is no provision made by the government for these children, who are ostracised by the community. They run away to cities in search of anonymity and a better life and fall onto the streets. They are doubly at risk,” he says.

During interviews, it is routine for street children from ages 8-18 to admit to having and “buying” sex under the influence of drugs, peers and a sexual environment on the streets, he says. “Girls (even as young as eight) forced to live independently on the streets or platforms are most abused sexually,” according to Sharma. Seeking protection, they join a gang and even the boys in the same gang use them. These girls do not know of protective measures and are highly susceptible to HIV infection, says Sharma.

He confirms that most street children lose awareness of their bodies and surroundings under the influence of addictive substances like solvents and adhesives. “I have seen scrap shops giving street children a couple of bottles of ‘Erasex’ as part payment for scrap,” he says. “When typewriters have become archaic and whiteners are available as pens, why do so many bottles of ‘Erasex’ sell? An investigation should be carried out on this product,” he says.

As a protective measure, the Juvenile Justice Act has made it mandatory for children ‘hanging around aimlessly on the streets’ to be put into Government Homes where they can have access to health and education facilities, but these Homes are not very child-friendly.

Drawing attention to the particular vulnerability of boys, Sharma says, “Many people think boys are safe. But boys are as susceptible to abuse, HIV and Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD) infection, if not more.” Traditionally, society views girls as more vulnerable but street boys get HIV infections very easily because of their low awareness and addiction to ‘sex for pleasure’ at a very young age. “They are always moving around, changing partners and thus spreading the virus.”

Shockingly, neither the government nor private organisations know how many children on the streets are HIV-positive, says Sharma. According to Meindert’s informal estimates, at least 150-250 teenage street children in Bangalore are getting infected by HIV every year.

Most organisations working for street children - including Jagruthi, Association for Promoting Social Action (APSA), Bangalore Oniyavara Seva Coota (BOSCO) and government instituted agencies say that street children who come in contact with them are not tested for HIV unless they fall sick repeatedly or have come from a background that merits a test. The street background in itself is not accepted as a reason for doing the test.

This scenario is complicated by the moralistic view taken of sex and sexuality issues by society in general and the government in particular. According to field workers, social, religious and cultural barriers prevent the widespread acknowledgement and discussion of the sexualised lives of street children.

“HIV-AIDS cannot be discussed without talking about sex and sexuality,” says Meindert, “and how many governments endorse sex education?” The general belief is that children can have nothing to do with sex. To break the silence on sexuality and train field social workers, APSA has conducted workshops for other NGOs. The field testing of APSA’s sexual health intervention programme is on in three southern Indian states.

Renu Appachu, director of Jagruthi, runs two homes for rehabilitated street children and victims of trafficking. “There are about 30 to 40 HIV-positive children in my home of 100 children,” she says. “When I see a HIV-positive child I know we have failed.” She says the number of boys in sex work is underestimated and this is adding another dimension to the problem of HIV/AIDS. “The boys don’t leave that line though they have a very painful life,” she adds.

Over years of working with hard-core street children, Meindert has learnt that “children tell you the truth and trust you, if you are non-judgemental in your approach, show genuine interest in their lives, respect them and listen to them.” He views the issue of street children’s vulnerability to HIV/AIDS as a “hidden time bomb” that people in India do not yet recognise as a serious threat.

Different factors are feeding more children into the city’s streets every day, says P Lakhspathi, director, APSA. Migrant labourers’ children often get lost in the city when their parents are at work. Problems like unemployment in the rural sector bring more children to the city where the construction business is booming.

(Charumathi Supraja is a freelance journalist and writer based in Bangalore.)

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