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Salaam Namaste

Salaam Namaste

Committed to providing shelter to street children, Delhi-based Salaam Baalak Trust opens a new home exclusively for girls, reports NEHA DIXIT

IF YOU give us blankets, older people will sneak into them and do things to us. We’d rather stuff our shirts with newspapers to keep ourselves warm.” These words, spoken 20 years ago by a young boy at the Old Delhi Railway station to a volunteer of the Salaam Baalak Trust gave the Trust its epiphany: these children did not need food, clothes or blankets — they needed a shelter of their own.
Since then, four such shelter homes have come up. Last week, in another first, the NGO opened its fifth shelter — the first for girls. “There was a dire need for a shelter specially for girls,” says Hinu, executive director of the trust. “Parents refuse to take back girls who once step out, claiming they are ‘impure’. With no refuge and no skills, they are stranded on the streets, making themselves more vulnerable to torture and abuse,” she adds.
And even though this is the fifth home established by the NGO, the fangs of government apathy and a dearth of money have been perennially visible. In fact, the land first bought for this shelter — with the help of the Japanese Embassy — was acquired by the DDA. Finally, corporates like Gap Inc, Pepsico, Mahindra & Mahindra and HDFC Bank stepped in and Arushi, which can accommodate 70 girls, was established.
It’s a small dent in the number of destitute children. According to UNICEF estimates, there are 1,25,000 street children each in metros like Delhi, Kolkata and Bangalore. Runaway children who end up rag-picking at railway stations; victims of human trafficking who are sold into the commercial sex trade; and orphans, abandoned by relatives — the flotsam and jetsam of society.
While several organisations have mushroomed in the last decade to help such children, the absence of homes has always been a major hindrance. The few government shelters that do exist are nightmarish, and bear more than a passing resemblance to the Victorian poorhouses described graphically by Charles Dickens. Not only are the girls treated virtually as prisoners, they often suffer psychological and physical trauma. Just last year, girls in a Nari Niketan in Karnal, Haryana, ran back to the brothels they were rescued from — because they felt life in the shelter was more undignified than in the brothels.
Victims are locked with mentally unstable inmates, they are not allowed to step out and further depression seeps in when their parents refuse to take them back due to prevailing social taboos. Lack of basic amenities or molestation by officials leaves them without any hope in life. That’s what needs attention, points out Sanjoy Roy, Managing Trustee, Salaam Baalak Trust. “We realise that each of these children have gone through some emotional trauma and we give utmost importance to counselling,” he explains.
Look at the way children in the Trust’s homes carry themselves. Laxmi, 12, aspires to be a “very fine” actress. Her parents died when she was two and her grandmother left her on a New Delhi Railway station and disappeared. Laxmi’s staccato narrative relives the torture and the sexual abuse that followed with a candour rarely seen in girls her age. “We all might be orphans or whatever, but we know how to solve our problems, much better than anyone,” she says.
HER COMMENT reveals the camaraderie born out of the collective trauma these children have suffered. The trust also supports children of HIV-positive parents and sex workers. Sanju, 8, knows what ‘job’ her mother does, but does not know where her father is. All she wants to talk about is how much she loves playing ‘teacher’ and she will teach her friend Neetu when she grows up.
Missing children also find their way into the Trust’s homes through child welfare committees. According to a report by the National Human Rights Commission, some 44, 476 children go missing in India every year. The commission says that over 11, 000 children remain untraced annually. However, since 1999, the Trust has rehabilitated 357 girls with their families, a commendable number considering how difficult it is to convince parents to take back their girls.
More to the point, the Trust does not forget all about them. “Once the girls are rehabilitated, we keep track of their education in the villages. Sometimes, we also sponsor them,” says Roy.
When we approach thirteen-year-old Puja, the first question she asks is, “Are you going to send me back?” Constant abuse by her stepfather has concretised her distrust in all human beings. After several attempts to convince her that we will not, she opens up saying, “I want to be a doctor. My father always wanted me to.” Her faith that it will only be possible if she stays here, points to the confidence the organisation engenders in its beneficiaries.
Just last year, Vicky Roy, who was picked up from New Delhi Railway Station at the age of 11, was selected among the four photographers by Maybach, a US based organisation, to shoot the reliving of 9/11 at Ground Zero. That’s quite an achievement for a boy who spent almost a year on the platforms, collecting plastic bottles or washing dishes at a dhaba. Then there is Haran, who was praised for his photography by none other than former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife Cherie; Salim, the lead actor of the The Little Terrorist; Archana, a beauty specialist; and Neetu, who is a trained caregiver.
As we remain cocooned from life on the mean streets, their denizens continue to dream and sometimes realise those dreams. Smita, 10, says, “I don’t know when I came here. All that I know and I have learnt is to fulfill dreams — not anyone else’s but my own.” She exudes a confidence than can only be born out of a feeling of security, one that is still needed by 11 million street kids.
From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 33, Dated Aug 23, 2008
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