To improve the lives of Pakistan’s neglected street children, Rana Asif Habib has developed a unique support system that relies on a more accurate understanding of this underserved group. Taking a child-centered approach, he is the first in Pakistan to design programs that employ different strategies for children who work and those who sleep in the streets. He combines the support he offers street children with awareness campaigns and education for the public.
Rana’s commitment to understanding the challenges street children face and his insights into their lives have helped him create a rescue center in Karachi that also serves as a resource center for the students, citizen organizations (COs), and the media. While Rana is able to mitigate the suffering of street children through the provision of health services, counseling, legal aid, and skill building trainings, he also educates the public about the complexities and challenges of life on the street. For more than three years, his rescue center has provided food and night shelter facilities to an average of fifteen children a day. Rana also created the Initiator Human Development Foundation as a way to share his growing understanding of the challenges street children face with a large alliance of all the civil society organizations engaged in this work. He believes by better understanding the distinctions between ‘street working’ and ‘street sleeping’ children, aid programs will become more effective and the public will become more understanding. Rana’s programs are influenced by the distinct needs of each group of street children as well as his understanding of the cause of this problem. He also works with families and vulnerable communities to address domestic violence (a major ‘push’ factor for runaways), local university students in researching street children, and government agencies, as they together establish more shelters in the country. By using this approach, Rana is able to develop creative, responsive programs with buy-in from both street children and officials.
Because of their dependence on adults, children are among the most vulnerable populations in Pakistani society. In some cases, poverty has driven entire families to the streets. And when it comes to violence and abuse, young people have very few ways to speak up for themselves. Many young victims—filled with anger and mistrust—shatter their ties with their families and set out on their own.
But no matter the reason, the number of street children in Karachi has grown in recent years. Rising trends in economic growth and rapid urbanization make the metropolis an attractive place for economically displaced and socially disenfranchised children. Studies have been conducted to calculate the number of street children in Karachi, but their swift mobility and changing living patterns thwart all efforts for an exact count. The Azad Foundation, a Karachi-based CO, estimates there are at least 70,000 street children in Pakistan with 13,000 to 15,000 in Karachi and 5,000 to 6,000 in Lahore.
These children are pulled on to the street by economic need or pushed out by problems at home. The growing problem of street children is a reflection of the growing social disparities and economic tragedies in third-world countries like Pakistan. Their trauma is such that many turn to glue addiction and to harming themselves with razors. As a result, a strong stigma is attached to the term ‘street children’ and in every echelon of Pakistani social structure they are considered a social nuisance. However, the majority of street children are neither homeless nor criminal. They are street working children who are unprotected, vulnerable, and susceptible to all imaginable risks and forms of exploitation. They are at-risk for harassment, sexually transmitted diseases, substance abuse, violence, injury, and death. Their situations are often misunderstood; since they may have homes and families they are ineligible for the services provided to street sleeping children.
Unfortunately, both groups of street children have few opportunities for emotional, social, educational, and economic development. The projects and programs that do exist in Pakistan have not been able to effectively assist street children; not able to recognize the vastly different needs of children working on the streets during the day and returning to their families in the evening, and those children without homes. Most adults in Pakistan take a simplistic view of poor children on the streets, considering them a nuisance or a dangerous threat.
The inception of Initiator Human Development Foundation was an outcome of Rana’s social struggle for a just and fair society for neglected and poor children. Through the foundation he explored the needs of street children while closely working with them. He provided food, shelter, clothing, and non-formal education to them at his rescue and resource center. Trust developed between Rana and the children and they began to share their stories. To further strengthen their bond, he involved them in development initiatives and helped them to build basic vocational skills by making candles and photographs for sale at festivals and exhibitions.
As his insights grew, he forged a network of volunteers and service providing organizations to ensure the availability of appropriate healthcare, psychological counseling, and legal aid services. He has gained many notable partners including the Citizen Police Liaison Committee, Edhi Center, Madadgaar Child Helpline, Chepa Welfare Trust, and Ansar Burni Welfare Trust. He works with a number of volunteers, most students of Karachi University, and does mapping and research on the socioeconomic status of street children. He also includes government entities, such as the police, remand homes, and the Social Welfare Department in his growing network.
Daily interaction with the children made Rana realize that neglected and poor neighborhoods in the city also needed to have a better understanding of the problem. In a slum known as Manzoor Colony in Karachi, Rana met with community leaders and successfully established ‘Saiban,’ a community based center. The Saiban Center provides counseling, non-formal education, and vocational training to community children and their parents. Additionally, the center addresses the issue of domestic violence—a major factor runaway children site—by engaging parents in awareness programs. Rana’s center welcomes all street children. However they must respect simple rules: No drugs, no smoking, and no fighting with other children. The Saiban Center is independent, though the Initiator Foundation provides technical expertise to community leaders responsible for its operations. The Foundation plans to establish thirty centers in Karachi in the next five years.
Through the Initiator Foundation, Rana has established a child rights forum in Karachi. The theme of the child rights clubs is to prevent children, especially street children, from engaging in violence. This network of students, social workers, and well-wishers, provides many volunteer hours and needed donations to the organization. Since the foundation relies on the support of local philanthropists and not institutional donors, Rana’s frequent appearances in print and electronic media have dual purposes: He raises awareness about the challenges faced by street children and appeals to local philanthropists.
The impact of Rana’s work continues to spread. As more people understand the differences between children living on the street and how effective his programs are, Rana is finding it easier to roll out other needed initiatives. He also has more help. The youth beneficiaries of his work have been trained to develop projects and start new centers. Among the planned projects is a 24-hour helpline. Another project is a using a mobile van to ensure immediate delivery of his programs to his young clientele. Also, with the help of the government, the Initiator Foundation is establishing an informal and self-sufficient shelter for street children to open within five years.
Rana Asif Habib feels fortunate to have been born in an affluent and affectionate family with nine siblings. He has always been involved in varied social activities and has had the opportunity to volunteer with several COs in Karachi.
His desire to work with street children began seven years ago when he discovered an unconscious boy lying unattended near his house. When the police refused to respond with assistance, and despite his elder brother’s advice to leave the boy, Rana took a taxi and dropped him at Edhi Center. This experience and subsequent volunteer work for child rights organizations played a vital role in his current work with street children. Rana believes street children are as poor as is possible, but knows they can still be remarkably good children. He has complete confidence in his hundreds of young friends living and working on the streets of Karachi, after taking the time to understand their situation.
Unfortunately, his family discourages his work due to his health problems. Born with albinism, a genetic disorder, he is restricted from spending much time in direct sunlight. However, his work with the children requires him to be outside; often to the detriment of his health. Furthermore, his eyesight is limited, another condition of albinism.
Despite these obstacles, this courageous young man earned a Master’s in Sociology from Karachi University while active in several social activities, notably a non-formal education center in a Christian community.
Rana is an excellent orator and trainer on child rights. He has conducted several trainings on the Convention on the Rights of the Child and Juvenile Justice Systems Ordinance [JJSO 2000] at the national and regional level. His command of the subject of Sociology and his ability to design social research projects attracts many students seeking tutoring services, and has enabled him to support himself and his projects over the years.