In Pakistan, the poverty is breathtaking. This is a country of opposites. The rich are very rich, and the poor live in poverty unlike anything in the United States. People live by the millions – in crumbling buildings on the outskirts of cities, in tents, in windowless shacks with mud floors and cloth strung as roofs – side by side with animals; on the streets, in the parks, on garbage dumps, in canals; on dusty, empty roads, in fields. Alone and with families, among strangers, or not.
In this nation of 180 million people, with so many millions living in desperate conditions, it is the millions of children affected by this poverty that stirred my compassion and my frustration.
My first night here, I naively asked why so many children were on the streets alone in the daytime, and out, again alone, so late at night. Why aren’t they in school, I asked? Education is a complicated thing here, I was told. The system doesn’t work.
Children work to help families survive. Many have no families. There is no one for them, I was told. These are the children who have fallen through the cracks of Pakistan’s complicated society. These are the street children, and the homeless children, and the children who have lost parents to emigration or violence.
I have been approached by little boys, no older than six, hard selling magazines on the streets in Islamabad. I have been surrounded by little children on the streets of Karachi. I was approached by a little girl, filthy, begging in Urdu for money, for something, anything and following me to my door insisting I could help her. I passed her mother, with an infant in arms, equally filthy, begging for food and bringing me close to tears.
On the street corner outside our hotel in Lahore, the first night, I saw two little girls weaving between the traffic begging for money. The elder was maybe as old as six or seven. The younger looked about 3 or 4. They were filthy, cold, shivering, and working. They saw me and I smiled and waved. They moved in. Begging, persistently, but also clearly desperate for someone to smile at them. Smiling, pointing, seemingly wishing, begging.
The next morning they were there, even dirtier. The second night, they recognized me and waved from their perch in the middle of traffic as our bus drove by. Smiling, eager. I gave them money. On the third night, they were there again, and I waved, then looked away, pained, as they approached.
These street children have handlers I was told. They are owned, for all intents and purposes, by adults who set them to begging, collect their money and in return keep them from starving.
“They are better off this way than dead,” I heard. Why is nothing done about them? How can this happen, I asked. “Pakistan has no social safety net. Too many people are trying to survive how they can to care about those children,” one person said. “Too many people keep having children they can’t afford and pushing them out to the streets,” a journalist told me. “The problem is they have too many children.”
A few others in this delegation were also moved by Pakistan’s child poverty. We have asked government ministers, journalists, politicians and our hosts how so many children can live so openly in such awful circumstances and what the country should or could do to help them. Most of them did not answer. There are orphanages, we were told, but too few to handle them all. “This has gone on so long and is so familiar, people do not notice or care anymore.”
What can be done, I asked myself? So many people, so much potential, going nowhere.