Childhood is that special time when the world is perceived as a place of wonder and fantasy in which all is clean and new and brimful of promise or, at least that is how childhood is supposed to be.

For an increasing number of children though, this is certainly not the case as, for them, the world is a dangerous jungle in which they must fight to survive on many fronts at once: preyed on by sexual perverts, exploited by adult criminals in search of easy loot, forced to work almost as soon as they can walk, often hungry, miserable and downright physically abused, life is not as it should be and sadly, for the majority of such children, will never amount to much if anything at all.

We see them working on the streets of major cities and towns, the length and breadth of the country. This major ‘problem’ is not restricted to Pakistan by the way, but is visible all around the world in varying degrees, and the majority of people view them as nothing more than pariahs if, that is, they bother to notice them at all and few consider that old maxim - “there but for the grace of God go I.”

It is not the fault of the children that they are in this predicament; it is the fault of the society as a whole. Yet, there are few organisations and individuals, who are actually prepared to attempt to get these children off the streets, to give them the care and attention they so desperately need and, let’s face it, deserve if they are ever going to have the slightest chance of living some kind of reasonable life and, one of the ways this can be achieved is via education. There are a few dedicated people, who are trying and trying very hard to ease the plight of street children and the children of the very poor by providing them with some form of education - be this in what have become known as ‘garage schools’ or similar setups - but, laudable as this is, it is far from being enough and is certainly not enough to make even a visible dent in the ‘problem’.

As inflation soars, the number of families living on or below the poverty line increases and children are forced to supplement the family income in any way possible, instead of attending even a rudimentary government school. Having food on the table is obviously of prime importance; attending school comes way down the list and even if the children were, in some unimaginable way, prevented from working and forced to attend school instead, then that would do nothing to alleviate their family’s hunger. Enticing the children of the poor to attend school with handouts of tins of cooking oil and rice is, of course, one way of encouraging education to take root and in some areas of the country, it is being done - the ‘problem’, however, persists and so this is obviously not the solution!

A workable solution - make that an ‘enforceable’ workable solution - must exist, but it has yet to be worked out and the modalities made operational. Meanwhile, there are measures that private individuals can take. People employing servants for example can check on the educational position of their servant’s children and, as a bonus or even as part of the adults pay structure, arrange proper schooling for at least one child per family and provide them with the necessary books to make learning possible. This may help in educating children of low level working parents. But, of course, does nothing for those whose parents have no actual form of employment - as is the case with many families living in the kind of squalor that should not exist in the world of today and certainly not in a country like Pakistan where, contrary to some purposefully promoted impressions, a segment of the population certainly has far more cash money than it can ever possibly need.

It is only necessary to take a stroll through one of the countless ‘posh’ areas of any city or town to see how ‘disposable income’ is thoughtlessly wasted on the unnecessary things of life to gain an understanding of how society, a predominantly Islamic one at that, has strayed very far off course and, if thought is given, to comprehend that the rule of today’s world is, bluntly speaking, nothing short of ‘selfishness’. Love for fellow human beings, irrespective of age, rarely enters the equation now and it is pertinent to wonder where and when societal values disintegrated to this dreadful extent.

Consecutive governments have done little, if anything at all, to ease the plight of ‘underprivileged’ children, who do not stand a hope in hell of becoming responsible members of society without access to the food and education which are every single child’s human right irrespective of background or gender.

Invisible to the rest of society, unless they happen to pick your pocket or hassle you at traffic lights - invisible to government agencies that are supposed to care, but patently do not - these children must be given the legal right to the life other members of society take for granted and treating them as the human beings they are is an excellent way to begin.

n    The writer is author of The Gun Tree: One Woman’s War (Oxford University Press, 2001) and lives in Bhurban.

    Email: zahrahnasir@hotmail.com