My daily commute in the bustling Bombay (now Mumbai) of the 80’s took me past a throng of children scampering at a street junction. They would wait for the lights to change before darting between the cars, pressing their faces up against the windows with a look in their eyes that seemed to convey so much more than their age should have allowed for. I knew that most of any money I gave them would be passed on to a watchful minder on the street corner, but when a mother appeared at my window during a monsoon downpour with an apparently very sick child on her shoulder, it was simply not possible to turn away. The image of that particular mother stayed with me very painfully, and when I saw them again the following week, I was only mildly relieved to see that this time, the child was playing happily in the sun. Their situation was no less desperate, I reminded myself.
With so many days in the year allocated to a cause, person or event it feels even more important to make sure that the International Day for Street Children on the 12th April does not slip by unnoticed. It is even more important to make sure that the children at the street junctions in Mumbai, and the many other street connected children across the world, do not slip by unnoticed.
Despite what seems like an insurmountable challenge with the numbers of children living on the streets either alone or with their families, there are – I learned – better ways of supporting them than offering handouts through the car window to appease a brief flash of conscience in the face of their situation.
During my time in Mumbai, I came across numerous effective projects that worked closely with the children and their families, including a charity called the Pavement Club based in a church building near the main train station. Every Friday evening it opened its doors to over one hundred street children and gave them basic washing facilities, medical support, clothing, a good meal and a sense of being noticed and cared for. I remember some of the very young girls arriving with their even younger siblings in their arms: no secure, playful childhood for them.
Photo taken by Charlie during his time in Mumbai in 1988
Our project for street and working children in India with local partner Butterflies
Another charity negotiated with families living on the streets to collect their children every morning, provide them with clean school uniforms and books, and pay for them to attend school. The families were encouraged to allow their children to go to school rather than to seek an income begging on the streets, by offering a substantial meal for the entire household every day. Many of the children flourished with the opportunity to learn and some went all the way through school and on to university.
Working with these projects and the people who ran them was humbling and insightful. The charities tried to deal with the immediate necessity of feeding, clothing and protecting the children while at the same time addressing more long-term and systemic issues such as providing them with an education. I learnt a great deal from those children and their instinct and ability to survive, as well as their understanding of what they actually needed to get on with life.
Several years later, when I came across ChildHope, there were many aspects of their work which resonated strongly with those earlier experiences. They have a great respect for the leading role of local partners who are deeply rooted in communities, and who really understand the needs of those communities and know which solutions are most appropriate. Their absolute priority is to put the children and their welfare at the front and centre of everything that the charity does; that means listening to and really hearing what the children and their families need. It also means continually reviewing and reflecting on the most effective ways for ChildHope to adapt in order to fulfil those needs.
I often think of those children who I met all those years ago. The projects that supported them are still active, the children they support now have different needs but much of the reality of their lives on the street remains the same. ChildHope’s role will continue to develop and change, but the thoughtful and reflective approach at its core, as well as its enduring relationships with its partners, will ensure that these children continue to be supported and encouraged to have their own ambitions, as well as the chance to achieve them.
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