The street children of India, how The Railway Children are helping

Four-year-old Kalyan was found abandoned on a railway station platform in India. He was taken to a shelter in Hyderabad where he was diagnosed HIV positive. He was given medical attention and looked after by a project run by the charity Railway Children. Kalyan later died, not alone on the streets, but surrounded by people who loved and cared for him.

“In India the train is the biggest mode of transport – the railways carry 11 million people a day,” says Railway Children’s UK
chief executive, Terina Keene. “Everybody moves around the country by train. It’s no surprise that children also move around by train. Many children who land in big cities and towns, having run away, been lost, abandoned or missing are found around
transport terminals everyday.”

Care and protection
Children aged up to 14 make up over one third of India’s population. Kalyan was one of an estimated five million children who,
despite the best efforts of voluntary organisations and government, remain in need of care and protection. Railway Children
works with 21 organisations at 55 locations, reaching out to more than 8,000 children annually. “We work for the runaway and
abandoned children by providing a point of contact for children just coming on to the streets. We also offer shelter, health care,
education, training, protection and, above all, friendship,” says Keene. And, indeed, the kind of love that Kalyan experienced in
his final few days.

The Railway Children was founded in 1995 by David Maidment, who was deeply moved while on business in Mumbai by the
sight of children living on railway premises. In particular, the image of a seven-year-old girl beating herself to gain sympathy and
thus money had a profound effect.

While the organisation has a presence also in East Africa, eastern Europe and central America – all regions where one could
imagine huge numbers of children being at risk on the streets – what brought it back to the UK? “We believe there are two underlying factors that contribute to children at risk: poverty and social capital,” says Keene. “We believe these factors are mirrored around the world, the only difference being the extremes of either.”

She adds: “Child poverty remains historically high in the UK, with one in four children living below the poverty line. From
our work internationally we have seen the link between poverty and children living alone on the streets. Poverty can increase
stress, desperation and breakdown within families, with reliance on alcohol and drugs more prevalent.”

Social capital
Railway Children believes there are three aspects of social capital that are relevant to the young people with whom they work:
bonding (for example, between family members); bridging (extended family, friends and social network); and linking (connections between individuals and external organisations).

“As human beings we all recognise the value of strong family relationships, close supportive friends and trust in the organisations we deal with and rely on,” says Keene. “This is our measurable social capital. It helps us to form relationships and normalise situations. For us, a child found living alone and on the streets is the extreme manifestation of a family in crisis.”

In the four-and-a-half years of Keene’s leadership, the organisation has been looking at how it can integrate what it is doing
overseas in to its UK operation. “What are the common patterns in intervening in children’s lives and how that might inform
our methodology?” she says.

Keene points to the most recent research that suggests there are 100,000 children a year in the UK who are either forced to,
or choose to, leave their homes. She says: “They leave for many reasons: breakdown of family relationships, abuse and neglect.
Our concern over the next three years is to be active in ensuring these children do not face a life on the streets and the risk of
significant harm or have to resort to risky behaviour or are forced to rely on unscrupulous adults just to survive.”

At the heart of the Railway Children’s method is early intervention. “Our basic belief is that the earlier you can work with a child in crisis the more likely you are to be successful in re-integrating that child back into society with their family or extended family,” says Keene.

When it was set up, the charity looked at the pattern of movement of children living on the streets in India: how they came to be living there, what happened to them and what services were available. It found that during the first few days, runaway children
– some of whom were as young as five – were particularly at risk and were often exploited by adults and older children,
especially drug and sex exploiters.

“We also found that a number of agencies – Action Aid, Water Aid and Unicef,about what children need. “A child needs food, so we’ll provide food. A child requires shelter, so we’ll provide shelter; and so on. What we found is that quite often children
can access food; it might not be the most nutritious, but they get it. They find shelter – using doorways and so on.”

Keene adds: “Children are very resilient and to an extent they enjoy the freedom of a street life. They don’t tend to live alone – they move with a group of other children so they create their own network and ‘family’. They’d play the non-government
organisations off against each other. They’d go to one for breakfast, another for dinner, and sleep with whichever NGO
was providing shelter. So there wasn’t a shortage of organisations providing this sort of service – but it was all based on an
assumption of what children needed.” Also, such services simply were not making any impact on the number of children living on
the streets.

So through not seeing children collectively but rather as individuals, the charity began working in a different way. Through early intervention and spurning the Indian government’s preferred policy of placing atrisk children into institutional care, it looks to re-integrate children with their immediate or extended families or communities. Its main tactic revolves around projects such as a retreat camp where children have lots of time and space for reflection in order to make decisions about their future.

“If you give a child some space as well s support and counselling,” says Keene, they lose the constant anxiety of street life
and are then able to consider an alternative o how they might live their life. It doesn’t ound very revolutionary but it is paying
attention to humans and how humans operate.”

And such attention works: the organisation’s own research suggests an 85 per cent success rate in returning children to their
families following early intervention.

Another Railway Children tactic has been to retrain attention on the perceived value or otherwise of the workers involved.
Keene says: “Outreach workers had the difficult job of trying to intervene and engage with a child in an appropriate but
effective way, but were often the worst paid and had the least power in their organisation. By choosing to make those workers a
focus of our work it has helped change the power dynamic.”

She continues: “Encouraging partner organisations to increase salaries is causing a shift in how workers are perceived. So by
creating more resourceful, motivated and skilled outreach workers the quantity and quality of the interventions are increasing.”

Unlike in India there is no identifiable national voice for runaway children in the UK. But it is something that the charity is targeting. This also means tapping into the voices of the children themselves.

It plans to set up a children’s council to capture effectively children’s experiences, perceptions and voices on the issues of
running away.

“We don’t believe there is a truth out there, but rather many truths to be understood,”  says Keene.

“If you look at it on a more micro level – looking absolutely at the needs of the child – then there is little difference to what
needs to be done here and what needs to be done in India. Some of the obstacles might be different but that’s only the detail. It’s all about being true to being child-centred, and not just when it’s convenient.”

Indian lessons

  • Runaway children need a national voice advocating on their behalf.
  • Don’t base services on adult assumptions of what children need.
  • It’s not just poverty but social capital (our relationships) that is the underlying cause of children running away.
  • Early intervention is crucial.
  • Children need time, space, support and counselling to make decisions about their future.
  • Staff working with children living on the streets need to respected, valued and empowered.

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