Children like Pooja make my job worthwhile.
I met her, an 11-year-old with an irresistible dimple when she smiled, on a visit to a street children’s project in Kolkata. She told me that she has spent most of her life with threats and uncertainties, in a home that was little more than a plastic sheet over her family’s possessions.
“Monsoon is a bad time of year,” she said, no longer smiling, “with water everywhere… we get colds, fevers.”
Instead of school, Pooja would go each day with her mother to work, firstly cleaning offices, then rag picking through garbage.
“The broom used to be very heavy, but my mother could not do that job alone,” she told me. “So I had to go.”
Her father, a hand cart puller, lived with them but spent his income mostly on drinking and gambling. What Pooja and her mother had earned during the day was spent each night on fuel for their fire and food for their dinner. Then, waking up at 4am, Pooja would dash to be first at the street’s only water tap.
“If I was late,” she explained, “it would be too crowded, then there would be fighting. I would just wash my face and have a cup of tea – as we had to take a bath in the open, I felt shy and would only bathe once every three or four days.”
With a shiver in her voice, Pooja remembered nights on the street.
“Sleeping on the streets is a big problem. The police would sometimes come in the night and take all our things. Men would come drinking and would fall on us. They would be shouting in the night. One night while we were sleeping a man came and slept next to me. My mother saw this and beat him away.”
I asked her what her worst experience was.
“One man, he saw a girl on the street, he took her and walked out. The girl never came back. I was also scared that I would be taken. The man told the people around us that if anyone spoke about it he would kill them. I saw it. It happened in the night. The girl was not much older than me, 13 or 14.”
There are many children like Pooja living on city streets in India – Human Rights Watch estimates around 18 million of them – vulnerable to violence, sexual exploitation, drug abuse, malnutrition and diseases including HIV and AIDS. Around 90% are working children living with their families in temporary housing.
But it is people, not statistics, that move hearts. When Pooja told me that she was now living and attending school at a World Vision hostel, I felt a small burden lift from my shoulders. Here was one child that we had reached with protection, love and new opportunities.
The dimple came back as she told me she’d like to be a doctor one day.
“On the streets I see people going to the doctor and then they ask for money. People die because they do not have money. I would like to help poor people like this.”
Reena Samuel has worked in various project and communications roles with World Vision India, specialising in issues of urban poverty and development. Her home, along with around 125,000 street children, is Mumbai.