Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health

INDIA-AIDS: Street Children Are Most Vulnerable

Bijoy Basant Patro

NEW DELHI, Sep 3 1997 (IPS) - Uma (not her real name) was nine years old when she was first raped by a gang of homeless boys at the New Delhi railway station, where she also lives. She said it happened over and over again after that, until last year she became pregnant and delivered a still-born child on the platform.

The 14-year-old has not been well ever since. A doctor she goes to has told her she has tuberculosis, but she has not responded to the treatment. Uma has not been tested for AIDS, but clinical symptoms point to her having the deadly disease.

“Tuberculosis is known to be among the first symptoms AIDS victims in India display. Twenty percent of the street children at the New Delhi railway station have TB,” says Dr Bitra George, a physician with the ‘Salam Balak Trust’, an NGO working with street children at the New Delhi railway station.

Uma collects used plastic water bottles and glasses for a living. She makes about 60 rupees daily (36 rupees to a dollar) from the sales, enough to feed herself and pay for her treatment.

NGO activists say there are at least 50 girls — the youngest is a six year old — and more than double that number of boys who hang about the railway station, the busiest in the Indian capital. They scavenge for food in the bins on the platforms and trawl the tracks for discarded plastic for recycling.

The girls are much fewer, only because most are taken away by touts and sold in brothels. Those who do survive on the platform, like Uma, provide sex to the gangs of boys and men on the station in return for protection from the police and touts.

Sexual exploitation and rape of both boys and girls at the station are common, making it almost impossible to enforce the practice of safe sex here, even though most of those interviewed were aware of AIDS and the importance of using condoms.

“Not a single girl here is spared,” says Veena Lal of ‘Karma Marg’, an NGO which works exclusively with the homeless girls on the station. She said pregnancy rates are high, and the foetus is usually aborted with ‘tambi’, a traditional method of abortion.

Girls are specially vulnerable, points out Devanand Shrivastava of the Salam Balak Trust, as rival gangs rape them to assert their supremacy. “Rape is a weapon here,” he said.

There is no security for children on the street. India’s antiquated laws are not sensitive at all to their problems and needs, and an overburdened police department views them myopically as a law and order problem.

“These homeless children are involved in robberies, prostitution, trafficking drugs and even murders,” says policeman Rajinder Singh, who is in-charge of the New Delhi railway station. “They are a nuisance.”

NGOs like the Salam Balak Trust and Karma Marg have opened night shelters for the children. The Trust has been allocated a small room next to the police station at the station, while Karma Marg has rented a room outside the station.

Here the children are encouraged to spend the night, use the bathroom facilities and the services of doctors, who have also been talking to them about HIV/AIDS. Both NGOs have started a “needle exchange programme” to provide drug users with new needles in exchange for used needles.

But more than intravenous drug use, the children are at risk from unprotected sex. In a survey carried out by Dr George of the Salam Balak Trust, 80 percent of the street children (mainly boys) interviewed admitted to being homosexuals. “They know of condoms, but do not want to use them,” Dr George said.

According to Dr George, the younger boys are abused by those older, and they soon graduate to heterosexual relationships, frequenting the city’s red light district which is next to the railway station.

A sample survey of 14 street children, all aged 14, for Syphilis, hepatitis B and HIV/AIDS in 1994 revealed two were HIV positive. Two others tested were infected with hepatitis B and syphilis.

Dr George who carried out the tests says that he cannot say for sure if the other boys were not infected with the virus that causes the deadly AIDS. “I cannot rule out if some of them were in the window period when the AIDS virus does not show up in the Elisa test,” he says.

The two boys who tested positive for the AIDS virus were completely shattered after they came to know of it, according to the doctor. “They feared that they would be ostracised if the others came to know, and even before we could counsel them, both vanished. We have learnt that one of them is in Bombay and we are

trying to contact him. Of the other one, there is no news.”

Last year, Indian ministries and U.N agencies published a study on ‘Reducing risk behaviour related to HIV/ AIDS, STDs and Drug Abuse Among Street Children’. Soon after the National Aids Control Organisation (NACO) started organising awareness raising campaigns among street children.

However, the programme has only had limited effect on street children, because most are illiterate and cannot read the messages. Consequently, Salam Balak Trust got the children at the New Delhi station involved in preparing AIDS education material. According to Dr George, “Three posters they made can be used in educating children anywhere in the world.”

Raising awareness of the implications of the disease, NGOs feel, will go a long way in fighting the worsening epidemic of AIDS in India.

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