By Chiade O'Shea
A high proportion of Lahore street children are addicted to solvents or drugs
A crowd of children, many carrying bottles of solvents to inhale, gathers in the shadow of Lahore's majestic Badshahi mosque.
The children, are waiting for a motorised rickshaw carrying food, clothing and
The rickshaw bears a yellow and black smiley face logo that the
children themselves chose. They also settled on the charity's name, Project
One of the boys, Sunny, stands out from the crowd. At 15, he is considered a boss and a role
"I have given up the drugs," Sunny tells a project worker, in an effort to
prove himself to them. Later, he concedes "Well, I smoke marijuana in the
mornings, but no more glue".
Sunny laughs and the adults smile. "It is good, he is trying," says Ahmed
Bakhsh Awan, one of the project's founders and outreach workers.
Acceptance 'without conditions'
A concerted effort not to moralise or judge the children for taking drugs
stems from a belief that they must not be alienated at any cost.
It also comes from experience - 80% of the charity's organisers and field
workers have themselves been drug users in the past.
Awan explained: "We too have been stigmatised by the community, by the
family and we know what acceptance is and what it really means - acceptance
without any condition."
Although a history of drug use would be considered shameful by many in this
Islamic nation, Mr Awan insists that having this experience in common with the
children is "our best asset".
According to the charity's research, 95% of Lahore's 5,000 homeless
children sniff solvents and many take harder drugs.
Inhaling Smad Bond, a cheap petroleum-based shoe adhesive, appears to be the
cheapest, most accessible psychological escape from the constant dangers in
Sunny, who looks old beyond his years despite his downy moustache, says
that many of the children have been the victims of violence, including sex
crimes, while living rough.
"People hassle us for sex. They ask for sexual favours. We have blades to
defend ourselves, and knives sometimes."
Dr Saeed, medical officer on the Smile rickshaw, said the children suffer a
variety of conditions.
"Chest problems and abdominal problems are due to Smad Bond inhaling, but
skin diseases and others are due to living on the streets. Also, there are
STIs (sexually transmitted infections) here."
Dr Saeed and his colleagues are proud of their progress in the 10 months
since the Smile mobile unit started touring the city.
Street children are stigmatised by many in Pakistan
A free lunch and dietary supplements have improved nutrition. Washing
facilities and medicated shampoos have defeated the lice infestations that
affected almost all of the 452 children who have registered with Project
Smile to date.
They also give homeless children haircuts and check their fingernails -
attentions few adults have afforded them in the past.
Providing emotional as well as basic medical support is an approach that
appears to be paying off. Psychological counselling has reduced incidences of
self-mutilating cuts by 90% since September.
Most of the children show the trademark scars crisscrossing their arms and
chests, but Usman has more than most. The scars look painful. Many are half a
He picks at a fresh one that will shortly be cleaned and dressed, like the
dozens before, by Dr Saeed.
"I do it to get rid of the police," he says. "If I'm caught, I start cutting
and the blood starts oozing, so they have to spare me."
These boys are less likely than street children to take drugs
Other children offer the explanation that they mutilate their young bodies
to raise their begging earnings, but the reality is that many suffer from
serious psychological problems before they reach double figures.
Project Smile has started giving the children advice on health, earning
money while homeless, safe sex and relating well with other children and the
Those who learn well and make progress with their drug addictions will
become peer educators, teachers for the other children. They will be
rewarded with prizes such as high quality shoes, but most importantly, this
title will give them status and respect.
As a natural leader, Sunny has been identified as a good candidate for the
"I've decided to quit the drugs because I want to be a volunteer on the
staff of Smile," he explains.
"I want to do something positive. I want to be recognised by my family, by
my mother, by the community that I have done something good."