Children of a lesser god… on Kolkata’s streets

December 28th, 2011 - 2:02 pm ICT by IANS  

Kolkata, Nov 28 (IANS) Sniffing on a dirty rag dipped in thinner or whitener fluid for a high, and then indulging in unprotected sex on filthy railway platforms or pavements. More and more children prone to solvent addiction are being afflicted with sexually transmitted diseases in Kolkata.

Biswajeet Bhattacharjee, 19, does not know Sheikh Nawab, who is three years younger, and has never heard about Sujoy, 15. But all three live on Kolkata’s streets and share a common link - solvent addiction and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

The three are undergoing rehabilitation.

Most street urchins unknowingly become victims of solvent addiction, which seems to have become the first step in indulging in rampant unprotected sex - forced or otherwise - and then contracting HIV or sexually transmitted diseases.

“Solvent addiction is directly linked to sexual abuse which in turn is making them vulnerable to STDs and HIV virus,” Prasenjit Saha, a counsellor and paediatrician, who has been working among such victims for over 10 years, told IANS.

According to Saha, street kids engage in sexual activities under three circumstances: one is comfort sex for entertainment to fill the emotional void; sex under the influence of substance abuse - for expressing physical power over younger children in order to maintain the hierarchy; and sex for money in order to buy more chemicals for substance addiction.

Although official figures are unavailable, the magnitude of the threat becomes clear from a recent study on 50 kids between 5 and 15 years in the Kalighat area of South Kolkata by Hope Foundation, an NGO working among street and platform children.

“Of them, at least five percent either suffered from STDs or were HIV positive while 32 percent suffered from psychological stress due to sexual abuse,” says Geeta Venkadakrishan, director, Hope Foundation, Kolkata chapter.

The daily struggles of street children - who usually work as garbage pickers or daily wage labourers - make them vulnerable to sexual abuse and solvent addiction.

“I have come across solvent addicted street children who have been sexually abused and had suffered either from STDs or are HIV+. They have engaged in sexual activities either for entertainment or for money without knowing the consequences,” said Saha.

The inhalants and solvents such as dendrite, glue, syringes and ganja are often regarded as ‘gateway drugs’ and are used by street children aged between 5 and 15.

The main products that are used for solvent addiction are solvent-based glue and correction fluid.

“They remain in a fanciful world after inhaling the fumes, and indulge in sexual activities as a means of pleasure. Mostly they don’t even know what they are doing which is very risky,” said Rashmi Datta, a psychotherapist working among platform children.

Due to unprotected sex among boys and girls and anal intercourse among children of the same sex, street children often become victims of sexually transmitted diseases like chlamydia, syphilis, trichomonas, and genital warts while girls become pregnant and opt for unsafe and unhygienic abortions.

The HIV virus spreads among street children not only through unprotected sex but also used syringes.

The bleak picture of street children suffering from HIV and STDs was put together by a survey titled ‘Non-tobacco Substance Use, Sexual Abuse, HIV and Sexually Transmitted Infection Among Street Children in Kolkata’ - a survey among 554 city street children from 2007 to 2009.

The survey also stated while a small proportion might have got the virus from sex workers, most of them got infected through sexual abuse and indiscriminate sexual behaviour.

According to NGOs and doctors working among street children, the best way to save these children from sexual abuse and the use of solvents is to construct night shelters.

“Night shelters are the most viable way of saving the innocence of such children. The kids under watchful eyes would no longer be able to go for solvent addiction leading to sexual abuse,” said Saha.

However, the NGOs sometimes find it difficult to convince street children to go through rehabilitation and the detoxification process - to rid them of solvent addiction.

“Sometimes they don’t want to leave the platform and footpaths. Then we try to convince them. If that fails, we introduce them to those kids who have already been rehabilitated and are leading a normal life,” said Dilip Bose of Cini Asha, a NGO.

The state government is planning to make more night shelters across the city.

“We have already constructed some night shelters across the state. We are planning to make more such shelters in the city,” Sabitri Mitra, women and child development minister, told IANS.

(Pradipta Tapadar can be contacted at pradipta.t@ians.in)

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