Girls make up almost half the street children in Mumbai, a steep increase in recent years, according a local charity which says life on the streets puts girls at a greater risk of trafficking and sexual abuse.
Pratham, a Mumbai-based organisation focused on education, surveyed 651 children aged 18 and younger at traffic lights, railway stations and tourist spots and found that 47 percent were girls.
More than a third were under five, while about 60 percent were six to 14 years old, the survey found.
“We found almost equal numbers of girls and boys, which came as a big surprise,” said Farida Lambay, director of the Pratham Council for Vulnerable Children.
“This raises concerns about their vulnerability, as girl children are exposed to risks like trafficking, abuse, early marriage,” she added.
In 2013, a study by charity ActionAid and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences found more than 37,000 street children in Mumbai, of whom 70 percent were boys.
Delhi was estimated to have about 51,000 street children, about a fifth of them girls, according to a 2011 survey by Save the Children.
Worldwide, the number of street children is believed to be in the tens of millions, with some estimates as high as 100 million.
Mumbai, India’s financial hub, is a magnet for migrants seeking better economic opportunities from across the country, as well as from neighbouring Nepal and Bangladesh.
Most of the children surveyed by Pratham said they lived with their parents, while about 10 percent lived alone. More than half were out of school.
Almost half the children were found begging, and about half were hawking small items. A small percentage were victims of substance abuse, the survey showed.
Rescue is not always a feasible option for street children, especially when they are living with their families, Lambay said. In these cases, charities counsel the families and try to enrol the children in night school or other training, she said.
Children who live alone or with friends are always at risk, as they are more susceptible to trafficking and abuse, she said.
South Asia is the fastest-growing and second-largest region for human trafficking in the world after East Asia, according to the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime.
India’s worst drought in decades, which has displaced tens of thousands of people, may also be putting more children on the streets, Lambay said.
Nobel Peace Laureate Kailash Satyarthi has appealed to the prime minister to prioritise children in the relief measures, to ensure they are not trafficked, or forced into marriage or bonded labour.
The government has set up anti-human trafficking units and juvenile units in most states.
“The number of street children has reduced over the years, but there is still a problem, especially with children begging and working,” said Rajdoot Rupwate, an assistant commissioner of police in Mumbai.
“We try to rehabilitate the children and in the case of those who are trafficked, we try and repatriate them with NGOs.”