What would you do if you were walking home one day, and turned the corner to see a three year-old standing all alone by the roadside?
This is what happened to me a few weeks ago while I was walking home on a Sunday evening. My usual route takes me past a block of council flats surrounded by a fence, and accessible only by electronically secure doors. So imagine my surprise when I walked past those doors and saw a three year-old boy standing on the pavement, barefoot and confused. My first instinct was to look around to see if there were any adults nearby, but the street proved to be deserted and quiet that Sunday evening.
It is quite one thing to be a Programmes Volunteer at ChildHope UK and work on issues of child protection in developing countries, and another in having to apparently carry out "child protection" yourself in Central London!
For a moment, the child and I just looked at one another. Then I broke the silence by asking him, "Where's your mother?" and silently berated myself for thinking that I would get a coherent response from one so tiny.
He was a beautiful African boy, moving towards me and bumping against my knee. My first instinct was to hold out my hand to him, and he took it unhesitatingly. His trust shook me when I realised that it would have been the easiest move for anyone to pick him up and walk away.
With the both of us equally confused, we made our way over to where the fence circled the council playground. I had noticed a group of boys there a few seconds before the encounter, and wondered if they would know who the boy belonged to. They were still there, and I called out to them. They looked over at me, their gazes sliding over to rest on the boy½.and they yelled in relief. Before I knew it, the entire group came barrelling around the side of the building, opened the doors and engulfed the little boy in hugs.
They were his elder brothers and they had lost him in the playground. At some point, he had managed to wander out the electronic doors (which had shut behind him) and not been able to get back in.
I walked back the rest of the way, deep in thought: if an incident like this could happen in the UK where child protection systems are generally well developed, imagine the high incidence of child trafficking and missing children in developing countries that lack such systems!
Fortunately, efforts are begin made to combat this through child helplines, which are now set up in many countries. Child helplines use both modern and traditional communication tools to help children access the information and resources they need. As the most disempowered groups in all societies, children are least able to access the information, support and help needed to keep them safe. When their needs are ignored, misunderstood or exploited by the adults around them, they can reach out to a child helpline for help or advice by simply dialling a number. If they are not able to reach a telephone, outreach services ensure that the most marginalized children are equally heard. Within the UK, CHILDLINE aims to provide support services for children and young people, and can be reached at the toll-free number 0800 1111.
In India, CHILDLINE is the nation's first 24-hour telephone and outreach support service for children in need, accessible to any child or concerned person through its toll-free number 1098. Meanwhile, Bangladesh also launched its very own Child Helpline 1098 in September 2010, with the support of the Bangladesh government, UNICEF and the Dhaka City Corporation. The helpline is going to be implemented by the NGO Aparajeyo-Bangladesh, which is also one of ChildHope's partners.
Reality on the ground is always different from how it is eventually depicted in narration: I cannot replicate a description of the exact degree of panic I felt when I saw the boy standing alone, not knowing what to do at first, and, later on, thinking about what I would have had to do if his siblings hadn't been around the corner. But that was me. Those working at CHILDLINE are trained to talk to and counsel children in need all over the world and provide much-needed support and advice. It doesn't matter if the call comes from Dhaka or London, there will always be children who need help, and CHILDLINE is here to provide it.
Maryam Akbar, ChildHope Partnerships & Programmes Volunteer