Corrected on 11 Feb 2009 at 1pm
While waiting for lunch, a group of kids in Rumah Nur Salam entertain themselves with music and dance
KUALA LUMPUR, 11 Feb 2009: A centre for street children and the urban poor is bracing for a rise in the number of abandoned and abused children as the economic crisis worsens.
Pusat Jagaan Nur Salam, or Rumah Nur Salam, in Jalan Chow Kit received nine abandoned children in the first two weeks of December 2008, a spike from the normal rate of about one child a week.
“We received five cases in the first week. That was really intense,” Rumah Nur Salam chief executive officer Dr Hartini Zainuddin said. The mothers of these children, who range from a newborn to a 12-year-old, are in their teens or early twenties.
One of the reasons for the sudden spike is simple. When the economy dives, poor families simply give up coping. Already living below the poverty line, their inability to provide for their children either results in abandonment or worse, trafficking.
The urban poor, who include stateless persons and migrants, are also affected by police and immigration raids seeking to flush out undocumented workers, as the government prioritises jobs for locals during a downturn.
When parents get swept up in a raid, their unprotected children are vulnerable to sexual abuse. Some result in underaged pregnancies, perpetuating the cycle of abandoned children and urban poverty.
Rumah Nur Salam
Hartini says there are several assumptions that affect public perception of urban poverty, and these are why the root causes remain unresolved.
“Urban poverty issues have now gone beyond provision of food and shelter. The issues are interconnected. We need more programmes, counsellors and workers to tackle the individual issues holistically,” she told The Nut Graph on a visit to Rumah Nur Salam on 29 Jan.
One assumption is that all street children are kids of sex workers and drug users. However, many mothers are victims of violence, abandoned by their families, or were involved in bad relationships.
“The reasons they got pregnant may not be too different from those of women in higher economic classes. But they are below the poverty line, and have no recourse,” Hartini said.
Prejudice has prevented more resources from being channelled to help break the cycle. “Some people don’t want to help us because they think we’re encouraging prostitution by caring for street kids,” said Rumah Nur Salam director Raja Azizan Suhaimi Raja Abdul Latif.
Another assumption is that welfare aid given by the government to qualifying individuals (those earning below the RM720 poverty line in the peninsula) should solve the problem.
Hartini with some of the street kids at the centre
Hartini said the application for aid takes between three to six months to process, during which time a poor family has already been evicted for not paying the rent; RM10 a day for a shop lot room in Chow Kit.
Welfare aid also does not reach all who are poor as many have no identification. Life is doubly tough for stateless persons — those without documentation of their nationality. They don’t qualify for aid and cannot receive treatment in public hospitals. Additionally, most parents of these children usually don’t even bother or know how to register their children at birth. (Corrected) Children with no documents are entitled to birth registration and certificate but this does not entitle them to Malaysian citizenship nor access to free health and education.
Hartini said this is in conflict with the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Malaysia has signed and ratified, although with reservations to certain articles.
“It’s government policy that is preventing stateless children from getting an education or access to medical care just because they don’t have identification through no fault of theirs,” she noted.
While parents are out eking a living if they haven’t yet been caught in a raid, street children are left completely on their own. They walk to the Nur Salam centre by themselves, and leave for home by themselves at the end of the day.
For as long as they are inside the centre, the children are safe. But it is difficult to guarantee their safety once they step outside.
Children are in danger of being “kidnapped” and abused while on their way to or returning from Rumah Nur Salam. Two cases from over a year ago: A seven-year-old boy was lured by a stranger with sweets and toys, taken to a hotel room, molested and returned to the centre three days later. An eight-year-old girl was taken off the street, raped and returned.
“The kids are always returned. The perpetrators don’t need to kill them. Who’s going to listen to a child anyway?” Hartini said.
Similarly, teenage girls are also kidnapped and raped. More teenaged pregnancies, more abandoned babies. More cost to the centre for delivery and medical bills, diapers and milk.
Passing time with chess or just idling. More programmes and workers or volunteers are needed to help the kids
spend time meaningfully.
The birth of every child under such circumstances is unbudgeted for and that is why the funding is never enough. Aside from teen pregnancies, there are also births by sex workers in the area, and by other women who are either illegal immigrants, foreign workers or stateless.
Medical bills for a foreigner is 15 times more than what a Malaysian would pay at a government hospital, Raja Azizan Suhaimi said.
And if a woman has no identification documents, the centre has to take her to a private hospital or clinic, driving the cost even higher.
“These kinds of expenditures are on an ad-hoc basis and are not part of the operating budget. Last year, we had a prominent banker who gave us RM20,000 just to cover such cases but his bank is not doing so well at the moment and we don’t dare to ask him (again),” Hartini said.
Bracing for the worst
As social workers anticipate more needy children coming to their doors, the reality is there will be a drop in donations.
Lunch is served. The kids get a simple meal of rice and one or two dishes.
Two of Rumah Nur Salam’s big corporate sponsors have since late last year withdrawn funding worth RM10,000 a month, affecting the free meals programme for street kids, and staff salaries. Staff are paid around RM1,000 a month, depending on their positions.
Hartini is not confident about other donation pledges made earlier last year before the economic slowdown.
The centre has secure funding of RM300,000 a year from Khazanah Nasional for the next three years, but this does not meet the RM40,000 per month expenses in overheads. The Welfare Department gives RM1,500 a month, which helps with the RM4,500 monthly rental of the shop lot.
“That leaves us no money to develop programmes for the kids who come here during the day, or to hire more staff for the children,” Hartini said. Indeed, the children at the centre during The Nut Graph’s visit were idling around, watching television, some playing a game of chess, while a group of girls had turned on the radio and were dancing to it.
Rumah Nur Salam will proceed with plans to open a Teen Centre on Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman, but at the moment there are no staff and no programes. Hartini said staff from Nur Salam would have to divide their time between the younger children in Chow Kit and the teens.
The Teen Centre is desperately needed to address the problems faced by adolescents which are different from those of younger children. It is budgeted to run on RM600,000 to RM800,000 a year, money which as of yet, is nowhere in sight.
Without the centre, issues like drug abuse, gangs, and pregnancies cannot be adequately addressed, Hartini said.
“Unlike the corporate sector, it is not a question of whether we can defer this project during a recession to wait for better times.”