(Warning: This article about Street Children in Kathmandu contains images & text of an adult/mature nature – If you are easily offended with this reality, please move on)
The Street Children in Kathmandu, Nepal
Look into a child’s eyes and you are sure to see a sweet innocence that makes us all smile and want to cherish. It’s a universal feeling we all share no matter our race, creed or religion. The man who argues this point is not of this world.
But what happens when you look into a child’s eyes to see pain, loss, suffering, hate and something dark? Something so woeful in their eyes that makes us look away out of fear along with a guilt for not questioning why they are like that.
Unwanted children stick together, no matter the cause
As an unwanted child myself I have no tolerance for any person that abuses children. I grew up looking out at a harsh world from an early age. I recognize that look in others today. No matter the race, nor country the look is always the same.
I looked into similar eyes during a cold winters day in 2008. The eyes of a hardened child on the streets of Kathmandu Nepal. There was still a spark of life in them though.
Nearly four years later I met that same boy again. That spark of life was never rescued. What I saw now were dull eyes and a soul that’s been forgotten.
This is a part of Kathmandu. A popular tourist destination. And a stained city with a blatant secret.
An army of homeless street boys in Kathmandu
The population of Kathmandu is approximately 3.5 million (2008), of which there are reportedly over 1,000 homeless street children out of a national 3,000.
The vast majority of these children are illiterate boys aged between 10 and 18. Most are addicted to some form of barbiturate. The most common usage surrounds solvent abuse. Solvents are widely available, cheap and offer children a communal bond along with a brief respite from their pain.
Others intravenous drugs are also abused and the spread of HIV/AIDS is becoming rampant due to drug and sexual abuse on the streets.
Terrifying statistics about the sexual abuse of street boys in Kathmandu, Nepal
75% of street boys in Kathmandu are victims of sexual abuse at the hands of foreigners, locals and their peers. Here are some worrying and disturbing figures.
How children end up homeless on the streets of Kathmandu
- 41% of children leave home due to family violence
- 27% due to peer influence
- 19% due to economic factors
- 15% due to disintegration of the family
What the street children of Nepal think the purpose of sex is:
- 10% did not know
- 10% abuse
- 1.9% something that will give pleasure
- 63% Sex with either boys or girls (including same-sex intercourse)
First time sex statistics of street boys in Kathmandu:
- 15% Female not from village
- 15% Female adult from village
- 4.7% Older street boy
- 15% Girl, same age, from village
- 3.7% Male not from village
- 15% Street girl
- 20.6 % Street boy same age or younger
- 13.1% Third gender
Who are the people abusing the street boys?
- 16.7% NGO workers/expatriates
- 58.3% Stranger
- 25% Peer or friend
Male Nepali strangers were the most highly represented group (36.7%) of people reported to have offered gifts in return for sexual acts, mainly during the early evening.
43% of children felt sex was an easy way to make money as opposed to 26% who did not know why they did it.
The average payment is 200 rupees (USD$2.6)
Reasons the children gave that would help them stop living on the streets
- 33.3% Provide protection
- 25% Go back home
- 16.7% Did not know
Data from a 2010 report by Child Workers in Nepal Concerned Centre (CWIN)
Life on the streets as a child
Some walk barefoot, others in rough shoes. All wear weather-beaten, stained, torn, and unwashed clothing. During tourist season the
weather is warm and the children are more spread out.
Many come into Thamel, the main tourist area in Kathmandu, at night. They are usual working in groups outside of the supermarkets begging for money or food.
It’s a mistake to give the street children money, or even food. They will use the money to buy drugs and simply sell the food for money to buy more solvents
As Kathmandu closes for the night the street children return to the outskirts and to closed off areas to sleep in groups.
Winter keeps many street children away
Come to Nepal during the colder winter months and you will see fewer children. And those that you do see are the regular hardened boys. The cold forces them to stay in larger groups. Walk down by the Moroccan embassy just outside of Thamel and you will encounter the boys wrapped up in heavy jackets every morning.
Plastic bags of solvents never far from their faces.
Nepalese mentality to street children
The problem of child abuse in Nepal is made worse by a gap in Nepalese legislation which does not recognize sexual abuse of boys. The problem, legally, simply does not exist. The children have slipped through a fractured safety net in Nepalese society that’s a living tragedy and a dramatic future problem that many choose to ignore.
I asked several local Nepalese about the street children in general.
Common answers ranged from:
“They are rich. They make more money than the rest of us …” (from begging)
“I’ve seen them dressed up in the best gear. This is all fake. They work for gang leaders and get paid well for their thievery …”
“They cause nothing but trouble. The police need to take them out of the city so we can clean up our streets …”
I heard nothing sympathetic to their plight.
That said, there are several organizations trying to help the children. Unfortunately, I have also heard several disturbing facts about the legitimacy of some organisations as well.
Nepal continues to fail in forming itself as a legitimate country. Meanwhile many dark hearted people take advantage of the vulnerable
My return to the streets of Kathmandu years later
Back in 2008 I remembered seeing the street children. Their torn little faces warped with mankind’s solvents, neglect, ignorance and abuse.
There were certain faces I remembered better than others. The boy with the harsh angled face and wild curly hair. And, the boy with the long face with dark sad eyes. In 2008 there was a glimpse of hope in his eyes. He still moved them with a child like mischief.
Today I saw the long faced boy again. I recognised him instantly. Only now his eyes no longer move with child like mischief. They are slow and dull. His face bruised and scratched. He turns his whole head to look at something. He no longer talks in long sentences. His words are harsh and blunt.
“Give me money …”
Hierarchy on the streets
I went down to the streets early one morning. A large plastic container of Dal Bhat in hand along with some breads and small cakes. Wrapped up in heavy down trekking jackets the long faced boy stared angrily at me while clutching at a bag of solvent.
Huffing at the bag his face was full of concentration. He then saw the container of food and pounced on it.
The others stirred.
There was a hierarchy at work here. The long faced boy had become a group leader it seemed. The others waited for his command. Each child with their own small bag of glue.
I handed him a pile of A4 paper as plates. He handed them out to the others. Then digging his hands into the rice he scooped up as much as he could before he poured the dal sloppily over a makeshift plate.
The groups two dogs lapped up the spilled soup from the pavement as the other boys dug into the container. Each knowing their pecking order and the appropriate portion they could take.
That is until some of the younger one’s argued over the remains. It was now the long faced boy snapped an order at them. And with that the fight ended.
He looked at me and the remaining bag of chocolate cakes I had. He pulled at the bag. I held it back and looked around to see if everyone had eaten. He muttered something to me and then laughed with the others.
Reporting to a heinous looking man
An argument broke out between the younger ones again. Only this time one of them got up and stormed down the road.
It was here I felt an evil bile rise up in my stomach. Up ahead crouched on the pavement steps was a disheveled man in his twenties. Unwashed and with a beaten face he had the aura of a drunkard.
The boy spoke to him and the man looked down at him. At this time the boys near me had already pulled apart my bag of cakes and were examining them. I must have missed something. For when I looked back down the street the older man had opened his shirt and pulled the young boys hand onto his chest and then further down.
The boy pulled back and the man laughed. Then the boy followed suit.
I felt ill.
A surreal brief glimpse of boy’s at home
The group of boys in front of me were not so happy with the cakes. Sweet cakes and chocolate meant nothing to them it seemed. I asked why?
“Tourist food,” spat the long faced boy. “You bring more rice.”
With that he began angrily huffing on his fix again. The other boys broke out into a chatter. Then out of nowhere the long faced boy began feeding his street dogs the cakes.
An act that could only make me think of any other boy anywhere in the world looking after his pet. Sharing what to many others would be a treat, or even sustenance, with their best friend. Or in this case, protector, source of warmth, and possibly the only innocent, non-abusive, companion they had left in the world.
Return of the heinous man
My time was up. I was out of food, and so had nothing left to offer them. Moreover the older man from further down the road had made his way up to us. I was correct. He stank of stale alcohol.
I could see the look of fear mixed with bravery in the long faced boy. The man pointed around the place. The long faced boy waved me off.
“Buy more food for them …” grunted the older man stretching out his hand looking for money.
I shook my head. Stepped back and turned away.
The man laughed.
Most of the boys picked up their things and began to move out for a day of scrounging.
Last chance for innocence
I turned back in time to see the older man stagger off. The long faced boy and a few others remained with the two dogs by their feet. Plastic bags acting like mini bellows clutched to their faces.
It was a heavy scene along the road as Kathmandu began to wake up all around them. People walked by without a turn of their heads, nor care in the world towards the lost innocence before them.
Here were young boys clutching bags of solvents on harsh streets. When surely they should have been holding soft toys in loving homes
This is an additional feature article highlighting the Street Children in Kathmandu, Nepal
46 Replies to “A Life Less Innocent: Street Children in Kathmandu, Nepal”
Well young man I am glad you did not end up in Australia or New Zealand after you left the Philippines. About two years ago my grand daughter brought me to see a wonderful Irish documentary (here in NYC)titled “Fairytale of Kathmandu” that has to do with sex tourism in Nepal. It is a brutal and multilayered film and in many ways the film reminded me of documentaries made by the great German film maker, Werner Herzog.
Indeed, Nepal was a better choice at this time. I’ve not seen “Fairytale of Kathmandu”, however I just did a search for it online and found it. Most certainly it sounds like a disturbing film. Given Nepal’s internet speed I’m not sure when I can watch it. Hopefully a little later. I’ll feedback on it then!
I managed to watch “Fairytale of Kathmandu”. Quite disturbing in many ways. As you said it’s multilayered film that shows just what is going on in Nepal behind the scenes.
I am glad you liked the film. I viewed the movie down in the Village here in NY and the theater was packed. It got wonderful reviews from the press. At the time my granddaughter had just finished a medical degree and was slaving away as an intern with two young Nepalese girls in an emergency department of a local city hospital. The three girls went to the West of Ireland (where I come from) as a sort of getaway for about ten days. Anyway they were approached time after time by the locals asking them about the film and life in Nepal. Ironically the film (broadcast nationally) was produced at a time when many Irish people were waking up to the fact that massive abuse had taken place in their schools and churches. Ireland has never experienced sex tourism on the scale that exists in Nepal, Thailand, Philippines, ect but there are predators living there, just like everywhere else. Sometimes we stereotype the sex tourist as an overweight heterosexual middle aged white man. “Fairytale in Kathmandu” forces us to go beyond this useless stereotype. It is said that, “the affairs of men are never what they seem to be”.
This is an issue most tourists simply do not see, or choose not to see. And unfortunately, there’s not much they can do about it. It’s everywhere, not just Nepal, even here in the US.
It’s lovely you brought them food but you know it was only a drop in the bucket. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have done it either, it’s just that long term solutions are hard to come by. Yes, the NGOs are there, and many do good work, but they can’t help everyone, much for the reasons you explained.
Thanks for putting the spotlight on this.
Your comment invokes one of my first memories of wanting to highlight this plight.
Going out many times to try and photograph the street children I would come back to my guesthouse to review the photos and challenge. One afternoon a tourist turned to me and asked “What street children?” They passed them by everyday, but like you said chose to ignore them.
Easier to not think about it and think of the vacation instead. Lot’s of pro/con reasons there too. But I do think not opening one’s eyes to the problems like this in any country is a dangerous thing.
As for answers to help the children? I think a good start is a letter to one’s own government asking to put pressure on Nepal’s government to actually legally recognize sexual abuse of boys.
It breaks my heart to read this, and to remember the first time I saw homeless children – on the streets of Bogota in the mid 1980s.
I kept reading, hoping that you would list some way that we could help?
It’s a heartbreaking scene anywhere in the world to see homeless and abused children. I’ve spent a lot of time talking with people on how to help in Nepal. It’s mind boggling to see the issues surrounding this. From fake NGO’s, to profiteering locals to unqualified genuine people trying to take action.
I think the first really big step would be to write a letter to one’s own government asking to put pressure on Nepal’s government to actually legally recognize sexual abuse of boys. Currently it’s not recognized. The second might be to contact the UNHCR and ask them what they are doing as I am of the opinion it is a Human Rights issue at this stage.
When I was in Nepal I heard the large number of street kids was an after effect of the war – child traffickers promised to take kids away to safe areas and feed and educate them for large sums of money, only to dump them in the middle of nowhere. I don’t know if you went to Butwal or Lumbini but it was even worse than Kathmandu and without any hope of even an NGO to save them or foreigners to give them food/money. Your incredible & heart-wrenching photos took me right back there.
Yes I’ve seen homeless Nepalese children throughout Nepal. I highlighted Kathmandu as it’s more likely where tourists will encounter them on a daily basis.
Unfortunately many tourists don’t or choose not to see them. I hope with articles like this, and people like yourself who have witnessed this throughout the country that action will be taken.
Beyond local NGO’s I think the first port of call is Government.
Dave – wow. This post had me transfixed. I remember the shock I experienced in 2003 when I first saw groups of young boys begging in Cambodia. Dirt smeared on their faces, cold, hard eyes. It broke my heart a thousand times. I had rough childhood myself, but at least I had a roof over my head and believe me – that does say something. Thank you for sharing this.
If sharing and spreading articles like this can evoke people into doing something other than turning a blind eye then it’s an important step in the right direction.
I read something about it’s never too late to have a happy childhood. These kids would disagree. Once you cross certain lines there will always be a shadow over those memories.
With people taking action, no matter the country, there will be a lot more happy childhood memories out there.
i guess the rubber/ glue is a common street drug in the world.. this stuff breaks my heart and i wish i knew what to do about it. i find myself being heartless just because its the easiest thing to do..
Heartless is an interesting word. I like to think of it as heartfelt. If you were to stop during ones lunch hour and give your change to everyone who asked, then you’d have nothing left to buy your lunch with. And yet there will be many more people still asking.
Better to stop things like this happening in the first place. Then we can all have lunch.
Sadly, this abuse and neglect of children is not confined in Nepal. It’s a story repeated in almost all poor countries. But having said that, even in developed economies that are somehow skewed to the advantage of the rich, these things happen too. Just not too openly in the streets. It’s an injustice that, if only to give these children a happy childhood, should be remedied and addressed by everybody. Whether it happens in Nepal or in the UK, these things should not happen. But who said the world is just?
Very true Michael, these things happen all over the world. And perhaps it’s even more disturbing to see them happen in “developed” countries who, by logic, should have prioritized ways to prevent this from happening.
I find Nepal disturbing for many reasons. Least of all because it is a popular tourist destination. And secondly due to Nepal’s legislation not recognizing sexual abuse in boys. The two things seem to clash terribly. At least for me.
Tough read, but a good one.
Great article dave! Your kind of writing had me glued from the first word up to the last. This is sad not only for nepal but for other countries as well. There had been studies in manila before about beggars inhaling solvent. They said that by inhaling that thing, it eases up their hunger… :-(
Thank you Flip. The side effect of articles like this, I hope, is that the more people who see this, the more people there will be to see it not just in Nepal, but in their own countries too. Or, for that matter wherever they travel.
As you mention it’s a problem in Manila too. Unfortunately I’ve saw the solvent problem in many of the big “cities” in the Philippines during my time there. I also saw the problem of underage sex in The Philippines. But, in the case of The Philippines there does seem to be some pro-action by the government to stop sex crimes involving minors. This is important and something Nepal can learn from.
It made me think about the children of Slumdog Millionaire (the movie) that are clipped and sent to street to beg for money.
In Europe you don’t see it too frequently. But then I moved to Asia and started to notice it over and over again.
Thank you for sharing another well thought story ; )
I saw similar scenes in Bucharest Romania all around the train station at night(2007). I wonder if this is still the case? In the main Eurozone capitals though you are right, it’s not so evident. And while such things do happen I believe there are some state systems in place to help homeless children.
Sadly in developing countries this is not a priority so I think that’s why it’s more evident.
Very thought-provoking piece and hard statistics. It’s really a frustrating problem but children are the highest ranked in the world’s poverty statistics.
It’s not always a choice to not notice, but it’s knowing you can’t do anything. To make a worthwhile difference takes a commitment of time, money, resources and saavy and when you’re a tourist, anything you do is only temporary. I see two types of children in Asia– the hardened street ones w/ layers of wounds and a life of problems you can’t change without physical extraction from the streets (provided they want to leave). Then there’s kids from hard-working homes that can’t afford education.
Finding a good NGO from abroad takes research and risk. It’s even tricky dealing w/ non-profit orgs in the U.S. as most of them just want donations… and then you hear things about “legitimate” orgs like ‘Invisible Children’ using most of their donations for “administrative purposes”. It’s frustrating.
Before I took my gap year, I researched non-profit orgs, where I could work/volunteer in developing countries (this was actually inspired by my experiences in Nepal), but the above is what I found. A dead end… & a paid job teaching kids in Korea.
Not saying it’s not worth trying to make a difference. It’s worth the attempt. But its tricky.
I agree that’s it’s not possible as a tourist to do anything sustainable with immediate effect. Many people with good hearts do try, but the results are often short lived and end up causing more problems in the long run.
I do think that putting pressure on one’s own government to in turn put pressure on the Nepalese government to at least recognize sexual abuse is a good start.
Reality bites and yes, very disturbing to read.
what about the bleeding boy? met him?
my feelings towards these kids never changed. They should be treated with love and respect which they deserve.
hmmm..you know, it’s easier for me to point finger to the family, the society, the f* system but for now, i hope the children find the courage, gets the motivation to stand up for their rights and change their own lives.
I know, it may sounds unfair considering what has happened to them..hope they make it. My prayers and thoughts to you and these kids.
You lost me “bleeding boy?” Do you mean the one from the Gallery photos?
You make a good point about children standing up and demanding rights. It’s difficult to explain but many of these children come from rural villages. These are villages without electricity and formal education. They don’t know about such rights.
On the streets they get an education. Strange as it might seem but the long faced boy in this article is very much attuned to what’s going on. He knows what to do when he sees a tourist or NGO trying to help. He knows what they want (like when I arrived with a camera) and he knows what to ask for.
yes, that boy.
I photographed that “bleeding boy” in a different part of Kathmandu. I returned there too, many times. But I did not see that boy again.
great article dave ! what a kindhearted man you are.i feel sympathy to their situation. I hope by sharing this great article will help the kids out there who are suffering.
Thank you. And yes, the more people that share this story and others like it the more awareness there will be and hopefully some solution!
Excellent article Dave. Seriously, that was the work of a profesional journalist in my book.
To the problem at hand. It’s something I’ve witnessed in many places throughout the world. Including Nepal. Even in my hometown of Melbourne we get kids as young as 10 sniffing brain rotting paint and solvents on the streets.
What’s the answer mate? I’ve got no idea, but these kids are on a slippery slope to either an early grave or at best a life in jail (maybe thats worse?). The young lives are set a perilous course to self destruction from a very young age. With nearly no chance at all of escaping their perilous futures.
Seeing the young boy for the second time must have been tough, and although I witnessed this in Nepal many years ago. It seems to have gotten far worse. A sad but truthful look at the world ‘NOT’ through rose coloured glasses. A world that many others to Kathmandu see, but just don’t process….
Thanks Jason. Some good insight from you as always. I might put the photo of that first boy in my gallery as there’s also a story behind the it that leads into what you were saying.
I do see what happens to these children in many regards. Both the physical damage caused by solvent usage. The emotional damage from not having a family and the other abuse they suffer. And finally the abuse of not having an education.
For the current children I fear that if someone came along and offered to help them with a million dollars they are too far gone. But if people at the very least recognize there is a problem legally there might be hope for the others not yet at this stage.
Indeed a well written and sympathetic article (with great shots) Dave.
And agreed with others that in this world of so much inequity and unfairness it’s hard to find even-half answers to these global issues of abused children (women/people) and other grim blights on human realities.
But good for you for showing some kindness and understanding in a too-often, uncaring world.
the candy trail … a nomad across the planet, since 1988
Cheers Michael. Not everyone wants to read nor see these things. But I like to know about everything in the world rather than have my eyes wide shut.
It is very sad indeed and so much of the same happening everywhere not just in Nepal.
What is the answer? I don’t think there is really just one answer.
So many things need to happen and change and it’s not which causes this viscious cycle to keep compounding.
Indeed yes Audrey it’s not just Nepal where this happens. However Nepal can claim to be one of the few countries not to legally recognize sexual abuse in boys. A good start here would be to change the legislation so that it is recognized.
Sad story in Nepal..really this condition is very poor..
u visit now
Aye its a sad tale, i myself are from nepal and its a familir tale to me but alas i too chose t ignore it because there was nothing i saw that i could do, my family was not uperclass but was in middle class. But before that i lived on the streets and on the villages. I cant say i repsent all the nepli people but here is my mentality to it, its sad but such things happen, there is nothing to do to help when your barely makeing it on your own, giveing money or food dosent work much as these things usaly end up helping the absuers to the gangs. As for the government and ngos i have yet to see acutal work,all they make are promises that never happen,funds that get “lost”, organazations help that never apper. For my point of veiw give the people hope, economic chance, a good/ok government that wont bow to money and political preaser at a wim from their masters and education and a ray may price the strom coulds but alas none of these are liekly to come to nepal.
Very powerful post and photos, thank you. I stopped backpacking in Cambodia about a year ago, and also see so much of this heartbreaking poverty and abuse, particularly with street kids in the tourist areas. I also see and agree with your point in advocating for a change to Nepal’s legislation. But despite having worked as a lawyer in the past, and as a legal consultant for a local Cambodian NGO for the past year, I wonder how much of a difference that would really make on the ground? Cambodia, for example, has loads of decently drafted laws on a wide variety of human rights issues. Most of those laws are quite literally never enforced. Is the judicial/law enforcement system more effective in Nepal? (In Cambodia, 1 in 6 judges even has a law degree…) Or is it, like you say, perhaps the only starting point? This past year has made me incredibly cynical about legislative fixes in a country lacking any commitment to rule of law …
I agree with you. Legislation in many places around the world doesn’t fix things as one would like to think. However there needs to be a starting point. When problems aren’t even admitted too that are human rights issues we need to have a record. If not for today, then for future generations to use today’s mistakes as an example of how things didn’t work as they should.
I’m as cynical as it comes to many things in the world. But my cynicism stops at the point when I think “It’s not going to go any good anyway.” I just think when you reach that point you might as well switch off. Perhaps many people have and that’s why we are the way we are today in the world. But I for one cannot give up.
Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I absolutely agree about not switching off or giving up. And I still think that legislation is a good indication of recognition, as you say. But from the start, many of my colleagues here with more human rights experience than me have tried to convince me that legislation may not actually be the best starting point. Often, a new good law actually gives the government (in Cambodia at least) credibility it doesn’t deserve, and does absolutely nothing to address the problem or even build a record. Actually, the government here has taken seemingly innocuous or beneficial laws (often drafted with Western consultants with great intentions) and wielded them in a way to silence critics. Anyway, just thought I’d write to clarify that I wasn’t advocating giving up – not in the slightest. If I was, I’d return to that big law firm job where I was raking in the salary and working nearly fewer hours than I am now! Where to start is just worth examining; of course, not to the point of paralysis or giving up …
Thank you so much for this powerful post. I have taken the liberty to share it on our LinkedIn Discussion Forum on STREET CHILDREN:
MUST-READ and MUST-SEE!!: a beautiful (!) blog post with beautiful, though harsh-reality-pictures about the lives of Street Children in Kathmandu. Please take some time to read!
Please read this, share this, absorb this. A strongly written, powerful article about the harsh realities of street children in Nepal.
Opening quote: “Look into a child’s eyes and you are sure to see a sweet innocence that makes us all smile and want to cherish. It’s a universal feeling we all share no matter our race, creed or religion. The man who argues this point is not of this world.
But what happens when you look into a child’s eyes to see pain, loss, suffering, hate and something dark? Something so woeful in their eyes that makes us look away out of fear along with a guilt for not questioning why they are like that.”
VERY MUCH WORTH A READ!
I am currently in Nepal and I must agree with your remark on how tourists choose to ignore them. To be honest I am a bit torn on what to do myself, usually I refuse their beggings or confront them with the fact they are using drugs – but this is not really helping either of course.
With your permission I would like to highlight a set of 3 documentaries on children in Nepal, including one which I think you will find very interesting: Children of God.
For me it was a real insight in the daily life and struggle of street children.
They are summed up and linked in the article above.
Thank you for showing people some real life truths in your article,
Great Work, nice written, I have been in Kathamndu recently. It is still all the same.
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