NEW DELHI – Arun Kumar was born to disabled parents, beaten by his grandparents, ran away from home, got a job in a garment factory and had all his savings stolen by the police.
He was only 11.
Today, at 13, he shares a cramped, dingy shelter with 63 other runaways and former street kids in New Delhi.
He is one of the lucky ones.
Twenty years after the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child, multitudes of children across the globe are still suffering from poverty, abuse and disease.
Each year, 4 million babies die before they are a month old, 150 million children are engaged in child labor, more than 500 million have been affected by violence and 51 million have fallen so far through the cracks they have not even had their births registered, according to the United Nations.
In China, infant mortality rates are five times higher in rural areas than in the wealthier cities. In Mexico, more than a million children under the age of 14 are working.
The U.N. convention, adopted Nov. 20, 1989 and ratified by every country except the United States and Somalia, calls on nations to protect children from abuse and sexual exploitation, reduce child mortality and give children access to health care and education.
There have been successes. Fewer young children are dying or underfed, more are attending school and getting vaccinated and dozens of countries have adopted laws recognizing child rights.
In Russia, an epidemic of homeless children in the 1990s was beaten back by a concerted government effort. In South Africa, some children infected with HIV are getting lifesaving medicines that were out of reach only a few years ago.
President Bill Clinton’s administration signed the convention but never submitted it to the U.S. Senate for ratification because of claims that it infringed on the rights of parents and was inconsistent with state and local laws. But President Barack Obama says he wants to try again for ratification.
The convention “has had positive impacts across the world, but we need to say it hasn’t had as much impact as we’d have hoped,” said Jennifer Grant, a child rights specialist with Save the Children in London. “Children are not a political priority for governments.”
Some of the worst abuses play out every day on the dusty streets of India, where government and aid groups’ efforts to help children are overwhelmed by the staggering poverty and the dislocation of millions of rural villagers who flood the cities in search of jobs.
Two million children under 5 die every year, more than 20 million are not in primary school and child marriage is routine. Children, some as young as 3 and clutching baby siblings, work the traffic-clogged streets begging for money. Others are constantly on the move, living on the construction sites where their parents work, with no access to education.
Arun was born in the northern Indian province of Himachal Pradesh to parents who cannot hear or speak, and grew up in his grandparents’ crowded house. He was so ignored his family thought he had inherited his parents’ disability, until at age 7 his grandfather sat down with Arun and taught him to speak.
As he grew older, Arun, a short, slight boy, began skipping school and fighting with his younger cousins, who teased him about his parents and his own late development.
“I used to make mistakes,” he said of his behavior. And the abuse began. His grandmother would hit him with her hands. His grandfather, who had so patiently taught him to speak, used a stick, he said.
“Suddenly he started beating me. All the love was gone,” he said.
One Sunday when he was 10, he took the family goats to the pasture and left them to graze while he went off to play with friends. When he returned, one of the goats had disappeared.
His grandmother viciously beat him, he said, looking at the floor, biting his nails and nervously cracking his fingers.
He had finally had enough. He took 2,000 rupees (about $40) he had collected over nearly three years by saving the tiny sums his parents gave him for treats and he fled to Delhi.
“I had no plan. I just got on the bus,” Arun said.
Many runaways become street children, picking pockets, begging or scavenging to survive. Others end up in the sex trade. But Arun had the good fortune to befriend an older boy on the bus, who brought Arun to a garment factory in New Delhi, the capital, where they both got jobs.
Arun was trained on a sewing machine and stitched together jeans. He was fed, given a place to stay and wasn’t beaten, he said — relatively good conditions for a child factory worker.
After a year, he collected his 13,000 rupees (about $260) in earnings, gave 2,000 ($40) to his friend, and quit. He bought new clothes, shoes, a small radio, and treated himself to a lavish meal of chicken curry and rice, he said.
At the end of the day, a police officer confronted the 11-year-old, frisked him and stole his remaining 9,000 rupees ($180), he said. Arun was then sent to a shelter that he compares to a prison.
Finally, after insisting on going back to school, he was moved to a boys shelter run by the Salaam Baalak Trust in Paharganj, a slum.
Now he lives with 64 other boys in a gray room on the second floor of a dank community center. A world map is painted on one wall. A mural of Batman, Spiderman and Superman is on another. Dozens of thin mattresses are stacked in the corner.
At mealtime, the boys roll out long mats on the floor, sit cross-legged and eat. During the day, they pull out desks and take classes. In the evening it becomes a recreational room and at night, they scatter the mattresses across the floor and sleep.
“This is their home, and we are their family,” said Anjani Tiwari, the shelter’s director.
The children get supplemental schooling and vocational training at the center, and some have gone on to work as photographers, tailors and cafe workers, he said.
Everything that is Arun’s — clothes, books, a karate poster, a broken camera — is jammed into a tiny rusted locker hidden in the corner of a stairwell.
“I’m going to show you one of my favorite things,” he said with a smile. He dug through his locker for several minutes, but couldn’t find what he was looking for — a small toy elephant.
“Maybe I left it outside the locker last night and someone took it, or maybe I lost it,” he said quietly.