“… children alone on the streets are frequently regarded as a ‘problem’ to be tolerated rather than solved.”
Every five minutes a child arrives alone on a train station platform in India. The country’s vast rail network is the transport method of choice for children running away from poverty, abuse and violence. Thousands of youngsters arrive at India’s railway stations and find themselves lost, alone and scared, with no idea where to go or what to do. All too often the station becomes their home but proves to be a threatening and dangerous environment. Sadly train stations prove to be a magnet for vulnerable children all over the world. Once a child runs away from home, reaching them as soon as possible is crucial before they become entrenched in street life or an abuser gets to them. Since 1995, one charity, Railway Children has been doing just this, racing to get to the children before the streets get to them. As some of you will be aware, a team from SmartRail World recently completed the Three Peaks Challenges (climbing the highest mountains in Wales, England and Scotland) for this fantastic charity, and today our Editor Luke sits down with their CEO, Terina Keene, to learn more about their work, its challenges and of course, as it’s a Friday, her favourite rail journey!
Luke Upton (LU): Thanks for the time today Terina, as means of an introduction, could you tell us about the founding of Railway Children?
Terina Keene (TK): No problem Luke, the story begins with our founder, David Maidment, 22 years ago in India. Whilst David was working as Head of Safety Policy at British Rail (the operators of most UK rail transport between 1948 and 1997) he visited a train station in Mumbai. There he saw a seven year old girl begging, and when not receiving any donations began to whip herself to elicit sympathy. Shocked by this, he looked to see how he could help, and seeing there wasn’t an organisation focussing on early intervention to help street children, in 1995 founded Railway Children ( @RailwayChildren ). As a rail safety professional, this focus on prevention and early intervention to avoid serious problems, as key, came naturally. The launch of the charity also offered an opportunity for a UK rail industry at a challenging time. In the mid-1990s it was being privatised and the old operators and systems were changing. David hoped that this charity would act as something as a unifying force, which I am delighted to say it has been as it has grown and developed. I think it’s no exaggeration to say that everyone working in the rail industry knows someone who has done something for Railway Children.
LU: You are perhaps best known for your work in India, could you tell us some insight into your work with street children there?
TK: Our work is across the three main areas. Firstly, at street level we strive to meet the immediate needs of children at risk on the streets and rail platforms of India today. We have created a number of ‘child friendly stations’ where the staff look out for and help children that arrive there alone and at risk. We provide child protection booths on platforms and drop-in centres nearby and where possible, we work to reunite children with their families.
Secondly, there’s the community level, where we try to make street children more visible to society and to help people understand the issues that cause them to be on the streets. This is done through preventative intervention with the aim of putting ‘safety nets’ into communities to catch at risk children, before they run away from home.
And finally, we also work at government level, where we try to persuade policy makers that street children should be higher on India’s political agenda and that government policies should provide greater protection and opportunity for them.
LU: Thanks, but you don’t only focus on India do you?
TK: No, there’s two other areas we work in. There’s a huge need for our work in East Africa, in Tanzania and Kenya alone there are an estimated 5 million orphans, some extreme levels of poverty and children alone on the streets are frequently regarded as a ‘problem’ to be tolerated rather than solved.
Many children run away to escape from extreme violence at the hands of parents and authority figures but the situation they find themselves in is often worse than the one they left. Rape and sexual violence are common experiences for many children and with food, clothing, shelter are hard to come by, they often resort to scavenging on rubbish dumps or being exploited and made to work. As in India, we work at street, community and government levels to change street children’s lives for good, in every sense.
LU: And there’s also your work in the United Kingdom?
TK: Yes, although many assume that there isn’t an issue in the UK, our work is also needed here too. 100,000 children run away from home in the UK every year, in every part of the country and from
Children run away from every part of the UK, and from affluent homes as well as from low-income households. These children are on the streets with nowhere to go and no-one to turn to. And as in India, often end up in train stations. We’ve recently signed an agreement with British Transport Police to put a renewed focus on vulnerable children at stations. And again, as in India and East Africa we work at street, community and government levels not just to help the children on the streets today, but also to raise public awareness and create better networks of protection and care in the long-term. We firmly believe the ‘best place is nearly always at home’ but a number of different aspects have to be considered to make this happen.
LU: I can see there’s lots of work to be done, what’s the biggest challenge?
TK: Yes there is! You can’t see this as a job, it’s a way of life. Running projects internationally means there are always emails and calls coming in across the day. For me as CEO, it is crucial for us to keep everybody focussed on our shared vision – or our ‘north star’ as I think of it. Anyone who works with us, from the management through to anyone who does some fundraising I consider part of our organisation. And of course, as a charity the fundraising aspect is crucial, last year we increased our income by £600k but we have to keep focused on that too as that is ultimately what makes our work possible.
LU: You help thousands of children every year, but do any particular stories keep in mind?
TK: There’s lots, but one particular girl, Robin, I always come back to. We met her in Edinburgh, when she was 16, she’d been living on the streets since 11, and a heroin addict since 12. Her addiction was stopping her getting her help from clinics in the UK but we began to work with her, and British Airways supported us in flying her to South Africa for treatment. When we brought her back, she reconnected with her Mum and went to college. Robin, is just one of many, but we really helped take her life off one path and onto another. People seem to forget that children are the youngest of our species, we don’t, and this thought compels me every day.
LU: Thanks, and finally, as we ask all our Friday interviews, what’s your favourite rail journey?
TK: For me it has to be the train taking me on holiday from Paddington in London to St. Erth, near St. Ives in Cornwall. It’s an absolutely beautiful journey going along a single track hugging the sea for sections of it. And just as importantly, the moment I step on-board the train I am in holiday mode and can begin to relax!
LU: Thanks very much Terina, we’ll be shortly publishing a story about the Three Peaks Challenge, learn more about by clicking here Railway Children and to donate to the SmartRail Team who completed the Three Peaks Challenge (and have raised almost £4,500) please click here.
Last week's 5 minutes with... Toni Hytönen, Head of Risk Management Group, VR Track.
5 minutes with… You? Each Friday the team here at SmartRail World bring a 5 minutes with... interview. This fun, fast-paced feature will help you get to know more about personalities across the industry, their ideas and experiences and of course their own favourite rail journey! Want to take part? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more.
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