We love our children, or at least, claim to do so, especially if one were to go by the outrage expressed by the Indian media and the public over the Norwegian child care department’s bid to take the kids of the Indian geo-scientist into its custody, mainly due to the ‘disconnect with parents.’ They were removed from their parental home and the subsequent debate raised critical concerns about what is meant by the concept of "best interest" in matters relating to children, and parenting.
The purported findings of the Norway child welfare services — as claimed by the parents, at any rate — that a four-year-old did not have a separate room, that the children did not have appropriate toys for their age, were wearing clothes that were big for them and were being given food by hand, indicate a lack of understanding of how children are brought up in different parts of the world. We can accuse the Norwegian authorities of being culturally insensitive but the fact that they go to such inordinate lengths to ensure that the children do not encounter any emotional trauma might seem extreme to us. Both Norway and Sweden have stringent laws in place to ensure that the rights of children are not violated in any manner.
As Sukrita DP Singh, who has been working in the field of childcare for many years, says, "At least, there was action. What hurts in our context is the insensitivity and the apathy with which the state treats children. The state needs to pitch in and play a more proactive role, as do the law-making agencies."
The case of Falak, the two-year-old abandoned baby girl, fighting for her life, (she was admitted to AIIMS with her head smashed, arms broken and face branded with hot iron) has been making headlines, jolting our collective conscience. Many cases of similar abuse, away from the media strobes, go unnoticed in the absence of a mechanism to track down child abuse of any kind, physical, sexual or psychological.
If we can not even create a safe, healthy, conducive environment for children to grow and survive in, to think of treating them as a resource for the future seems rather far fetched. To ensure that each child is nurtured and cherished and provided the right conditions for his/her potential to be realised seems, indeed, a tall order.
What could easily be a ‘demographic dividend’ is being frittered away. We have more than one-third of our population below 18 years, and so India also has the largest young population in the world. But just look at a few facts: One out of 16 children dies before attaining the age of one, and one out of 11 dies before attaining the age of five. As many as 40 per cent of the child malnutrition in the developing world is in India, which is also home to the highest number of child labourers in the world.
On November 20, 1989, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The CRC covers all children under the age of 18, regardless of sex, colour, language, religion or race. India ratified the CRC in 1992. According to the CRC, each child is entitled to "survival, protection, development and participation."
The first National Policy for Children was finalised in 1974 and the next one is on the drawing board stage and is being extensively debated. A national plan of action for children was formulated in 2005 but the goals that were set were not met. Besides, the lack of focus by the policy planners, there is also a lack of trained manpower.
As Simmi Waraich, consultant psychiatrist, Fortis, Mohali, puts it, "There are no clear-cut guidelines for those who work in the field of child care. Even psychologists who are hired learn on the job as they go along." Often people working in the field come across comes cases of abuse, the dilemma is who is to be contacted. The police, when contacted, is least interested in taking remedial action. As Kulbir Dhillon, a doctorate in child psychology, who was at the helm of the first childline (helpline for children) in Chandigarh, says, "There are no funds, no training and no system in place for those involved in social work for children." So even excellent welfare schemes slip and falter, when there is a change of guard in the administration or bureaucracy. She narrates how when she, alon with a child rights lawyer, went to a police station to lodge an FIR about an alcoholic in Maloya village. He would mercilessly beat up his children and wife regularly. The policeman on duty was "more interested in a stolen bicycle than a traumatised child,"she recounts.
In fact, it is the welfare-based approach that is responsible for the arbitrariness of the lawmakers, and those who choose (or not) to implement schemes that are excellent but only paper. There is talk about moving to a rights-based approach that will ensure effective compliance.
Lack of homes
Where does a child, who is abused, go is another question that looms large in the absence of well-equipped shelter homes. Removing the child from a family setting is not easy, even when family is the site of abuse. Being a kinship-oriented culture, we see children as extensions of ourselves and not as individuals who need space and a conducive environment to bloom. Often, parents from middle-class families live through their children. It is these very children who are a casualty of the breakdown of the joint family system with its shock absorbers. There is a further break up of even the nuclear family, with more single parents having to look after children. In such a scenario, there is hardly any respect for the children caught between feuding adults.
According to Dr Manmohan Kaur, who has been working for more than 60 years with women and children from Partition onwards and has travelled across the globe to study child-rearing practices and social welfare mechanisms, "We do not see children as nation builders. As is the case with all social change, it has been very slow to come. The social service sector has always been the last priority for the government. Every family wants a child, be it for old age security, as a waaris or for prestige in the community but the child is not treated as an individual with a distinct identity. There is rarely any effort to meet the aspirations of the child." However, she feels the breakdown of the joint families has helped a child-centric approach to develop, at least, within families. The fate and future of a child is decided by the immediate family and not by the extended or joint family, as was the case earlier.
She believes, what is definitely needed is a change of the mindset wherein a child is perceived as "being owned by the family." A US-based professional Niranjan Singh agrees that our child-rearing and also parenting practices are essentially culturally determined. There might be material differences in the way children are either perceived or reared in the developed world and the developing nations.
In a developing nation, the government has too much on its plate to actually think about child welfare. In our context, where children are only meant to be seen, not heard, how can we talk of treating them as individuals? The identity of the children remains strangely enmeshed with the identity of the family or the community.
Given our cutural context, no institution can ever replace the family and what we need is training in parenting and sensitisation of teachers, police and the community in general.
The general neglect of children by the state is primarily because children are neither a vote bank nor a pressure group, which can apply arm-twisting tactics to be heard and taken note of. Jyoti Seth, Head of Department of Sociology, Government College, Sector 42, Chandigarh, has been actively working in this field of gender and children for the past two decades. She feels that since children in our cultural context are perceived as, "dependent consumers, and not productive assets, no wonder no political party takes up their cause." It is virtually impossible to have a child-centric approach in policy planning and programmes, which is in a way similar to the manner in which they are perceived by the family.
According to Razia Ismail, Convener, Alliance for Child Rights, "We lack the political will, skills and even trained manpower to care for children and prevent their neglect. Even with good intentions the training to counsel children in schools is not there. The abuse of the child by the family is not a cognisable offence and the entry of the state into the home is not something that is looked upon very kindly." The Social Welfare Department needs to have more teeth and clear guidelines. As Waraich says, "Child abuse also needs trained social workers and psychologists who can follow up the cases."
Manmohan Kaur makes a passionate plea for zealously furthering the cause of our children because they are are the pillars of the nation. It is the duty of every citizen to do their best to strengthen those pillars. "Half-baked pillars will not carry forward the nation and even may become a stumbling block in the path to progress." Wish more people believed in this. Is it not high time that we as a society focus on the future citizens and invest in their health, all-round development and help them to realise their full potential.
Photos: Mukesh Aggarwal & Kuldip Dhiman
What the study says
The Study on Child Abuse, 2007, was commissioned by the Ministry of Women and Child Development. Loveleen Kacker, then Joint Secretary Child Welfare conducted the study. It is the largest of its kind undertaken anywhere in the world. It covered 13 states with a sample size of 12447 children, 2324 young adults and 2449 stakeholders. It looked at different forms of child abuse: Physical sexual, emotional and girl child neglect in five different evidence groups, namely, children in a family environment, in school, at work, on the street and in institutions. This study was also meant to complement the UN Secretary-General's Global Study on Violence against Children, 2006. It clearly emerges that across different kinds of abuse, it is young children, in the 5-12 year group, who are most at risk of abuse and exploitation. Some of the findings of the study are given below:
n Two out of every three children were physically abused.
n Out of 69 per cent children physically abused in 13 sample states, 54.68 per cent were boys.
n Over 50 per cent children in all the 13 sample states were being subjected to one or the other form of physical abuse.
n Out of those children physically abused in family situations, 88.6 per cent were physically abused by parents.
n 65 per cent of school-going children reported facing corporal punishment i.e. two out of three children were victims of corporal punishment.
n 62 per cent of the corporal punishment was in goverment and municipal school.
n Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar and Delhi have almost consistently reported higher rates of abuse in all forms as compared to other states.
n Most children did not report the matter to anyone.
n 50.2 per cent children worked seven days a week.
n 53.22 per cent children reported having faced one or more forms of sexual abuse.
n Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar and Delhi reported the highest percentage of sexual abuse among both boys and girls.
n 21.90 per cent child respondents reported facing severe forms of sexual abuse and 50.76 per cent other forms of sexual abuse.
n Out of the child respondents, 5.69 per cent reported being sexually assaulted
n Children in Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Delhi reported the highest incidence of sexual assault.
n Children on street, at work and in institutional care reported the highest incidence of sexual assault.
n 50 per cent abusers are persons known to the child or in a position of trust and responsibility.
n Most children did not report the matter to anyone.
Girl child neglect
n Every second child reported emotional abuse.
n Equal percentage of girls and boys reported facing emotional abuse.
n In 83 per cent of the cases parents were the abusers.
n 48.4 per cent girls wished to be boys.