"There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children", said Nelson Mandela. If that's true, India needs to do some urgent soul searching. Nowhere is our attitude to children better reflected than in the way our systems of law and order treat them. 63 years after our Constitution recognised them as equal citizens, 39 years after we adopted our first National Policy for Children and 21 years after we ratified the UN Child Rights Convention (CRC), we have yet to agree on a uniform definition of who exactly is a child. Definitions vary depending on whether it's marriage, work, education, sexual offences, culpability for crimes, adoption or inheritance that's at issue.
Few children of the elite or the middle-class in India have the opportunity to interact officially with the police, the judiciary or the alphabet soup of entities labelled CWC, JAPU, AHTU, JJB, NCLP, CARA, SFCAC, SCPS or NCPCR For the estimated 176 million children who are homeless, orphaned, abandoned, abused, trafficked, bonded, illegally employed, lost, refugees, displaced, accused of a crime or simply poor, on the other hand, the forces of law and order are omnipresent determinants of their fates.
In 2012, CHILDLINE rescued 33,512 children in distress and accompanied them through a process of assessing their situations, exploring options and finding resolution. Most Indian children in need of care and protection, or those in conflict with the law, do not enjoy such a buffer from the vagaries and callousness of the system. Too many are buffeted from exploitation to abuse by officials who view the children under their charge as either, feral beings or powerless victims, and their own roles as either sinecures or chores.
Combine the government's own acknowledgement of 592 child deaths in juvenile facilities between 2006 and early 2010 with the 2011 report from the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) that lists 15 cases of illegal detention or torture, 17 cases of child rape and 21 cases of physical or sexual abuse of children in juvenile facilities that year alone. Add the 39 cases of sexual abuse in juvenile homes documented in the 2013 ACHR report and those reported by Human Rights Watch and others to get a glimpse of the tip of a gruesome iceberg of atrocities. Too many of those sworn to uphold the progressive values of India's constitution, the UN CRC and hundreds of laws enacted to protect children from abuse, exploitation, neglect and exclusion, are among their worst violators.Â
Too many of our policemen and women, those who serve on committees, boards and task forces charged with determining children's fates, and those who run juvenile facilitiesÂ are underpaid, ill-trained, overburdened individuals who are themselves subjected daily to the arbitrary feudalism that pervades Indian bureaucracy. With impunity for crimes against children the norm, negligible access, and the demographics of the children involved, it isn't hard to fathom why these children will, more often than not, be meted out indignity, insult, callousness and abuse.
It's hardly surprising then that many children prefer the risks of life on the street over the supposed care of a home or shelter.Â Or that even caring adults hesitate to report abuse. Children with disabilities, those with HIV/AIDS and those who have been prostituted or trafficked face particular horrors.Â Very few institutions will even accept them. CHILDLINE staff members spend many days and nights running from facility to facility begging that these children be housed. All these pale into insignificance, however, in comparison with the atrocities faced by children growing up in those parts of our country we designate as disturbed areas.Â Here we grant our security forces untrammelled authority to abuse, rape, abduct, incarcerate, torture and murder. For them, and for the armed groups whose writ runs in these areas, children are easy targets. When children disappear in Manipur, Kashmir or other states with ongoing insurgencies, one can only speculate what fate has befallen them. Abducted by insurgents? Turned into child soldiers? Raped or murdered by our armed forces or by militants? Languishing in a prison? Run away to escape abuse or find work? It seems that no one has the responsibility to investigate or report on those we consider dispensable collateral damage in our internal wars.
At the other end of the spectrum are judges, politicians and bureaucrats who see children as hapless objects of charity who must settle for the crumbs of justice and rights we adults deem appropriate. How else do we explain the continuing exclusion of children of various age groups from coverage under the right to education and the child labour acts? Or the grand total of 1297 prosecutions through 19 years of the PNDT (Pre-Natal Diagnostic Testing) Act? Or the fact that over 3 million inspections by the Labour Department resulted in just 2,16,037 prosecutions and only 23,223 convictions for child labour? Â This while the government acknowledges that at least 12 million children aged 5-14 years are illegally employed and that a further 75 million are neither employed nor in school. Why were only some 38,000 crimes against children (including foeticide, infanticide, child marriage and child labour) registered at all in 2012 when over 50% of India's children are estimated to experience abuse and the ratio of girl to boy children declines with each measurement? Â Explain the peculiar exclusion of boys aged 16-18 years from both, the new law against rape as well as the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) even as the clamour grows to relax the age limit to permit their prosecution as adults. Or the fact that India spends a meagre 0.04% of its national budget on protecting our children and that even these inadequate budgets have been slashed citing failure to expend them.Â Or indeed the fact that the Census of India still doesn't enumerate children by the CRC definition. Or that every right for children – survival, development and protection – has taken decades to pass through our legislative machinery and then been, at best, partially granted. Or that, when last reported in 2010, a grand total of 2.57% of questions raised in Parliament pertained to children.
Is there reason to hope amidst this pervasive gloom? Decades of advocacy by committed campaigners and support from activist judges have finally enacted many of the laws our children deserve. Activists, NGOs and committed bureaucrats are slowly but surely activating the comprehensive system envisioned under the Integrated Child Protection Scheme and seeking redress under the new Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act. The laws on child labour are up for further amendment.Â An ambitious database to track all children missing, progressing through the judicial system, or in care, is under way. The rights to education, work and food, despite their lacunae, are helping to alleviate the desperation that is at the root of so many of these problems. The right to information is permitting increased scrutiny of every element of the system. New communication channels and technologies are helping to amplify hitherto silenced voices. Small armies of social workers and volunteers are working with children, communities and authorities to build awareness of their rights and of the laws meant to protect them. Children, parents, teachers, doctors, social workers and others are responding. Phone calls to CHILDLINE's 24/7 emergency 1098 number are up. In 2012 we took over 4 million calls. Beyond immediate rescue and relief, CHILDLINE, despite being desperately under-resourced, is working with each statutory body to catalyse sustained action and with legislators to strengthen laws and policies. Across 291 districts and towns and in state and national capitals we keep the focus on children in situations where hardly any other entity makes them a priority. Over the next few years we'll expand to cover every district and town in India. Three key elements are still missing.
- Investment on the scale necessary for adequate infrastructure, staffing, training and monitoring.
- The will to enforce laws and implement policies.
- Finally, adequate accountability mechanisms to monitor, report and ensure performance.
We know from recent experience that only concerted action from citizens can change these grim realities. You and I determine the significance of child protection on our national agenda.Â We can choose action over apathy, determination over cynicism and compassion over indifference. Our most vulnerable citizens need us to urgently search our souls.
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Ingrid Srinath is Executive Director of CHILDLINE India Foundation - the 24/7, free, emergency helpline for children in need of care and protection in India. You can follow CHILDLINE on Twitter @CHILDLINE1098 and Ingrid @ingridsrinath