Sudha Murali has for over a decade nurtured a passion for children's rights. India needs a strong Child Protection System across sectors, she says.

She might have been working with the United Nations International Children's Fund for the past 18 years, but she has always felt the need for wisdom and knowledge gained from community work, which she says is tremendous and joyful. “My education has helped me to better understand the context of development issues and the way children and women are affected. Theory is buttressed by experience and interaction and conversations,” she says.

She has been at it, first as a communication officer and later as a Child Protection Officer. But, close to her heart are the gender and protection issues.

She has faced many challenges in policy matters. “Working with the police on gender and protection issues has been very rewarding. The other area, of course has been UNICEF's work dealing with child labour and mainstreaming it as it is today. Committed individuals, NGOs and officers with a sense of mission helped catalyze this issue. Training of women Panchayati Raj members using a participatory methodology was very challenging and inspiring,” she says.

Early influences

Sudha Murali has a post graduate degree in Sociology from Bengaluru and a PG diploma in Human Rights from the Central University of Hyderabad. Apart from this she has also participated in a short term teaching certificate course on Law Justice and Human Rights in the Netherlands. “I think theory is very useful in helping gain perspectives and in understanding how social norms and behaviours evolve. Theory also helps you reflect and shape your values and convictions, which helps in the long run,” she feels.

Growing up in a large family with four brothers and a sister, her father was with the Central government and was transferred every three years to a new State. “It would feel like moving to another country. My parents led fairly simple but full lives and instilled in us the love for libraries, books, travel.”

Her mother, who has a post graduate degree from Presidency College, Chennai, used to share anecdotes about her life in college, which were very momentous as it was during the freedom movement. “I think those early years were very enriching and made one adaptable.” Marrying a Central government officer had her moving to Assam, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Her daughter was used to what she now calls “serial parenting”. Her husband and she would take turns to be at home and as far as possible never travel at the same time, she reminisces.

Prior to working with the UNICEF, she worked with fishing communities on disaster preparedness in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.

She also worked with women on gender and livelihood issues for over eight years. The work included involvement with youth sanghas, facilitating preparation of community disaster plans and using participatory methods. She was also associated with Administrative Staff College and its training for policy makers. “The best part of learning was by doing and I think my time and learning with committed individuals and institutions in rural and urban India has helped hone that thinking,” she says.

“Change takes time and although it is frustrating I think it's important to think long-term and learn from the rich and varied experiences across the country. I have been lucky to work with committed individuals and organisations across many sectors,” she says.

Currently based in the National office of UNICEF in Delhi, her responsibilities include working on child labour and child protection issues. “It is important to have an integrated approach to child protection issues with a focus on prevention if we have to have sustainable measures,” she says.

With more than 450 million children under 18, India needs a strong Child Protection System across sectors to address violence, neglect and exploitation of children. “I, along with my colleagues, am also working on integrating child protection issues into other sectors including academia.”

She speaks passionately about child protection. The work here is not always of an advantage to the child. “Gender sex selection ratio, child marriage, child labour are the entrenched attitudes. The skepticism on child labour issues as being alien to India has been disproved when families and communities discovered their own champions and achievers who had made a mark outside their community, thanks to education,” she says.

Right to education

She is working on and understanding the issues that are related to re-integration of working children into education, ensuring that the entitlements under the Right To Education umbrella reach the most deprived among children. This is the first and foremost among the goals. Dealing with hazards of child labour in the cotton seed sector in seven States is another major priority.

Fighting with India's ever-changing complex social norms and behaviours that are so deep rooted, is a struggle in itself. And to meet this conflict head-on and accept its challenges is the need of the hour.

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012