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Updated: November 14, 2013 20:04 IST

Giving wings to childhood

Bhawani Cheerath
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Rita Panicker Photo: S. Mahinsha
Rita Panicker Photo: S. Mahinsha

Rita Panicker has been helping street children find confidence and financial security

How often do we let our thoughts dwell on young shoe shine boys, those selling flowers at major traffic points, wiping cars, selling peanuts, entertaining us with popular film songs on local trains, or, engaged in begging? They are an uncomfortable but recurring motif of our cities.

Meet Rita Panicker, who has been working with street children of New Delhi since 1989. Besides the capital, her NGO, Butterflies, works in Uttarakhand and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands “providing child workers with the space, skills, networks and mechanisms to help them conceptualise, plan and implement their own programmes.”

Street children are usually those who are abandoned, those who have run away from home, are living on the streets, or living with families (not their own). The initial step is to probe their background and often the truth comes out only after “we talk to them, make them comfortable, win their confidence,” says Rita.

Butterflies helps the children enter mainstream life, find their parents and goes through the legal process of restoring them to their parents. However, Rita is quick to add that there is a change in the profile of the new arrivals on the street. Earlier, they came from neighbouring states, belonged to the Dalit, lower castes and Muslim communities, and had run away from homes for a host of reasons. But, these days they are children from artisan communities coming to the cities for work because the community is unable to survive and provide for the children.

“When I began to interact with these children, I realised that that at the end of the day they spend all the money they earn, because living on the streets they often get robbed at night. Worse still, the friendly shopkeeper would keep their money and charge them an interest for the safekeeping!” says Rita. “This prompted me to encourage them to put away their money and create a sense of financial security and responsibility in them. Thus was born the Children’s Development Bank, which is now called the Children’s Development Khazana.”

The interesting aspect of this venture is that the children are the stakeholders and decision makers.

Empowering the street child is achieved at multiple levels.

The Bal Mazdoor Union, the first of its kind in India, run by accredited street children is one such.

Another unique Butterflies' initiative is training the children to navigate through hospitals. “We found them ill-equipped to cope with the formalities of going to a hospital in times of need. Our intervention has helped them gain confidence to approach four major government hospitals in the New Delhi for themselves initially, then for their families and the community. In case a homeless child is hospitalised, one amongst them takes care of him/her. They become responsible not just for themselves but for the neighbourhood, which is a positive growth, I believe,” says Rita.

Substance use and sex abuse are two problems with no quick fix solutions. Sniffing glue is most common and a problem they are still grappling with at Butterflies.

Rita, whose early influence was an aunt who ran a Sanskrit school for Adivasi children in Paripally, Kollam, had never dreamt of life as a social worker. Both, as a student and, later, as a lecturer at the Tata Institute for Social Sciences, Mumbai, she befriended the children roaming the railway stations to hear them narrate their life’s story. That, was the turning point in her life. “Having worked with children for so many years, I feel, somehow our investment does not match up to what it should be. If we do not invest in the younger generation and put the money where it matters, then, we are not getting ahead,” concludes Rita.


*Accredited to the National Open School

* Runs three night shelters for street children in the New Delhi

* Runs Resilience Centres where the abused, trafficked, lost and abandoned children stay till rehabilitation

* Childline Services to assist – rescue domestic child labour and other support

* Night Outreach, when Butterflies staff and volunteers walk the streets to interact with the children and step in during medical emergencies and issues of child rights’ violation which happen at night.

In Andaman and Nicobar

Engaging children in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands after they had lost everything to the Tsunami was an eye opener. The little ones had their own little requests – ‘Our exams are coming. We want books and notebooks. Could you also give us someone who will help us with our lessons?’ Some of the Nicobari children asked for a guitar, ‘so that we can sing songs’, they said.

Every child had his own manner of coping with the trauma. A hands on session to bring out a newspaper led to the launch of ‘Andaman and Nicobar Children’s Times’, which highlights local issues like irregular transport, poor roads and dysfunctional primary health centres. They became partners in improving the life of the community. Child learner-friendly disaster management sessions were integrated into the sessions.

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