Recently , a team from the district’s branch of Childline, a project for care and protection of children, supported by the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development, found a six-year-old girl wandering along the corridors of Government General Hospital near the Kozhikode beach.

A local women’s group had called the NGO about Sandhya (name changed). They said the girl looked lost and has been found asleep unaccompanied in various corners of the hospital for the past three days.

“We found that her mother and step-father were patients in the hospital. When we approached the mother, she told us they did not want her with them. We later found that the couple stayed with the stepfather’s parents, who also did not want to take in the child,” K.P. Chandran, one of the team members at Childline, said.

So, they took her with them and fed her. She was later admitted to the girls’ shelter home.

The case has an eerie similarity to that of another six-year-old girl, Adithi S. Namboothiri, who met a tragic end allegedly at the hands of her father and stepmother. The police say she was systematically tortured at home until she died in May this year.

Adithi’s death had caused a severe dent in the reputation of Childline. The public had accused them of not intervening in time to help the girl despite distress calls from neighbours. Three visits made by the NGO to her house in Bilathikulam here proved ineffective.

“We were shocked by her death and the criticism that followed,” Muhammedali M.P., city coordinator, said.

But two months later, not much seems to have changed. For one, Childline team members in the district —five men and two women who take the distress calls and check on children — are chronically underpaid with no infrastructure to back them.

“The Union Ministry has to revise the budget allocation for Childline under the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS) every three years. The last revision was done in 2009, when the team members’ salaries were hiked from Rs. 2,000 to Rs.4,000. There was supposed to be a revision in 2012, but that has not happened,” Manoj Joseph, programme coordinator (Kerala), said over phone from Chennai.

“The problem is that Childline’s projects have diversified over the years from mere rescue of abandoned children to other fields like sexual abuse intervention, legal help, and protection. There is more risk involved and more funds needed to do our work effectively under the ICPS,” he said.

For team members like Chandran, daily work at the local branch of “India’s most widespread children’s phone emergency outreach service” is punishing.

“There is no vehicle here. Suppose we get an emergency call about a child stranded at Moffussil bus stand, let us say, during the midnight shift. We have to call up a friend or a family member who has a motorcycle to take us there. We hardly have any access in the rural areas. Even if we go to a place like Vadakara to rescue a child from begging, we have to bring her back by bus or an auto. This is not safe. On buses, people get angry when we make the child sit next to other passengers,” Mr. Chandran said.

Figures of child abuse reported to Childline in Kozhikode for the year shows that there were 136 cases of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Of this, 35 were of sexual abuse.

In the past 10 years since its introduction in Kozhikode in 2002, the branch here has successfully intervened in 20,762 cases seeking emotional support, and shelter in 716 cases. It restored children back to their homes in 692 instances, rescued 463 children, and provided medical help to 105 children.

Still, the annual fund allocated to the 24x7 helpline is a “standard” Rs.9 lakh. There is no in-house legal counsellor despite the fact that a team member testifies as court witness in 35 to 40 legal cases each. Currently, legal advice is sought from the legal services authority.

“If you take the annual Budget of a gramapanchayat, only five per cent of the total fund is used for child protection. This five per cent is given collectively under the head ‘physically challenged, women, and children’. So, ultimately, child care and protection gets only 1.5 per cent of the total Budget. This, when Childline records of abuse in Kerala shows that 13 per cent of sexual abuse is committed by fathers and 12 per cent by other relatives,” Mr. Muhammed Ali said.

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