Besides laws, the state and civil society must together invest in a culture of child protection

A few days ago in Delhi, a five-year-old girl stepped out to play and did not return. She was found two days later in the neighbourhood, raped, brutalised and left for dead. A day or two before the Delhi case came to light, in Aligarh too a six-year-old girl was allegedly raped, murdered and dumped in a garbage bin. In both cases, the police were reluctant to respond, delayed recording the complaints and were extremely insensitive to the families and the community.

It isn’t as if the government is unaware of the need to protect children. The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act was put in place a decade ago, which guarantees the justice, care and rehabilitation to children. In 2009, the government enacted an Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS), which aims to set in place systems and services for child protection that will reach the subdistrict level. As a part of this scheme, the government funds Childline 1098, an emergency helpline for children in 274 districts. Though these are steps in the right direction, the need is for much more to be understood and done.

Studies

A core issue is that as parents, families, communities, the state and society, we know little about keeping our children safe. A 2012 study by the Childline India Foundation assessing prevalence of child protection mechanisms in public service delivery brought out that adolescent girls drop out of school post-puberty because parents are concerned about their safety as the way they take to walk to school is unsafe. The 2007 national study on child abuse conducted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, Government of India, revealed that the perpetrators of 50 per cent of sexual abuse on children were persons in a position of trust or responsible for the children. It has been discussed that children across all social, economical and cultural groups are equally at risk of suffering violence and abuse. Most professionals who deal with children have not had basic training on how to identify behavioural patterns as signs of abuse. In class, teachers do not notice children who are unresponsive and quiet for days together. Doctors treat the bruises of children, but fail to notice them as signs of abuse. When children go missing, the police refuse to register complaints to try and keep their crime records clean, not realising that every minute wasted takes the child further away.

Steps to be taken

The state and civil society must invest in creating a culture of child protection. The need is for: trained counsellors in all schools and health-care settings; awareness and orientation of children, parents and communities on child protection and their role in keeping children safe; more family counselling centres accessible to communities; crisis intervention centres in hospitals where victims of violence can access medical services, counselling and services, and legal aid; police responding in time and sensitively, carefully recording FIRs, statements and other evidence; doctors, teachers, and others who engage with children knowing how to pick up signs of abuse, and speedy trials, sensitive procedures and justice to victims which would give more people the confidence to report cases.

Violence and violations against children can be anticipated and prevented. Though much of the change we seek is long term and dependent on resources and specialised skills, there is a lot that can be achieved if families and communities come together to break the silence that hovers over the issue of child abuse and violence, understand and own the issue and find solutions together. Many of these do not cost money. It requires willingness, commitment and sustained efforts.

What works

There have been exceptional examples of good practice where communities have come together to evolve innovative methods of caring for children’s safety. Crèches run by elderly women have worked well in certain communities where mothers go out to work and cannot afford to hire domestic help. Women’s self help groups in some places have stood up against child abuse and domestic violence in their communities. Residence welfare associations in cities have come together against domestic child labour and domestic violence against children and women. Parent volunteers in car pools, sports clubs, in school and on school buses have worked in many places. Mohalla committees have played an effective role in complementing the police resulting in better law and order and crime prevention in certain communities. Schools and non-governmental organisations (NGO) have partnered to run effective programmes on prevention of abuse. Ticket collectors on trains have collaborated with NGOs and the police to arrest networks of human traffickers taking large groups of children to cities for work. In villages, panchayats have created citizen’s committees that also function as vigilance groups watching out for human traffickers and others who lure children away. Such practices are commonsensical, pragmatic, organically evolved, and demonstrate that communities can find the ways, means and resources from within themselves to protect children. They must be studied, scaled up and become the norm.

Children will only be safe at home, in school, and in the community, when their safety and protection becomes everybody’s business.

(Nicole Rangel Menezes is co-director Leher, a child protection advocacy organisation. E-mail: rangel.nicole@gmail.com)

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