The safety and protection of children is far more complex than it sounds. It involves keeping children safe and free from abuse at home, in school, and in the community. It involves protecting children from early marriage, from being forced to work, from being physically, emotionally and sexually abused and much more.
Even though it is absurd to think that families, communities and government would not want children to be safe, India’s child protection system is terribly under resourced, under staffed and reaches only a fraction of those children who really need it, when in fact, every child must be surrounded by a protective system that reaches out and prevents them from falling out of the protection of family and community.
Making communities safe for children requires collaboration between children, families, communities and government. In 2014, Leher with its Madhubani based partner, Sarvo Prayas Sansthan, began work on a community based preventive child protection program in Madhubani, Bihar. The program reaches out to 63 villages in 3 blocks.
The program tests the belief that sensitized communities will find ways to protect their children, prevent abuse and exploitation, and demand the same from the State. The first year focused on developing a baseline study for child protection in the district, district consultations, as well as on conversations with communities to prepare them to get started. In the 2nd year work actively rolled out in 27 villages. The role of Leher and its partner agency is to mobilize, capacity build, and support communities to assess their situation, dialogue, and push the system to take actions to ensure the protection of children.
When we first started 2 years ago, communities expected us to give them things-BPL cards, disability certificates, money, scholarships to name some. They would follow us until the cab we travelled in vanished from their sight. Today, 2 years later, we proudly say, that’s changed. Village child protection committees and children’s groups are formed, the synergy between these two groups is quite phenomenal.
The child protection committees and children’s groups have got themselves into a routine pattern of functioning, meet regularly, and document their meetings and decisions. They have also just learned to undertake a quarterly review of their actions. Every village child protection committee will soon have a stamp, issued through orders from the block to the Panchayat Secretary based on letters written by the village committees to their respective block offices.
As the program has developed, Leher has developed a manual and sets of tools, which will facilitate scale-up of the work undertaken so far.
Our team in the field has moved from being worried about not being able to do enough to provide immediate assistance to communities, to being confident in the strategy of the program, which throws back questions and problems to the communities and hand holds them as they think through, analyze and find solutions themselves.
The role of children’s groups and village child protection committees is emerging quite clearly:
- Addressing gaps in services for children at the village level: Mid-day meals, nutrition and immunization through the anganwadi centers
- Getting government departments to deliver: Disability certificates, birth registration-Earlier communities had to pay money to obtain these. Now the ASHA has ensured that other than her cost of travel to the department no other payments need to be made to the department.
- Peer support (children to children, and parent to parent): Issues and cases addressed include alcohol, cigarette smoking, gambling children eloping, early marriage, sexual abuse, child labour
- Infrastructure: The community has come together to lobby for school buildings to be constructed, roads to be built in the village to give better access, shutting down of illegal alcohol shops, building of electricity pole for the wire to be laid
- Follow-up and home visits
- Vigilance: Both children’s groups and the protection committees see ‘nigrani’ or vigilance as a key role emerge for them vis a vis the safety of their children in the community. They realize they need to constantly need to keep watch and be alert.
The learning has been very encouraging so far. We bring you a glimpse of the program in Madhubani.
“Sheela and I went with the Village level Child Protection Committee secretary to meet my friend’s (Rani’s) parents to convince them against marrying my friend before she turns 18yrs. I was scared initially, but I would have liked the same support if I was in my friend’s position. Today Rani is continuing her studies and is a part of our group.” – Discussion with Girls group, Sisai,Bhoj Pandaul block, Bisfi, Madhubani 2015
“We met the store owner and informed him that he would be reported if he is found selling any kind of substance to a child. We are keeping a watch over him and have decided to conduct our meeting where community members generally drink and gamble with the hope that they would hear what we discuss and get positively influenced.” – Discussion with VCPC members, Sisai,Bhoj Pandaul block, Bisfi, Madhubani 2015
“Mothers did not understand that certain immunization shots have side effects on their babies, like fever and vomiting. Mothers always through that we were not administering the shots right and so their babies would get sick. They accused us (ASHA) of being corrupt, and not knowing how to give the injection. It used to cause a lot of fights. After we discussed this at the child protection committee meeting and it was decided that on every immunization day a member of the child protection committee would be present to explain and counsel mothers.” – Discussion with ASHA, Shahpur, Pandaul block, Madhubani, 2015
“We understand now that the food and money had not been disbursed from the block and therefore the teachers were not in a position to provide food to our children everyday. We are now collecting details on the status of the school in our village to see the gaps.” – Discussion with Girls group, Bishanpur, Bhariya Bishanpur, Rajnagar, Madhubani 2015
“Drinking …alcoholism has always been a problem…I brought the women in the village together and together we stormed into and took control of one of the shops illegally selling alcohol. I have raised the matter at the block headquarters to ensure that no new liquor outlet, whether licensed or not, is set up in the village. Pariharpur village does not have a liquor shop anymore. It’s not like the men have stopped drinking alcohol completely. But now they have to walk much further to get it. It has also made the area safer for girls and women.” – Discussion with Jagwati Devi, Sarpanch of Pariharpur Panchayat, Rajnagar block, Madhubani, 2015
“Rajkumari was 17 ½ and though her parents heard us out, they went ahead and conducted the wedding as the groom’s side wasn’t prepared to wait for 6 more months and Rajkumari’s parents feared they wouldn’t be able to find another groom. But we are more prepared now. We have decided to continually keep a watch & if we hear of any early marriage going to take place we will immediately inform the VCPC and visit the parents till they are convinced against it.” – Discussion with VCPC members, Sonwari, Bhariya Bishanpur block, Rajnagar, Madhubani 2015
“A lot of boys are working in the city. They come back with money, and appear attractive to young girls. Even 13 year olds are running away with these boys. It is causing huge fights, between families, across villages, they forcibly get them married if they return. It is a big danger. How are we going to address this in the community?” – Basukhinath Mahto, Block Coordinator, SPS-Leher, Madhubani