As we step into 2019, maybe it’s time to take a look back and see why 2018 wasn’t the year for India’s children. We need to review some of the major child protection violations that made headlines (and some that didn’t), reflect on why children fell through the safety net and renew our determination to do all it takes to protect them.
1. GASPING FOR AIR
As the Air Quality Index in the national capital continues to plummet well above the “very poor” category, the ones who suffer the worst consequences are children. A WHO report cites that “As high as 98 per cent children under five years of age in low- and middle-income countries like India are exposed to toxic air.” According to the study, over 1 lakh children died of air pollution in India in 2016. Childhood cancer, asthma, poor lung function, pneumonia and other kinds of respiratory diseases are some of the ailments children suffer from due to reduced or toxic air quality. If there was ever a time to take climate change seriously, it is now. Our children are gasping for air.
2. TO BUS OR NOT TO BUS?
One of the deadliest accidents of 2018 has been of a speeding school bus falling into a gorge in Himachal Pradesh, killing at least 23 children. Poor infrastructure, lax safety measures and lack of road safety measures kills almost 43 children below 18 years every day on our roads. Yet, the Maharashtra government is the only state in India to have adopted a school bus safety policy. While Supreme Court guidelines have been made mandatory for school buses, implementation and action against the lack of enforcement is still riddled by the blame game. How many children must we lose before we hit the brakes on unsafe bus rides for children?
3. THE BURDEN OF A BACK-BREAKING SCHOOL BAG
30 years ago, novelist R.K. Narayan raised the issue of heavy, burdensome school bags children carry, in the Rajya Sabha. Today, his debate is still relevant. Seeking to abolish school bags, he said, “More children on account of this daily burden develop a stoop and hang their arms forward like a chimpanzee while walking…. It is a cruel harsh life imposed on her and I present her case before this House and the Honourable members to think over and devise a remedy by changing the whole educational system and outlook so that childhood has a chance to bloom.” While the HRD ministry passed an order disallowing schools from asking children to get extra books, materials, and prescribing maximum limits for the weight of the school bag based on the age of the children, recent incidents in Delhi-NCR prove otherwise. In the age of virtual classrooms, must back breaking school bags be a necessary burden for children?
4. NO SECOND CHANCES
Recently, a teenager convicted of raping a six-year-old was sentenced to twenty years of imprisonment by a Gurgaon court. The 2016 amendment to the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act 2015, allows for teenagers between the age of 16 and 18 to be tried as adults in the case of heinous crimes. Media reports hint at crimes by children being on the rise. But little is done to understand why the child took to crime and what measures need to be taken to prevent it. If the state and society has not intervened to protect children from violence in their early years, how will they grow up to know better? Is sending children to adult prison, without a fair chance at reformation, really the answer to curb crime?
5. HOUSE OF HORRORS
It took a case like the Muzzafarpur shelter home case, revealing that at least 1575 children have been victims of child sexual abuse in shelter homes across India, illustrated by a survey done in 9589 child care institutions in the country. Earlier this year, it was found by an audit team from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences that 34 girls in a Muzzafarpur shelter home had been continuously sexually abused. It was also found that a girl had been beaten to death and buried in the said shelter home. A dilapidated house, with no windows and barely any ventilation was the site of unthinkable and gory violence against the inhabitants it promised to protect– children. While these crimes have been possible with the direct complicity of the very stakeholders responsible for child protection, it has opened up a can of worms. When protectors turn perpetrators, how will children remain safe?
6. THE SMALLEST PIECE OF THE PIE – CHILDREN’S BUDGET
The 2018 Union Budget came as a disappointment for India’s 472 million children with the total allocation declining from 3.32 in the last financial year to 3.23 in the current financial year. Some of the major sectors in child welfare which have been hit include education, with a decrease from 3.28 percent in 2014-15 to 2.48 percent in 2017-18; the child health and nutrition budget which has decreased from 1.26 percent in 2014-15 to 1.15 percent in 2017-18 and the child protection budget which has remained almost stagnant between 2014-15 (0.04%) and 2017-18 (0.06%). As a country, can we not foresee the serious repercussions of poor investments in protecting our children?
7. THE HUNGER PARADOX
The Global Hunger Index findings of 2018 rank India at 103 out of 119 countries in the index, with the hunger levels being categorized as “serious”. The four main indicators that measure this index are undernourishment, child wasting, child stunting and child mortality. It has been found that the only other country with a higher prevalence of child wasting in comparison to India, is South Sudan which is in the midst of a bloody civil war. Is it not a paradox that hunger and malnutrition in India continues in large proportion despite robust economic growth?
8. TOWARDS A SURVEILLANCE STATE?
The State government in Delhi has hastened its work towards the completion of its project for installing CCTV cameras across government schools in Delhi and providing with real time access to view their children in the classrooms. The move to prioritize this project comes after recent, and repetitive incidents of crime – committed by children, and against children within school premises. While the Chief Minister of Delhi assures that “This will make the whole system transparent and accountable. It will ensure the safety of kids,”, one cannot help but ask… Why are CCTV cameras being projected as a panacea for all the challenges related to school safety? What about the reality TV like scenario CCTVs will create in classrooms that will kill a child’s pranks and play, only to steal his carefree interaction with his peers and teachers? Will classrooms built on mistrust ensure better safety and education of children?
9. CHILDHOODS UNDER THE GRIP OF CLIMATE CHANGE
In 2018, the world has witnessed some of the worst natural disasters triggered as an impact of climate change, and India has been no exception. Devastating floods in West Bengal, Assam and Kerala have ravaged the lives of thousands of people in these states. Thousands of children lost their families, belongings, homes and schools putting their lives to a standstill, struggling to fulfill their most basic rights.Climate change has too often been discussed and debated in abstract terms, negating the childhood costs and placing little attention on its intergenerational impact. How many more warnings do we need before we act for the sake of our children?
10. A LONG ROAD TO EDUCATION FOR MIGRANT CHILDREN
The recent Global Education Monitoring Report 2019, launched by UNESCO states that “about 80% of seasonal migrant children in seven Indian cities lack access to education near worksites, and 40 per cent of children from these households are likely to end up in work rather than school, facing exploitation and abuse.” The report brings out the sheer enormity of the lack of access to education for a significant proportion of India’s child population – it’s migrant children. “The report titled ‘Building bridges not walls’ said 10.7 million children aged 6 to 14 in 2013 lived in rural households with a family member who was a seasonal worker and about 28 per cent of youth — aged 15 to 19 — in these households were illiterate.” If the premise of the RTE was “Education for All”, why are migrant children still being left out?
11. THE DEATH PENALTY DEBACLE
2018 began with the news headlines being dominated by the gruesome gang rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl child in Kathua, Kashmir. In an attempt to appease and pacify an angry nation, the government implemented the death penalty law for child rapists, with the rationale that this form of retribution will act as a deterrent. As argued by several organizations and individuals, this law is more counter-productive than an actual deterrent. “It has been found that more than 90% of the perpetrators of child sexual assault and rape are known to their victims (NCRB 2016). Studies on the implementation of the POCSO Act also show that conviction rates are much lower in such cases. Child survivors often turn hostile due to family pressure, coercion, and family stigma. Introduction of the death penalty will invariably have the effect of silencing and further traumatizing child survivors who will be burdened with the guilt of sending someone they are related to or know well, to the gallows.” Is death penalty for perpetrators in case of rape of girls below the age of 12 years, a deterrent or distraction from actually dealing with the root cause of violence against children?
12. MINOR GIRLS, MOLESTATION AND A MOB
Girls of a residential school in Supaul, Bihar were playing inside the campus when a bunch of youth and Middle school students starting passing lewd comments and sexually harassed them. The girls resisted their advances, beat them and chased them away with sticks and stones, only to be met by an angry mob of villagers and parents (supporting the boys) who came to thrash the girls. Are we not in a state of emergency when a village comes together to attack girls for objecting to harassment?
13. THE YOUNGEST SUFFERERS OF FARMER SUICIDES
Their toil and patience puts food on our tables, and yet the farmers of our country lead difficult, miserable lives. The 2015 NCRB report recorded 8007 farmer suicides across India. The youngest and the silent sufferers of these tragic deaths are their children. “Every time I open the door, I see my father’s body,” says 14-year-old Nikita Surwase, pointing at the iron shaft on the ceiling.” In her article, “The Silent Sufferers: on Maharashtra Farmer Suicides”, Jyoti Shelhar collects gut wrenching stories of children left behind as a result of the suicide of a parent, and the urgent need for support and counselling these minors need in order to recover from the trauma and carry on with life with a semblance of hope. With no medium to express their feelings after the tragic death of their parent, aren’t these children going to carry this burden all their lives?
14. THE CONTENTIOUS ANTI-TRAFFICKING BILL
The highly debated Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill 2018, popularly known as the Anti-Trafficking Bill, was passed in parliament earlier this year. It has been argued that the Bill does not take into consideration necessary tenets of child protection, amongst other things. The #every8minutes campaign highlights how rampant child trafficking is in India, with a girl child going missing every 8 minutes. And yet, the question remains, if we are addressing child trafficking in all its entirety. While introducing a bill suggests that the government takes the issue of trafficking seriously, will this bill in its current form push back justice for trafficked children?
15. KASHMIR’S CHILDREN OF CONFLICT
The new draft of the J&K Juvenile Justice Bill, proposes questionable changes including lowering age for criminal liability of juveniles from 18 to 16 years, in case of heinous crimes. The draft does not define the term “heinous offences” coherently, making minor ‘stone pelters’ (amongst other) vulnerable to arrests and comparatively stringent punishment. Children of Kashmir have been a direct casualty of the ongoing conflict. Growing up amidst perpetual violence – blasts, encounters, hartals, curfews and shutdowns has also meant no school, no play and being locked up at home, in constant fear, with no sense of security and deep rooted mental health issues. If children witness violence every day, how long before they act violently? Isn’t it therefore critical that a bill built on the premise to protect vulnerable children, be implemented before it is amended to do quite the opposite?
16. COWS OVER CHILDREN
In a recent story of how the politics of communalization are not exempt to even children, two boys aged 11 and 12 were implicated in a cow slaughter complaint and spent four hours in a police station, in Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh. Veteran actor Naseerudin Shah’s recent remarks over “India’s culture of impunity” gave voice to the frightening consequences of the increasing cases of religious conflicts and its devastating impact on children who face persecution by dint of their religion. How many more of God’s children shall be punished in the name of religion?
17. #METOO FOR CHILDREN
It has taken generations for the frustration, anger and grief against sexual and gender violence to translate into the #MeToo movement. The movement can be deemed to be only partially successful unless we link it to how the lack of any sex education, a repressed childhood and the unwillingness for an open dialogue about what sexual consent really entails, and how it impacts a child’s understanding of abuse, and sexual abuse. As Bikram Vohra rightly states in his article, “To a large extent, we have arrived at this state of affairs because of a deep and abiding repression in matters of sexual understanding and an ostrich-like resistance to arm young girls with knowledge — whether as parents, teachers or elder brothers.” As a society, how do we prevent the need for a #metoo movement for the next generation?
18. THE SECTION 377 VERDICT
It was a moment of pride and joy for not just the LGBTQI community in India, but also for citizens envisioning a safe, secure and inclusive Indian society. While the battle has been won in repealing the draconian section 377 which criminalized homosexuality, there is still a long way to go before we can truly call our society an inclusive one. With the verdict of Section 377 also comes the responsibility to move towards an open environment in classrooms and at home that encourages questions, a change in curriculum to include sex education, explaining gender beyond boys and girls, and interaction with the LGBTQI community, to help not just LGBTQI children, but all children to grow up in an inclusive and safe environment which respects them for who they are. Isn’t it time for schools, parents, and society to take measures for a safer and more inclusive environment for LGBTQI children?