4.15 million emergency calls made to Indian children’s safety helpline in the last year

Sunday, 1 September 2013 – 11:31am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna webdesk

Being the most vulnerable members of society, children not only need to be the most protected but safety measures concerning them are an absolute imperative. Nishit Kumar, Head Communications and Strategic Initiatives at Childline India Foundation, that provides a helpline to children, delves on the existing measures, legal and otherwise, for child safety in India

The recent media reports of the accusation of sexual molestation by a minor against the already infamous Asaram Bapu, has spilled over an already open can of worms — India’s much talked about problem of paedophilia. If that wasn’t enough to raise a storm, the following gang-rape in the city of Mumbai has brought to the forefront various episodes of violence against women. And here, too, if one were to pay attention, most cases involve the sexual abuse of a minor. Figures of reported cases of childsexual abuse are appalling and reveal the collective apathy towards child safety.

“The United Nation’s Commission on Rights of Child (UNCRC) states that every child has the right to be involved in every decision that involves their future. And yet, many parents would argue on the grounds of the child’s immaturity, without realising that the issue of participation is more complex than that. The issue of participation would imply that you cannot take a decision that determines the course of a child’s life in such a way that might be contrary to the child’s needs. And one such issue that has many nuances is the right to protection,” explains Nishit Kumar, Head Communications and Strategic Initiatives at Childline India Foundation, an organisation that has worked actively in the arena of child rights protection and promotion.

What comprises child protection?
Child protection involves reducing the child’s vulnerability to any kind of harm, social, emotional and psychological. Kumar admits that it is a complex process that involves work across various levels and spaces. “The state is the primary duty bearer for the rights of the child, including their protection, as stated by UNCRC. Further, parents, teachers, and the rest of the society, are referred to by the UNCRC as the “care giver” who also have an important role in child protection”

Here is it is important to emphasis on the role of the society i.e. the rest of us, in enabling the rights of the child. “If an adult citizen witness that the rights of a child, social or otherwise, are being denied, it is not OK for them to just do charity, but it falls upon them as a duty to ensure the restoration of those rights,” explains Kumar.

Of course, it is easier said than done.

So, how safe are children in India?
To answer this very question, Childline undertook a study called the ‘The Everywhere Child Project’. Through this research, they wanted to assess the existing child safety and protection mechanisms across spaces that children usually occupy. What they found, was a disturbing revelation of blatant abuse of child rights. Some of the statistics are given below:
28% schools did not have separate toilets for boys and girls
Less than 2% schools had counsellors
Only 1% schools have sexual harassment policy
67% of healthcare centers have no child protection related policy
Only 6% institutional homes maintain a record of abuse case
Only 30% of railway security forces have booths that provide assistance to missing and other vulnerable children

The above essentially fosters a thriving platform for abuse of the child. To add to that, the statutory bodies, the key organs to facilitate child protection, showed the following numbers:
Of the Juvenile Justice Board (JJB) reviewed, 55% of them serve only 1 district
Less than one-fourth of the JJBs sit on all regular working days, and 44% sit only once a week.
Less than 10% police stations have a designated space for dealing with children, while only a little over 10% police station have a designated staff to deal with such matters
Only 20% police stations have a sexual harassment policy, and about 27% have a child protection policy

“There is a tendency to presume that the child is safe in certain environments without any further inquiry. However, that may not be so. For instance, the concept of neglect of a child at home has little or ineffective legal implications in India.”

Legal obscurity
On the other hand, in some other cases, the laws that are made are vague to their subject. Kumar elaborates, “Take the instance of the Child Labour Act, 1986, that states that those below 14 years of age cannot work in a list of prohibited industries and places, which implies that it is ok for them to work in places that don’t fall under the listed industries.”

“Further, the law specifies working with chemical and pesticides as one of the prohibited jobs for kids. In Kerala, though, children work with endosulphin, a harmful pesticide used to spray on crops, that has caused a lot of medical problems among them. However, since children in agriculture are not covered by the child labour law, there is little legal recourse to protect them.”

Taking action
So what is it that we can do to ensure a society that is safe and habitable for children?

“When we talk of protection, it refers to three aspects, as specified by the UNCRC –Prevention, Intervention and Rehabilitation. Each of these involves a set of laws and policies, monitoring, awareness building and sensitisation, and a lot more. Our view at Childline is that, in every space the child occupies from birth to the age of 18, must manifest all laws and policies made for their protection.”

“There are some measures that can be taken proactively, advocacy being one of them,” explains Kumar.

He narrates one such project undertaken by Childline following the failure of conviction in the Anchorage case, where the high court reversed the verdict on child sexual abuse. Childline took it upon itself to create a new, much stronger law against child sexual abuse.

“We drafted a law, submitted it to the NCPCR and the ministries. We followed it up with intensive consultations and advocacy, until last year when the Protection of Children Against Sexual Offences Act was passed in both the houses of parliament,” he states.

Communication is another effective step. “It is important to establish a dialogue with the people involved. We conduct various workshops with teachers as well as with children with the aim of educating and sensitising them to such issues. Our Child Sexual Abuse awareness program in schools of Mumbai is an example – we use a unique story telling format to sensitise children, in classes 2 through to 6, on safe/unsafe touch and personal safety rules.”

Lastly, there is intervention. “At Childline we run the 1098 helpline that allows children and concerned adults to reach out to us for protection and assistance. In the last year itself, ending March 2013, we have handled over 4.15 million emergency calls from across 291 locations across India.”

In conclusion Nishit Kumar says, “We are open to conducting consultation on child safety to any organisation, private or pubic, that shares spaces with children, to help them define the standards of child protection. We encourage organisation to draw their own policies and will gladly provide support based on our experience and know-how.”