Abuse of children reveals crisis of reform
On paper, India’s children are protected by a slew of laws. But there is laxity in implementing these regulations
She has no memory of her early childhood, no recollection of her biological parents and no idea of how or why she got separated from them when she was about three years old. What she does remember is the day she arrived at the Udayan Home for girls in south Delhi.
“I had then been living at a government-run shelter for some years,” said Ritu, who often uses Udayan as her last name. “I must have been around six years old when this lady came to take three of us away, to give us a life. It was so exciting. I had never sat in a car. Never been anywhere. I was curious about everything.”
Now 25, Ritu is one of the exceptional ones who grew up in a shelter home and found a family. She calls Kiran Modi, the founder of Udayan homes, her bua( aunt) and the two girls who came to Udayan with her, sisters.
“I had a perfectly normal childhood, going to school, going to the park and getting the kind of pampering any child would get in a loving home,” said Ritu, who played basketball for her school team. “I was so pampered that when I left Udayan, I was scared about how I would cope in the outside world.”
Not every child placed in an institution is as lucky. Reports of abuse from shelter homes in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, Deoria, Uttar Pradesh and, the latest, from a hostel for differently abled in Bhopal are new milestones in a long road marked with abuse and neglect.
Every such milestone brings in its wake an outbreak of outrage, which in due course dies down— until the next time. There is no systemic cleanup, no widespread reform. “Instead of sensationalising each case of abuse, we need to undertake reform that is systemic and systematic. This is simply not happening,” said Enakshi Ganguly, co-founder of Haq: Centre for Child Rights, a childrights organisation.
“There is no accountability and no urgency,” said Shantha Sinha, the first head of the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR). “The problem is that when it comes to children in institutions, we do not apply the same standards of care that we would to our own children.”
In statements made to the Supreme Court in August 2018, the the Ministry of Women and Child Development conceded that a third of childcare homes are unregistered. In the wake of reports of abuse at Muzaffarpur, the ministry has asked chief secretaries of all states and union territories to inspect all childcare institutions. The Supreme Court’s next hearing on the state of shelter homes is scheduled for October 30.
The widespread, seemingly endemic abuse, including sexual abuse, of children placed in shelter homes is India’s worst-kept secret. Concerns have been voiced since at least 2007 when a journalist, Anjali Sinha, reported in the Hindustanthat children in orphanages in Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu, were being sold for sex to Indian and foreign tourists. Based on her report, a public interest litigation was filed in the Supreme Court and lawyer Aparna Bhat was appointed amicus curiae. In over a decade since the apex court began hearing the matter, the case has taken several twists and turns, expanding far beyond its original mandate of Tamil Nadu orphanages to cover child rights in general. “We found these children had no contact with their parents, not even during vacations,” said lawyer Dipa Dixit, who as former member (legal), NCPCR, was part of that fact-finding mission.
Middlemen were luring poor parents to send their children away on the promise of a good education. Institutions in return were using these kids to get funding from well-heeled donors abroad, said Dixit.
In the end, NCPCR recommended accountability, transparency and the monitoring of the huge number of children who were being sent to the South from different Northeast states. Nonetheless, the children continue to be sent out of the region. In Bodh Gaya, Bihar, 15 boy-monks aged 6 to 12 years from Assam were rescued from a residential ‘schoolcum-meditation centre’ following physical and sexual abuse by the monk, Bhante Sangpriya, who ran the school.
But without monitoring, it is hard to say whether the recommendations were ever adopted.
There is no definitive answer to the basic question: Just how many children live in institutions? In 2017, Childline India Foundation (CIF), which is supported by the WCD ministry under the Integrated Child Protection Scheme, said 470,000 children were living in institutions. But in 2018, WCD told the court it was 261,000.
“That’s a huge discrepancy of over 0.2 million children that has not been explained,” said Bhat. “I’m not saying the government is wrong. But if homes funded by the government are giving inflated figures then what action is being taken against them?”
But to take action, you must first have knowledge. Despite the Juvenile Justice Act of 2000, which mandates the auditing and monitoring of childcare institutions, it took a Supreme Court order in 2013 to begin the firstever mapping of 9,589 homes, including observation homes, across the country.
In March 2017, data from that exercise— which included 200 questions, including those related to the number of caregivers, the quality of food served, standards of hygiene and methods of disciplining —were submitted to the WCD ministry. These data are still being analysed, but some initial findings were submitted to the Supreme Court.
Over 41,000 children currently in institutionalised care should not even be there since they are either orphans or have been abandoned by their parents . These children should be put up for foster care or adoption instead, said Bhat.
Nearly a quarter of all shelter homes where girls are housed— 2,309 in all—do not have a woman superintendent or manager in charge. Shortage of staff is nearly endemic and there are some states with over 4,000 vacancies.
Under the law, each child is supposed to have an individual care plan. Yet, over 27 per cent, 2,624 homes, do not conduct the educational assessment and needs of children. There is no estimate of how many children placed in institutions even go to school.
“In some shelters, we found children who desperately wanted to go to school but they don’t go,” said Tarique Mohammad of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), which recently conducted an exhaustive social audit of 110 childcare institutions in Bihar jointly with Koshish.
In one of the homes at Saharsa, located right above a regular school, the team met a young boy who was keen to study, said Mohammad. But the shelter said it did not have the staff to escort the boy to school, one floor below and back. And the school did not want to take responsibility for the child.
Revelations of sexual abuse at a state-funded girl’s shelter home at Muzaffarpur followed an independent social audit by TISS, ordered by the state government. The audit raised “grave concerns” at not just Muzaffarpur but at 14 of the 110 institutions surveyed by TISS in Bihar’s 35 districts.
“The idea was not to set out on a fault-finding mission but to assess needs in terms of resources, inputs and training,” said Mohammad, assistant professor and director, Koshish.
You can tell something is wrong with the way an institution is being run, the minute you enter it, said Mohammad. But to do that you have to look out for the telltale signs: Is a home for children unnaturally quiet? Do the children seem sullen and withdrawn? Does the staff signal each other through eye and hand gestures?
The 15 homes flagged for ‘grave concerns’ did not all report sexual abuse. In fact, apart from Muzaffarpur, sexual abuse was not reported. But, said Mohammad, “Abuse is not just sexual, it could also be neglect.” At one home, the audit team met a three-year-old child who was being fed and clothed but could not speak simply because nobody was interacting with him.
“It should not take a tragedy for us to speak up. Even now we have to ask, what’s changed? Are we serious about child safety?” said Mohammad. “Unfortunately, as a society we have general apathy towards the poor.”
It was Neha Prabhakar’s birthday and the children at Udayan Ghar for Girls in Sant Nagar in south Delhi were dancing to Shakira’s 2010 hit, Waka Waka.
Neha Prabhakar is the counsellor at the home. With a master’s degree in psychology, she has been visiting the Sant Nagar home once a week for the past twoand-a-half years to counsel the nine girls who live here.
As with most shelter homes, these are children who end up in institutional care for various reasons. Perhaps it’s an alcoholic father who couldn’t take care of his daughters after their mother died. Or maybe a child was found lost, perhaps abandoned, on the street.
“These are children who have already suffered physical, verbal and emotional abuse,” said Prabhakar. “It is a challenge to work with them because we want them to grow up with values and do well in life.”
Said Ritu: “Orphans don’t understand the value of love and life because there’s no one to make us understand.”
All 14 Udayan homes are located within communities and all the children go to school. The idea, said Kiran Modi, an Indian Institute of Technology alumnus who started the first home in 1996, was to create homes with no more than 12 children and two full-time caregivers living on the premises, so that they feel more like family. Uniquely, each home has at least one ‘mentor parent’, a volunteer to talk to and mentor the girls as they reach adulthood.
Ritu, who studied fashion design after completing her 12th grade, now shares a flat in Delhi with her house sister, one of the two girls who came to Udayan with her. “When I first left the house, I discovered for the first time that in the outside world people are selfish. But I chose to be strong. So I can cope. I now live with my sisters and I am not afraid of going anywhere alone, not even at night. I can handle myself anywhere.”
Ritu has just quit her job with the advertising department of a global MNC so that she can in October accompany a group of Udayan children on a year-long music tour of the United States. “I’m responsible for these kids, their laundry, food and even their schooling on the road,” she said.
On paper, India’s children are protected by a slew of laws, including the Commissions for Protection of Child Rights Act, 2005. But there is laxity in implementing these laws. “Despite the many laws, schemes and policies, there is poor and ineffective implementation compounded by gross delays in rendering justice to children,” said Dixit.
It took a 2013 Supreme Court order to begin monitoring and auditing of childcare institutions —a requirement since 2000. States do not lack funds for an audit. For 2013-14, the year before CIF’s mapping exercise began, nearly ~300 million under the Integrated Child Protection Scheme had been unspent. Madhya Pradesh alone had an unspent grant of ~108. 4 million, according to court records. Why couldn’t this money be spent on conducting social audits, observed the court?
Everybody agrees that India’s childcare institutions are in urgent need of fixing, but no one knows how to go about it.
“Strengthen families so that they can take care of their own children,” said Bharti Ali, who along with Enakshi Ganguly is a co-founder of Haq. “The law has provisions for strengthening families through a sponsorship scheme of the government so that children can be looked after in their own homes. But these options have not been explored .”
How does India ensure that a Muzaffarpur or a Deoria never happens again? There is no such assurance.
Nearly a quarter of all shelter homes where girls are housed do not have a woman manager in charge
Reprinted with permission from Indiaspend.org, a data-driven not-for- profit organisation
There is no estimate of how many children placed in institutions go to school