December 21, 2012

Child’s play

Weak implementation of laws governing child protection services in India

4576191322_43020c50a5_oThe term “vulnerable populations” in India includes children in need of care and protection, vagrants, mentally challenged individuals, physically handicapped, women (single — unmarried/widowed or abandoned), senior citizens, disadvantaged scheduled caste, inter-state migrants, among others and is expansive in its geographical spread. On paper, the preservation of their security and sanctity has been delved into deeply by the exhaustive constitutional, legal and policy framework of the country. But the reality reveals a generic three-pronged problem which these people face.

First, the implementation of most laws and policies concerning them is flawed and ineffective. Second, while great attention is paid to the construction and later de-construction of the laws and policies, little attention is paid on studying the implementation loopholes, and on designing pragmatic solutions to rectify them. And third, these cases are usually ignored until a glaring accident is thrust into the media spotlight.

Even within this group, the plight of vulnerable children in ‘Need of Care and Protection’ gets the least attention. Vulnerable children have been defined as those abused and exploited, orphans or abandoned, mentally or physically challenged, trafficked or working, addicted to substances, whose families are in crisis, and children who are in conflict with the law.

The child protection mechanism in India is multi-dimensional. The umbrella law covering all children in the country is the Juvenile Justice Act, 2000 which got amended in 2006 and 2010. This Act divides child population into two categories: Juvenile in Conflict with Law and Child in Need of Care and Protection. The law details every aspect of child protection within the country — the Child Welfare Committees (CWC), their members and functions along with the measures to be taken for rehabilitation and social reintegration of the children. So detailed is this Act that when it mentions the types of institutional and government run homes for children, it even gives specific size and shape of the rooms.

The Juvenile Justice Act is implemented through a policy called The Integrated Child Protection Policy (ICPS) which is a centrally sponsored scheme of the Government-Civil Society Partnership. This scheme merged four previously existing schemes and is implemented in many states through an official government-NGO partnership. There are also parallel laws and policies which deal with different aspects of child protection: The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, The Factories Act, Immoral Traffic Prevention Act 1986, The Protection of Children From Sexual Offences Act, 2012, and the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009. Other government departments like Education, Health and Labour also work with the department of Woman and Child Development in each state.

Each of these much detailed laws emphasise the importance given to child protection in India at the apex level. One needs to only mildly scratch the surface and the puerile loopholes within the implementation become evident.

One, there is a desperate need to intensify the role of the child protection services within the police units. According to the Juvenile Justice Act, the police have to establish a State Juvenile Protection Unit (SJPU) at the district/zonal level. Every Police station is also to have a Child Welfare Officer whose rank would be of an Assistant Sub-Inspector or any rank as appointed by District or Zonal Nodal Officer. On paper, this seems a well-organised set up but in practice, the picture is distorted. An example of this can be seen in the present situation at police stations across Karnataka where each station is to have a District Child Protection Unit. On interaction with members of the police department, one realises policemen placed within this unit are unaware of their position, as it is an additional responsibility to their existing portfolio. There is also dearth of skilled and dedicated expert staff to deal with children. Almost all members of the police unanimously agree on the need to separate the special divisions for child protection in each police station with specialised and independent staff.

Two, the state of the government funded juvenile shelters and homes needs urgent attention from civil society organisations, research agencies and government advisory bodies. The Juvenile Justice Act directs that a majority of these homes should be run on a Government- NGO partnership. Many experts feel that this dilutes the role of the government and literally allows it to dispose its responsibility onto private agencies. The state of these homes is neglected and basic amenities like running water in bathrooms, usually ignored. The children often escape the compounds of these homes by jumping off walls, climbing out of the windows and breaking the gate locks. While the Juvenile Justice Act goes onto prescribe the standard norm for each kind of institution, it rarely gets implemented in most places.

Three, there is an inordinate need for experienced psychiatrists, counsellors and health experts to deal with these children. These children face problems related to sex, drugs, bullying, peer pressure, alienation, emotional trauma, academic pressure, domestic abuse and violence. Most of them come from abusive homes, are runaways, have been sexually exploited and carry trauma which they do not know how to deal with. While the institutional homes have superintendents and care takers, they are almost never professionally capable of handling sensitive cases. Most homes even lack translators who can speak the mother tongue of the rescued child.

Four, there is a growing communication gap between the government and the children dependent on it. Most vagrant young adults look at the government as a monstrosity that will clip their independence and place them within the confines of a prison life; hence they do not look at government run shelters and homes as places of security and livelihood. When the police pick homeless children from pavements, bus stops and railway lines, they usually try to escape from the institutions they are placed in. They prefer a hungry life of vagrancy on the streets than being controlled by a state apparatus, which they do not understand, and one, which doesn’t communicate with them. This can be overcome by police initiatives, distributing pamphlets, educating children about laws and rights pertaining to their well being and advertising schemes such as the 1098 CHILDLINE service. The need to raise general awareness about child protection in the society must accompany these steps.

Instead of concentrating solely on the creation of new laws pertaining to vulnerable children, there is a need to assess and rectify the existing ones. The basic implementation aspects of existing laws demand greater attention as they immediately impact the minor population at the receiving end. It shouldn’t need a ‘Baby Falak’ or ‘Baby Afreen’ to start discussing all that is going wrong in the implementation of our child protection services.

Photo: Jennifer Kirkland 

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