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Children as citizens

Childhood in India is not homogeneous; several childhoods co-exist. Social and economic status, physical and mental ability, geographical location and other differences determine the degree of vulnerability of India’s children. The bitter core of this diversity is the wide inequality between various sections of society. The child in India is discriminated against by virtue of these inequalities, in addition to being subjugated by the hierarchy of age. Thus, all children in India suffer certain violations on account of their status as a child. The recently published study on child abuse by the Ministry of Women and Child Development bears testimony to this. Several campaigns, policies and demands for laws later, children in India are still at the receiving end of the most egregious forms of human rights abuse.

And yet, children’s issues get peripheral and often superficial political attention in India. On most occasions this attention is triggered by tragedies such as the recent killings of more than 30 children in Nithari, on the outskirts of Delhi, the knee-jerk reaction to which was immediate consensus on the passing of the Offences Against Children Bill, 2005. But everyday cases of child exploitation or neglect are rarely recognised as violations or registered as offences. The State infrastructure and services for children in need are poor both in terms of number and quality; the infrastructure is crumbling thanks to skewed budgetary allocations of funds for child rights.

The government’s responses to child rights have until recently been erected through a welfarist approach -- where children are looked at as passive recipients, and the State as the benevolent giver. The State therefore came up with policy formulations, rather than non-discriminatory and accountable delivery systems for the realisation of child rights.

In 1974, India adopted a National Policy for Children (NPC), declaring children to be the nation’s most precious asset. Hence, from the Fourth Five-Year Plan (1969-74) onwards, children have found mention in national development plans, but there has been insufficient attention in terms of investment. In the wake of the 1990 World Summit for Children, the Government of India adopted a National Plan of Action for Children in 1992, with goals for the decade. In the same year, it also ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and thereafter in its Periodic Country Reports submitted to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, India has dwelt at length on the measures taken to ensure children’s rights. These reports and the India Report on the World Summit for Children undoubtedly record some positive changes in the situation of children in India. But there are significant problems and performance gaps too.

We still do not have a law against child sexual abuse; child marriage is rampant in spite of amendments to the law; although education is a fundamental right, the process of delivery of this most vital right faces major funds constraints and administrative hurdles; and the huge increase in the number of missing girls has not yet been arrested despite the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act.

However, there has been a recent spurt of legislative action on child rights issues. Take, for example, the recent Protection of Child Rights Act 2005, the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act 2006, the proposed Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Amendment Bill 2006, Offences Against Children Bill, and the Child Marriage Bill that has recently been passed by the Rajya Sabha. Surely this decade is seeing the highest rate of legislative action on any one constituency or issue in the history of India, and a definitive shift from addressing children’s issues as a matter of charity to a matter of justiciable and deliverable entitlements.

This issue of InfoChange Agenda explores the fallout of the systemic malaise that denies children guarantees to the protection of their rights, and profiles some civil society interventions, including governmental schemes, that challenge this malaise. The issue brings together essays by practitioners, policy experts and activists who provide an insider’s view of the processes of implementation of government commitments. It looks at some civil society initiatives that are both innovative and effective in guaranteeing the realisation of child rights and creating enabling conditions for such realisation. And, most importantly, it foregrounds the voices of the primary stakeholders, the children -– through their narratives of triumph and creativity. We have two children from Kolkata’s Sonagachi red-light area talking about their experiences as children of sex workers and as young activists who have now set up an organisation called Padatik to fight for the rights of their mothers. And Vicky Roy, a destitute child who was rehabilitated by the Salaam Balak Trust, reflects his own experiences as a street child through his defining images of street children in Delhi.

Thus, even as this issue lays bare the unavoidable reality of the suffering of children in India, it looks at children as active agents of change and citizens who demand participation in the processes of policy/law-making.

The following four-point agenda might help us formulate policies and legislation on child rights issues that ensure maximum positive impact:

  1. The rights of the child must be articulated as non-negotiable and universal to ensure that the State does not use the rhetoric of ‘progressive realisation’ to de-prioritise child rights on the basis of economic inability.
  2. The stress must be on enabling rights rather than on policy formulations only, with the State made accountable not only for the recognition of a particular right but also for putting in place a non-discriminatory delivery system.
  3. The civil and political rights of children, such as the right against abuse and exploitation, must be connected with their economic, social and cultural rights, such as education and work. The disjuncture exists because children are not recognised as full citizens due to their inability to consent, which reduces them to non-citizens.
  4. Children should have special rights, but at the same time their rights should not be isolated from larger rights issues. This will ensure that they are also considered citizens and guaranteed all existing constitutional rights. Respecting children as citizens is a step towards recognising their voices as stakeholders and as participants, not just mute beneficiaries.

InfoChange News & Features, June 2007