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'Nitharis will happen until child rights becomes the focus of national policy'

By Lisa Batiwalla

In the rights-based approach, children are viewed as citizens, entitled to all that has been promised to them under the Constitution of India and the United Nations Child Rights Charter, rather than as objects of sympathy or charity, says CRY CEO Ingrid Srinath. But the Government of India's approach to children, she says, continues to be piecemeal -- a bit of welfare, a dollop of rights and large scoops of reactivity

What do you feel are the most important child rights issues at the moment, especially in the context of the crimes against children in Nithari?

Nithari (a small urban village on the outskirts of Noida near Delhi, where at least 38 children have gone missing over two years, many of them allegedly sexually abused and murdered) is yet another symptom of the larger malaise in Indian society, which ignores and makes invisible the rights of the marginalised until a situation with shock value attracts prurient media interest. All over our country, millions of children are abused, exploited and deprived of the bare necessities of life, every single day. In each case, this is because their families are economically, socially and politically marginalised.

Lasting change for children can only occur when child rights in their entirety become the focus of national policy, and decision-making replaces the platitudes mouthed for short-term political gain. Caste, gender and communalism, in particular, are at the root of most of the deprivation we encounter in our work. The feudal nexus between the wealthy and powerful and the State in all its forms prevents real change from becoming a reality. 

Overall, the child’s right to survival is a key concern -- maternal health is a key determinant of infant health, female foeticide and infanticide, malnutrition, and the availability and quality of healthcare services. There has actually been a decline in government services offered in everything from the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) to Primary Healthcare Centres (PHCs). For example, women in Thane (self-help groups) are being expected to fund the ICDS programme. On the one hand you advocate community participation but on the other that has become an excuse for the government to completely absolve itself of the responsibility of running these services.

What does the ‘rights-based approach’ mean in the context of child rights?

The rights approach recognises children as citizens who are entitled to all that has been promised to them under the Constitution of India and by the United Nations Child Rights Charter, rather than as objects of sympathy or charity. For CRY (Child Rights and You) that entails four things: looking at children’s issues in their entirety, rather than through the narrow prisms of education, health, child labour, child abuse, foeticide/infanticide, etc; seeking the underlying root causes of the deprivation -- gender, caste, livelihoods, displacement, mis-governance, etc; mobilising each local community to find long-term solutions to these problems by ensuring the relevant laws and policies that guarantee their rights are actually implemented. And, lastly, catalysing coalitions of individuals and organisations across all sectors of society to advocate for child-rights-centric State policies.

But it was only in 2006 that CRY decided to adopt the rights-based approach, which led to the change in name to Child Rights and You from the well-established Child Relief and You.

Donors are stuck in sympathy mode. CRY has never done sympathy. However, now we are looking to bring an attitudinal change to the whole business of children’s issues, from charity-focused to issue-based support. If this approach means getting less donor support, that’s a risk I’m willing to take in the interest of bringing about long-term changes in donors’ mindsets.

CRY’s NGO partners have been transitioning to a rights-based approach for over a decade. In Ghorawal, Uttar Pradesh, for instance, our partner, Child Welfare Society (CWS), has helped the adivasi community successfully achieve minimum wages and sustainable livelihoods and so liberate their children from bonded labour. They have successfully restored land to the community and enabled them to get real representation in local governance. CWS is just one of almost 200 such CRY initiatives across 20 states.

The thing is, how do you scale that up, how do you build a coalition of communities everywhere -- of the marginalised, the middle class, media, bureaucrats, the administration, judges, the corporate sector and so on -- that can be persuaded to actually work together. We think child rights should be a national priority. Millions of children are dying every year before they reach their fifth birthday: that’s a national calamity on a scale much bigger than the tsunami and everything else put together.

Our methods will be largely the same as before -- advertising, direct mailing, events, the Internet. It will be the same media-type advocacy, but focusing all these methods into a rights-based message rather than a relief message. During the last parliamentary elections in 2004, for instance, CRY mobilised lakhs of individuals across all sections of society to advocate for a children’s manifesto. Many of these demands found representation in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s Common Minimum Programme. The approach was replicated in the recent municipal elections in Mumbai and state elections in Manipur.

Similarly, CRY’s disaster-relief interventions in Gujarat, in south India and in Kashmir have focused on ensuring that relief and rehabilitation reach the most marginalised communities; that children are protected from trafficking and abuse; and that education, healthcare and long-term livelihoods are ensured for affected children and their families.

Does a focus on rights advocacy mean a departure from care and delivery services?

No. You need direct action in the here and now, in the form of balwadis, you need the community mobilisation component, but you also need the advocacy. What has changed is how we approach the middle classes, in terms of what we’re asking them to do. Until now, in many ways, it hasn’t really been about volunteerism, it’s primarily been about them giving up money. For example, we set up these community action groups in the five cities where we’ve got a range of people, educated urban middle class, slum-dwellers, professionals -- the entire microcosm of that community -- coming together to see what our issues are and how we are going to deal with them collectively, not as adversaries, as urban middle class vs slum-dwellers’ associations. Some of these groups are working on identifying how many children in their neighbourhoods are in school, or not, why, what their conditions are, how they can improve them, or using the right to information to get better services from the government.

The response you or I would get if we started asking questions in a government school is very different from the answer a parent of one of these students would get. It’s about getting them to see that any solution that gives priority to one group’s concerns over the others is inherently unsustainable.

Does CRY’s idea of rights-based work involve the participation of children as stakeholders? If yes, how is it being effected?

Eliciting genuine participation from children in securing their rights, rather than tokenism, is extremely difficult. CRY works with children and youth in marginalised communities through our NGO partners. Some examples of this are the kumari dals at Rachana, in Pune, which are actively engaged in ensuring their own rights by preventing child marriage and abuse in their community.

In Jharkhand, tribal children are actively promoting forest conservation as part of the Jungle Bachao Andolan, and in Diksha, in Kolkata, children in the city’s red-light district work together to protect each other from exploitation and abuse. CRY also works directly with middle class children in schools and colleges in five cities -- Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai and Bangalore -- to sensitise and mobilise them as advocates for child rights.

What action has the government taken on the Charter on Child Rights and on the proposed National Commission for Protection of Child Rights?  

The Government of India’s approach to children is piecemeal -- a bit of welfare, a dollop of rights and large scoops of reactivity. Knee-jerk responses and window-dressing rather than thought-through strategies. Thus, while a commission is set up and a charter drafted, the policy framework of the early-1970s that defines all decision-making about and for children has never even been reviewed. 

The present conception of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights is flawed. In its current form, it will be one more government agency, jousting for space and funds on behalf of children. The commission will report to the central government, not Parliament. This makes it vulnerable to becoming a puppet of ruling governments and taking stances based on populism rather than principles.

One positive aspect of the commission is that it has the remit to take the entire Constitution as the base for expanding the understanding of child rights. The question is, will the commissioners be willing to do this?

What do you think about Minister of Women and Child Welfare Renuka Chowdhury's recent announcement of the Palna scheme for girl-children as a way to prevent sex-selective abortions and infanticide?

Female foeticide and infanticide will only be truly addressed when families value their daughters as much as their sons. This requires more fundamental change in gender relations within Indian society. In the interim, families need to be empowered to care for their daughters. The Palna scheme is another half-baked scheme that deprives girls of their right to a family without addressing the root causes of their situation. In fact, one could say it legitimises the prevalent gender bias that consigns girls and women to second-class status at all levels of Indian society.

(Lisa Batiwalla is an independent journalist who reports on issues related to social justice)

InfoChange News & Features, June 2007