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Unsafe homes

By Manjima Bhattacharjya

Why do 1 million children, many of them girls, run away from home every year? Because the home is where social stratification and gender inequality is most acute

Runaways  Streetkids

This one made the headlines, even as thousands of cases go unreported. Six teenage girls from the central Mumbai suburb of Kalina ran away from home (http://www.indianexpress.com/news/six-girls-go--missing--from-kalina-colony/928080/1) a few months ago, only to be found in nearby Thane a couple of days later. The phenomenon of girls running away is not unheard of; what made the headlines was their refusal to go back home (http://www.dnaindia.com/mumbai/report_six-runaway-girls-in-mumbai-refuse-to-go-back-home_1667438). Why would someone not want to go back ‘home’?

Perhaps because not all homes are the way we imagine them to be.

Every year, according to an English daily, a million children run away from home. Research in India on runaways is scant, but claims by NGOs working with street children or ‘railway children’, such as, “every 30 seconds a child runs away from home”, indicate that matters are serious. One of the few studies, done by members of the Department of Community Medicine, Maulana Azad Medical College around 2002, with 400 boys in a child observation home in Delhi, found that over half of runaways had left home between the ages of 10 and 12, and the most common reason for leaving had been “beating by parents/relatives, followed by a desire for economic independence”. I was unable to find similar research on runaway girls, or gender disaggregated data even within child rights groups, except for one report that stated that two out of three street children were male.

Why do girls run away from their homes?

Anecdotal evidence suggests a variety of possible reasons: because they are unloved and uncared for in a society that privileges boys; because they want to do something with their lives other than what they feel they are ‘destined’ to do (usually toe the patriarchal line, marry and bear children). Sometimes it is because they want to escape violence, sexual abuse or incest, and sometimes it is because they are in love with another girl, or a boy, from another caste/ class/religion. Each challenges the idea that exists in society that ‘home’ is a safe, caring, egalitarian and protective place of shelter, support and automatically affective familial ties.

The home is, in fact, where social stratification and gender inequality is experienced in its most intense and acute form. This is an open secret. For many girls in India, it is the place where they first learn about discrimination, fear, discipline, violence and silencing. And the true meaning of a patriarchal society, even in the most loving of households.

This perception of ‘home as a safe place’ is more of a problem when it becomes the cornerstone of policy and the foundation for legislation. For many years until recently, child sexual abuse legislation was not touched with a bargepole because it challenged this idea of the sacred home and the family. Cases of dowry and domestic violence continued to be stymied by ideas of the impossibility of such conflicts within the chaar-diwari of the home, even after they were established, after a long struggle, to be crimes. Cases in which women ran away from violent homes to seek new lives with the help of local networks became incidents of ‘trafficking’, where they were ‘rescued’ and sent back to those very homes against their wishes: all because it seemed impossible to authorities that a woman would voluntarily want to leave her home and family. A woman I met many years ago, Zarina, spoke of her reasons for leaving her village in Nepal at the age of 15: a negligent father, stepmother, and backbreaking hours of work in the fields. Anything, she felt, would be better than this.  

The state response to runaways has routinely been to round them up and send them to a ‘juvenile’ home, ‘remand’ home or ‘observation’ home (in a way, immediately being criminalised as juvenile delinquents, whatever the small print of their experience), or, if possible, back to their own homes. Sending them home ignores the fundamental cause of their running away, turning away from the impact of their return to this situation. What happens to children or young adults when they are forcibly sent back home? Violence? Censure? Restrictions on mobility? An honour killing? A pair of ‘lesbian suicides’?

In some countries, however, you could do worse than be sent back to a hostile home. You could go to prison with little possibility of ever getting out. Around the same time as the Kalina case, Human Rights Watch released a report (http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/afghanistan0312webwcover_0.pdf) which carried some shocking figures: of around 700 women and girls detained in prisons in Afghanistan, over 70% were being held for running away from home, mostly fleeing domestic violence or forced marriages. Arrests are usually made on the recommendation of fathers, brothers or husbands who accuse the women of ‘moral crimes’ like adultery that are implicit with the idea of ‘running away’ or even moving around outside the home without male supervision. Human Rights Watch launched a campaign earlier this year demanding (http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/09/18/afghanistan-free-women-jailed-running-away) that ‘President Karzai immediately issue a decree prohibiting all arrests and prosecutions for “running away” and order the release of all women and girls currently imprisoned on this charge’.

In comparison, certain countries like the USA have addressed runaways in a more nuanced and sensitive manner, even generating massive amounts of statistics on adolescents running away, detailed to tendencies of children from certain races and ethnic groups to run away. However, here too the conflation with juvenile delinquency (therefore courting an indelible stain on your criminal record) and different approaches in different states has been strongly criticised (http://www.sitnews.us/0605news/060505/060505_shns_missing.html).

In the Kalina case, it took a team of four women constables followed by a number of counsellors and a final thinly-veiled threat (that they would otherwise be sent to remand homes) to convince the six teenage girls to go back to their families. But what was the alternative? There are no models to look to, no success stories of dealing with runaways differently. Until we can conceive of children as individuals in their own right, with opinions and desires, including sexual desires, and re-imagine and re-model our own homes as open, diverse, equal and fair, running away will continue to be the only solution young minds see in hurtful situations.

Not all runaway stories end tragically though. The runaways I know are strong, warm, confident people much the better for taking life into their own hands. Yet it is complicated: the pain of being a runaway, without the wall called ‘family’ behind you to lean on, never goes away. Mostly it’s because home as an institution is difficult to negotiate, bound as it is in complicated affective chains but also made up of different people: and not every relationship with every person is the same. A friend of mine who ‘ran away’ from home with her girlfriend 15 years ago and took up a job in a women’s group in another city, dropped her mother a blank postcard from whichever city, town or village she would travel to -- just to let her know in her own way that she was alive and well. “How will she know it’s from you,” I once asked her. “She will know,” my friend had smiled. Years later, she was to reunite with them a successful, independent woman having come to terms with the way some chains are invisible but permanent. We can leave home, but home never leaves us. 

Infochange News & Features, December 2012