Listening to the cries of the children of India
By Cedric Prakash, SJ
'In a shocking incident, a father sacrificed his newborn girl child to keep his promise to his family deity 'Kitotarmata.' The man, Narottam Mana Devipujak, threw his child in a drain near his house in Sundarpuri, a busy slum area of Gandhidham, Gujarat.
According to the details of the case, the incident took place on Janmashtami night. Narottam, who sells vegetables from a kiosk, had vowed that he would offer a male goat to the goddess if a son was born to him. But if a girl child was born, he had sworn that he would straightway offer the child to the deity.
When his wife gave birth to a baby girl a day before Janmashtami, he decided to give her as an offering to the goddess. When everyone was glued to the TV watching the birth of Lord Krishna, he slipped away with his baby and threw her in a gutter close to the temple of the deity. Then he returned home, pretending as if, nothing had happened.'
The above, quoted in the DNA newspaper (September 7, 2010) is not a one-off incident. It is in fact, the shocking reality of the children of India and particularly of the girl child.
Significantly, on the very day this incident was reported, the international NGO 'Save the Children' released its global report titled, 'A Fair Chance at Life'.
The report highlights the fact that of the 26 million children born in India every year, approximately 1.83 million die before their fifth birthday; and in this, children from the poorest section of society are three times more likely to die at this stage in comparison with those from higher income groups.
With 40 percent of the Indian population below the age of 18 years, India has the largest child population in the world, with the number in this bracket exceeding 400 million. Apart from the already sordid reality provided above, the picture is even more painful when one realizes that in India today:
- Less than half of the school-going children (between the age of 6 and 14) go to school.
- Nearly three percent of the child population is physically or mentally challenged.
- More than 50 percent of the children are malnourished.
- Among married woman, 75 percent were under-age at the time of their marriage.
One can reel out statistics to highlight the dismal state of India's children, but the real question we need to ask ourselves is, what should be done in order to bring about a qualitative change in the lives of India's children.
In order to do this, we need to address certain key sectors in which interventions must be done. These include:
Sometime last year, the Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh said that it was a 'national shame' that 6000 children die in India every single day and of these 3000 die due to malnutrition. India is second after Bangladesh, with the most number of malnourished children in the world. Several children die from preventable illnesses such as diarrhea, typhoid, malaria, pneumonia and measles.
India's performance on the health sector for children is a far cry from the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). What is needed is an all out effort to address maternal health and child mortality. While the government does earmark a sizeable amount of funds to address this issue, it is clear that very little actually reaches those who need it the most. What we now need is a political will to ensure that government programmes are not only fully implemented but create the desired impact to bring about a qualitative improvement in health of the children of India. The Church in India, and in particular the women religious, have done creditable work in the field of maternal and child health care but more needs to be done.
On April 1, 2010 the Government made 'the right to free and compulsory education' for children between the ages of 6-14 years', a law. This is a welcome step even though it has come sixty years too late. Needless to say, an all-out effort will have to be made at every level, in order to ensure that children are not only 'roll numbers' but are provided with quality education as envisaged in the Right to Education (RTE).
The RTE is certainly full of loopholes. There are sections of society (especially those who run elitist schools), who are very reluctant to accept it. Some feel that the guarantees given to minorities in India, will now be watered down. In the fitness of things, it is important that the country embraces the spirit of the law, so that education actually reaches every child of the country.
The All India Catholic Education Policy 2007, focuses on 'total commitment to build a new and inclusive society in India through the provision of an education of quality and relevance to the marginalized sections of society, namely the Dalits, tribals and minority ethnic groups and thus express our solidarity with them and our commitment to justice, equity and love for all'.
3) Child Labour
The RTE also seeks to address growing child labour in the country. For many poor families there is absolutely no choice but to send their children to earn some money in order to eke out an existence.
The Constitution of India (Article 24) asserts that, 'no child below the age of 14 years shall be employed to work in any factory or mine or employed in any hazardous employment.' The Child Labour Act (1986) also prohibits employing children. But across the country, in the cotton fields of Gujarat, in the zaari works of UP, in the firework factories of Tamil Nadu, in the coal mines of Meghalaya, in the carpet-making industry of Kashmir, millions of tiny hands work day and night and very often as bonded labour. That child labour exists often in nexus with the authorities, speaks volumes of the Government's lack of determination to tackle it. Civil society must come out and join the campaign against child labour.
4) The Girl Child
The incident referred to at the start of this article, highlights the pitiable condition of the girl child in India. One must admit that there have been some efforts to address this sensitive issue.
However, one cannot deny the fact that there are innumerable and unrecorded numbers of girl children who are killed within hours of being born, while many others are killed in the womb itself.
Female feticide has definitely increased in the last 50 years in India. While in 1960, there were 976 girls per 1000 boys, there was a dramatic drop in 2001, when the ratio was 927 / 1000.
It is a known fact that one of every six girls does not live to see her fifteenth birthday and this is mainly due to the patriarchal mind-sets and the attitude of many who regard the girl as a 'burden'. Around 53 percent of girls in the age group of 5 to 9 years are illiterate.
Child marriages are rampant in India, and in most cases, it is the girl child who is married off. There are reported instances of girl children from Hyderabad married off by their parents to older men from the Middle East, in exchange for a hefty 'bride price' The girl child is also easy prey for sexual abuse and for the pornographic industry.
We need to bring about an attitudinal change in every section of society. Unless, this takes place on a priority, it will be a long time before India 'saves the girl child'.
5) Child Abuse
It is estimated that there are approximately 2 million commercial sex workers between the ages of 5 to 15 years in India today, and an additional 3.5 million between the ages of 15 to 18 years. Child sex workers constitute around 40 percent of the commercial sex workers in India and the vast majority of these children are illiterate and come from very poor backgrounds.
There are several reports in the media of how children have been sexually abused by those who they trust the most, even within the sanctity and security of their own homes.
Child abuse has dominated the headlines of the world press for more than a year now because of some incidents where the accused are Catholic clergymen.
There have also been high profile cases in India where pedophiles have been arrested. Child pornography forms a huge chunk of the pornography market that is readily available everywhere both in the electronic and print form.
One of the issues related to child abuse, which the RTE tries to address, is that of corporal punishment for children in schools. It forbids any form of corporal punishment to school children
Another form of child abuse that takes place very subtly in society is when parents expect their children to perform in super human ways, be it in academics, sports or even on 'reality' shows.
Children no longer enjoy these activities but are goaded by obsessive parents.
Here again, a sincere effort by every section of society needs to be made to wipe out child abuse in the country.
6) Physically / Mentally Challenged Children
A fairly large section of the children of India are either physically or mentally challenged and a good percentage of these live in rural areas, which do not have the necessary infrastructure to cater to their needs. India woefully lacks specialized institutions which can provide support mechanisms to these children. Besides, the country as a whole has been rather insensitive to the plight of differently-abled people. Even the minimum easy access at public places and other conveniences are not provided to them. A greater sensitivity is needed to cater to such children but it will be awhile before society responds and becomes more inclusive.
7) Children affected by conflict
Millions of children throughout the country are today caught up in various types of conflicts. Several children are recruited by militant organizations and are indoctrinated with radical ideologies.
One regularly sees pictures of children wielding a weapon, be it a 'danda' or an 'AK-47'.
Communal violence too, has affected thousands of children in various states of India, especially in Gujarat and Orissa.
Many of them will carry the trauma all their lives having witnessed murder and other forms of brutality either on their parents or a loved member of their family.
There has not been any systematic approach to address this reality. Hopefully, when it actually becomes an Act, the Prevention of Communal Violence Bill will have a provision to deal with the plight of children who live in conflict areas of the country.
8) Children of migrant workers
Due to blatant industrialization and unplanned development, large numbers of poor, landless people are forced to migrate in search of employment. Besides, mega projects and even the mining industry have dispossessed many from the land which was rightfully theirs.
Children whose parents are migrant labourers are doubly affected in these situations. Even though the RTE refers to these children, no concrete mechanism is in place to address their reality.
The 'UN Convention on the Rights of the Child', provides India and the rest of the world with a blueprint on how we should address the reality of our children today. Unfortunately, many of the privileged of our country have not taken ownership of the issue, nor have successive Governments shown the political maturity to bring back the lost childhood of millions of children who live on the margins of society.
As we celebrate another 'Children's Day', it is imperative for all of us to listen to the cries of the children of India and pledge to ensure a happier childhood for them. We need to remind ourselves of the words of our Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore that, 'every child comes with a message that God is not yet discouraged of man.'
Fr Cedric Prakash, SJ, is the Director of PRASHANT, the Ahmedabad-based Jesuit Centre for Human Rights, Justice and Peace.
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