· September 25, 2013, 9:00 AM
‘Indian Society Treats Children as Slaves’
By Shanoor Seervai
Rajeev Gupta/Associated Press
Children tried to salvage reusable material from a lake, a day after the immersion of idols of the elephant-headed Hindu God Ganesha in Bhopal, Sept. 19.
She left to set up Leher, a non-profit organization that works with state and civil society organizations to strengthen India’s child protection system.
Ms. Menon spoke with The Wall Street Journal’s India Real Time about protecting children. Edited excerpts:
The Wall Street Journal: What mechanisms exist to protect children in India, and what needs to be strengthened?
Kajol Menon: Child protection is examined at the national level, and it’s in a nascent stage. There is some legislation, like the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act of 2000, the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act of 2012, and the Integrated Child Protection Scheme. But there are very few programmatic mechanisms to make this legislation reach village and district levels. While it’s important to stop violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation altogether, it is equally important to reduce them. We focus so much on short-term stoppage, like a rescue, but we must look at long-term anticipation and reduction of exploitation.
WSJ: How does Indian society perceive children?
Ms. Menon: As an entitlement, as slaves. It’s a feudalistic view, couched in notions of obedience, that children are the property of their family. India is an old civilization with a young population, constantly jostling with age-old traditions: child marriage, honor killings, feticide. The youth is moving away from these and wants to break the shackles of caste and class. But these are structural issues that cannot be rectified with law and regulation. There needs to be a gradual cultural shift. It is a difficult issue because children’s rights structurally tweak with patriarchal notions. People don’t admit it, but in the name of tradition, they think it’s good to keep women and children in a certain way.
WSJ: How will your new organization Leher work to dismantle these structures of patriarchy?
Ms. Menon: Breaking these systems is like uprooting a big tree – it has to be done with sensitivity. Leher wants to engage youth aged 17 to 35, to whom the jargon of child labor and trafficking seems too far away. We want to demystify child protection and bring it to their level. Let it not seem that protection is an issue of far away, distant, poor people. Protection is not about poor people, it is an issue every day, everywhere. Why was there such an outrage for the Nirbhaya and Shakti Mills cases? Because popular English-language media picked it up. The attitude, ‘It happens in the slums’ is a form of denial. We need to increase engagement and reach out to young, educated opinion-makers.
WSJ: What are some of the other things Leher will do to improve child protection systems?
Ms. Menon: Leher wants the district to be the hub for child protection, because the nation has all the mechanisms and services placed together at the district level. We want to create an ecosystem for safety and protection of children where caring families, alert communities and responsive government work together. We have a three-year, phase in and phase out plan. We will work with local partners — civil society, local administration, panchayats [local village government], self-help groups, and schools — to develop tools and modules to make it easy for existing structures and mechanisms to function.
Often children don’t go to school because they have to travel along a deserted five-kilometer road and there’s no bus. All that needs to happen is that the transport department sends a bus for the three or four children in that village. Nobody has thought about it, but it’s that simple. We want to empower the local community to demand such changes.
WSJ: How do we address the fact that so much abuse happens at home?
Ms. Menon: No one listens to children. Especially when they talk about sexual abuse, their families shush them. Parents tell their 4-year-old, ‘You just imagined something, but nothing happened.’ A child doesn’t even have the semantics or language to talk about it. They express it through gestures, but the parents aren’t listening.
If the child leaves home, often the parents don’t know where they are sending him. A relative says, ‘I’ll take him to Bombay and teach him some work.’ The child may be forced into labor, abused, beaten, sold into prostitution. Sometimes the parents send their child knowingly because they want the money.
WSJ: How do we open conversations about sexual abuse or introduce sex education?
Ms. Menon: We have to begin with songs, popular culture and theater. It’s critical to engage men, not just women. The men need to look at women and children as dignified citizens with the right to lead equitable, just and self-respecting lives. The key is to find ways to reach out to everyone, including the Jat sarpanches [elected village heads of the north Indian Jat community].
WSJ: What are the different child protection challenges between urban and rural India?
Ms. Menon: Urban areas are more complex because of migration. Housing and nutrition are often lowest, but there are more services — police, helplines, legal systems — and a more vibrant civil society. Earlier, it was difficult to reach the rural population because there was no infrastructure, but today, rural India is more accessible.
WSJ: How can child protection be brought to the mainstream social agenda?
Ms. Menon: Child protection needs to be brought into big debates of education, housing, security, disasters, and migration. When we talk about housing, we don’t talk about safety and protection of children, but the children who come to the cities with their parents in the slums don’t even get to go to school.
WSJ: How do we sensitize the police to deal with children?
Ms. Menon: The police have been sensitized enough with training and workshops. All policemen are not bad; the senior bureaucrats are often willing to listen. It’s the petty constable and traffic police, underpaid, overworked, brutalized and made to feel like subordinates all their lives, who end up treating others the same way. Their responses are part of deeper structures of the police system, which needs reform.