New Delhi: She has no memory of her early childhood, no recollection of her biological parents and no idea of how or why she got separated from them when she was about three years old.
What she does remember is the day she arrived at the Udayan Home for girls in south Delhi.
“I had then been living at a government-run shelter for some years,” said Ritu, who often uses Udayan as her last name. “I must have been around six years old when this lady came to take three of us away, to give us a life. It was so exciting. I had never sat in a car. Never been anywhere. I was curious about everything.”
Now 25, Ritu is one of the exceptional ones who grew up in a shelter home and found a family. She calls Kiran Modi, the founder of Udayan homes, her bua (aunt, or father’s sister) and the two girls who came to Udayan with her, sisters.
“I had a perfectly normal childhood, going to school, going to the park to play and getting the kind of pampering any child would get in a loving home,” said Ritu, who played basketball for her school team. “I was so pampered and so protected that when I left Udayan, I was scared about how I would cope in the outside world.”
Not every child placed in an institution is as lucky.
Reports of abuse from shelter homes in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, Deoria, Uttar Pradesh and, the latest, from a hostel for differently abled women in Bhopal are new milestones in a long road pock-marked with abuse and neglect.
Every such milestone brings in its wake an outbreak of outrage, which in due course dies down--until the next time. There is no systemic cleanup, no widespread reform.
“Institutions that are meant to protect and house children in a safe environment have completely failed to do so,” said lawyer Aparna Bhat, who is amicus curiae (friend of the court) in an ongoing Supreme Court petition on the state of shelter homes for children.
“Instead of sensationalising each case of abuse, we need to undertake reform that is systemic and systematic. This is simply not happening,” said Enakshi Ganguly, co-founder of Haq: Centre for Child Rights, a child-rights organisation.
“There is no accountability and no urgency,” said Shantha Sinha, the first head of the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) who served for two consecutive terms from 2007 to 2013. “The problem is that when it comes to children in institutions, we do not apply the same standards of care that we would to our own children.”
Requests for interviews with the Ministry of Women and Child Development (WCD), including the secretary and the minister, met with no response. The head of NCPCR, Stuti Kacker, who demitted office in September, said she could not comment.
But in statements made to the Supreme Court in August 2018, the WCD ministry conceded that a third of childcare homes (33%) are unregistered.
In the wake of reports of abuse at Muzaffarpur, the ministry has asked chief secretaries of all states and union territories to inspect all childcare institutions in the state. The Supreme Court’s next hearing on the state of shelter homes is scheduled for October 30.
Mapping India’s worst-kept secret
The widespread, seemingly endemic abuse, including sexual abuse, of children placed in shelter homes is India’s worst-kept secret.
Concerns have been voiced since at least 2007 when a journalist, Anjali Sinha, reported in the newspaper Hindustan that children in orphanages in Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu were being sold for sex to Indian and foreign tourists. Based on her report, a public interest litigation was filed in the Supreme Court and lawyer Aparna Bhat was appointed amicus curiae.
In over a decade since the apex court began hearing the matter, the case has taken several twists and turns, expanding far beyond its original mandate of Tamil Nadu orphanages to cover child rights in general.
For instance, in 2010, the Supreme Court asked the NCPCR to look into the wide-scale transportation of kids from the northeast to such faraway states as Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala where the language, food and culture would be alien.
“We found these children had no contact with their parents, not even during vacations,” said lawyer Dipa Dixit, who as former member (legal), NCPCR, was part of that fact-finding mission.
Middlemen were luring poor parents to send their children away on the promise of a good education. Institutions in return were using these kids to get funding from well-heeled donors abroad, said Dixit.
In the end, NCPCR recommended accountability, transparency and the monitoring of the huge number of children who were being sent to the South from different Northeast states. Parents had a right to know where their children were being sent and to remain in touch with them. The fact-finding team also recommended the setting up of hostels and schools in the Northeast, said Dixit.
Nonetheless, the children continue to be sent out of the region. In Bodh Gaya, Bihar, 15 boy-monks aged 6 to 12 years from Assam were rescued from a residential ‘school-cum-meditation centre’ following physical and sexual abuse by the monk, Bhante Sangpriya, who ran the school.
But without monitoring, it is hard to say whether the recommendations were ever adopted.
How many children in institutions?
There is no definitive answer to the basic question: Just how many children live in institutions?
In 2017, Childline India Foundation (CIF), which is supported by the WCD ministry under the Integrated Child Protection Scheme, said 470,000 children were living in institutions. But in 2018, WCD told the court it was 261,000.
“That’s a huge discrepancy of over two lakh children that has not been explained,” said Bhat. “I’m not saying the government is wrong. But if homes which are funded by the government are giving inflated figures then what action is being taken against them?”
But to take action, you must first have knowledge.
Despite the Juvenile Justice Act of 2000, which mandates the auditing and monitoring of childcare institutions, it took a Supreme Court order in 2013 to begin the first-ever mapping of 9,589 homes, including observation homes, special homes and open shelters, across the country.
In March 2017, raw data from that exercise--which included 200 questions, including those related to physical infrastructure, the number of caregivers, the quality of food served, standards of hygiene and sanitation and methods of disciplining the children--were submitted to the WCD ministry. These data are still being analysed, but some initial findings were submitted to the Supreme Court.
41,000 children should not be in homes
Over 41,000 children currently in institutionalised care should not even be there since they are either orphans or have been abandoned by their parents with no hope of being reunited with them. These children should be put up for foster care or adoption instead, said Bhat.
Nearly a quarter of all shelter homes where girls are housed--2,309 in all--do not have a woman superintendent or manager in charge. Shortage of staff is nearly endemic and there are some states with over 4,000 vacancies.
Under the law, each child is supposed to have an individual care plan. Yet, over 27%, or 2,624 homes, do not conduct the educational assessment and needs of children, despite a Right to Education Act that is supposed to make education accessible to every child. There is no estimate of how many children placed in institutions even go to school.
“In some shelter homes, we found children who desperately wanted to go to school but they don’t go,” said Tarique Mohammad of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), which recently conducted an exhaustive social audit of 110 childcare institutions in Bihar jointly with Koshish, TISS’s field action project that works on issues of homelessness, destitution and institutional reform.
In one of the homes at Saharsa, located right above a regular school, the team met a young boy who was keen to study, said Mohammad. But the shelter said it did not have the staff to escort the boy to school, one floor below and back. And the school did not want to take responsibility for the child.
And, so, the boy continues to live in the shelter home above from where he can hear the sounds, shouts and laughter of others boys who go to the school that he so keenly wishes to attend.
How to conduct a social audit: Lessons from Bihar
Revelations of sexual abuse at a state-funded girl’s shelter home at Muzaffarpur followed an independent social audit by TISS, ordered by the state government. The audit raised “grave concerns” at not just Muzaffarpur but at 14 of the 110 institutions surveyed by TISS in Bihar’s 35 districts.
“The idea was not to set out on a fault-finding mission but to assess needs in terms of resources, inputs and training,” said Mohammad, assistant professor and director, Koshish. “We made it clear to the government that there would be no interference from them and I must credit them for allowing us to remain independent throughout.”
The homes surveyed included old age homes, short stay homes for women, rehabilitation homes for people in beggary and all childcare institutions including adoption homes, open shelters, children’s homes and observation homes.
You can tell something is wrong with the way an institution is being run, the minute you enter it, said Mohammad. But to do that you have to look out for the telltale signs: Is a home for children unnaturally quiet? Do the children seem sullen and withdrawn? Does the caretaking staff signal each other through eye and hand gestures?
In all the homes, interviews were conducted not just with the caretaking staff and supervisor but also, critically, the children, in private, away from the staff.
“The children are watching. If you are being friendly with the staff, they are not going to trust you,” said Mohammad. It was important also not to over-promise anything. “In fact, we told the kids that we could not promise them anything, but that we would put their concerns in a report.”
The 15 homes flagged for ‘grave concerns’ did not all report sexual abuse. In fact, apart from Muzaffarpur, sexual abuse was not reported.
But, said Mohammad, “Abuse is not just sexual, it could also be neglect or negligence.” At one home, the audit team met a three-year-old child who was being fed and clothed but could not speak simply because nobody was interacting with him.
At another home for infants there was no medical staff, only ayahs. “That is a cause for grave concern because an ayah might not be able to administer medicines properly,” said Mohammad.
One institution that was marked for best practices was a girl’s home in Begusarai, in central Bihar, where the children were boisterous, interrupted the staff interview and showed no fear of being reprimanded, said Mohammad.
All it took was a willingness to listen and observe.
“It should not take a tragedy for us to speak up. Even now we have to ask, what’s changed? Are we serious about child safety?” said Mohammad. “Unfortunately, as a society we have general apathy towards the poor.”
Terrified of getting hurt
It was Neha Prabhakar’s birthday and the children at Udayan Ghar for Girls in Sant Nagar in south Delhi were dancing to Shakira’s 2010 hit, Waka Waka.
Neha Prabhakar is the counselor at the home. With a master’s degree in psychology, she has been visiting the Sant Nagar home once a week for the past two-and-a-half years to counsel and work with the nine girls who live here.
As with most shelter homes, these are children who end up in institutional care for various reasons. Perhaps it’s an alcoholic father who couldn’t take care of his daughters after their mother died. Or maybe a child was found lost, perhaps abandoned, on the street. Maybe there’s a little girl whose father was raping her and, now the mother cannot afford to feed her since he’s in jail.
“These are children who have already suffered physical, verbal and emotional abuse,” said Prabhakar. “It is a challenge to work with them because we want them to grow up with values and do well in life.”
Said Ritu: “Orphans don’t understand the value of love and life because there’s no one to make us understand.”
All 14 Udayan ghars or homes are located within communities and all the children go to school. The idea, said Kiran Modi, an Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) alumnus who started the first home in 1996, was to create homes with no more than 12 children and two full-time caregivers living on the premises, so that they feel more like family homes and less like institutions. Uniquely, each home has at least one ‘mentor parent’, a volunteer to talk to and mentor the girls as they reach adulthood.
“Mentor parents are seasoned parents who have brought up their own kids. They bring that experience when they mentor the girls,” said Modi. But, she warned, “It’s a serious, long-term commitment. We have some mentor parents who have mentored three generations of girls and continue to be in touch with them long after they’ve left the home.”
Ritu, who studied fashion design after completing her 12th grade, now shares a flat in Delhi with her house sister, one of the two girls who came to Udayan with her. “When I first left the house, I discovered for the first time that in the outside world people are selfish and mean. But I chose to be strong. So I can cope. I now live with my sisters and I am not afraid of going anywhere alone, not even at night. I can handle myself anywhere.”
Ritu has just quit her job with the advertising department of a global MNC so that she can in October accompany a group of five Udayan children on a year-long music tour of the United States. “I’m responsible for these kids, their laundry, their food and even their schooling on the road,” she said.
Love and care is what a shelter home child needs, said Ritu. Amongst the tattoos on her hand is a single word, Bua, her tribute to Kiran Modi. “When a child enters a shelter home, she doesn’t know what to expect and she worries all the time about who will hurt her physically or emotionally. We are terrified of getting hurt,” she said.
Udayan strives to provide a normal routine: Wake up, go to school, homework, play in the park, tuition classes and sleep. There’s a limited time slot for television and access to the computer--though none of the girls are allowed Facebook and other social media. All the girls go to school and two with special needs attend a special school.
The girls, particularly the older ones, are like girls anywhere, pushing for greater freedoms, interested in fashion and make-up and dealing with little crushes. Vanshita, who has completed a photography course after her 12th grade exam, is excited about her first mobile phone, now that she’s turned 18.
Like Ritu, Manisha, who grew up in an Udayan ghar, now lives outside, in the ‘real world’ with her ‘home sisters’ after completing a course in cosmetology and make-up. “I haven’t yet found a job but I’m good at my work. I’ll surely find something that suits me,” she said.
Putting India’s childcare homes in order
On paper, India’s children are protected by a slew of laws, including the Commissions for Protection of Child Rights Act, 2005, the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 and the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000. India is also a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1992.
But there is laxity in implementing these laws. “Despite the many laws, schemes and policies, there is poor and ineffective implementation compounded by gross delays in rendering justice to children,” said Dixit.
It took a 2013 Supreme Court order to begin monitoring and auditing of childcare institutions--a requirement since 2000; the mapping exercise finally began at the end of 2015, results of which were submitted in 2017 and are as yet being analysed by the WCD ministry: 18 years after the Juvenile Justice Act mandated auditing and monitoring, there is no nation-wide picture of childcare institutions.
States do not lack funds for an audit. For 2013-14, the year before CIF’s mapping exercise began, nearly Rs 30 crore under the Integrated Child Protection Scheme had been unspent. Madhya Pradesh alone had an unspent grant of Rs 10.84 crore, according to court records. Why couldn’t this money be spent on conducting social audits, observed the court?
Everybody agrees that India’s childcare institutions are in urgent need of fixing, but no one knows how to go about it.
“Strengthen families so that they can take care of their own children,” said Bharti Ali, who along with Enakshi Ganguly is a co-founder of Haq. “The law has provisions for strengthening families through a sponsorship scheme of the government so that children can be looked after in their own homes. But these options have not been explored at all.”
Institutionalising a child should be the last option, said Ganguly. Yet, some children need institutions. “Unfortunately, so many institutions are run badly because they are run by vested interests. Governments must ask for social audits that should be conducted by independent agencies,” she said.
Reactive action, no precautions
When action is taken against a shelter home it is reactive, after an incident has already taken place. There are no preventive measures in operation, said Dixit, who emphasised that government outreach must reach local government, the panchayat.
“The panchayats are most equipped to help with the monitoring of children provided they get the right orientation,” said Dixit. “They need to be linked to the different stakeholders in order to ensure that children are protected and get their entitlements.”
But part of the problem is the attitude of those who run institutions. “People in charge of institutions think they are doing some big charity, some big favour by housing children and giving them two meals a day,” said Shantha Sinha.
Modi agreed that a rights-based approach is lacking. At some places there is a feeling of complete control over the children. “There is an attitude that this child is available to me,” she said. “These children themselves are very vulnerable. Most have already been victims and despite all our vigilance can become victimisers. Homes need to be extremely vigilant and make sure the kids all receive a lot of counseling and the staff a lot of training.”
How does India ensure that a Muzaffarpur or a Deoria never happens again? There is no such assurance.
(Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based journalist who writes frequently on gender issues confronting India.)
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