Why are we failing to protect our children?

As reports of child trafficking, sexual abuse and child rape feature in our newsfeeds from around the country with regular and horrifying frequency, we are compelled to ask these urgent questions: do our children have any rights? We know of the right to food and right to education for India’s children. Do they also have a right to protection from predators in our society? Who is responsible for protecting the children — arguably the most vulnerable segment of our population?

Article 19 (1) of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC, ratified by India in 1992) clearly outlines the role of the State in preventing abuse and neglect: States Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child.

Article 20 goes on to elaborate the State’s role in finding alternative care for children who are rendered further vulnerable through loss of parental care. It will not be an understatement to say that India is failing spectacularly in the implementation of Articles 19 and 20 of the UNCRC.

Clearly, the dismal status of our children due to violence and abuse is not due to a lack of a child rights framework, or a lack of laws within our country.

The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO, 2012) is fairly elaborate in outlining the protection of children, and the punishments to be imposed on perpetrators of sexual offences against children.

Why is it then that we are witnessing this ‘culture of impunity’ — where perpetrators seem to be regularly getting away with sexual assaults, abuse and murder of children? Can we recall any stringent punishments that were meted out by our justice system under POCSO? How are our institutions of law and order — whether the police or the judiciary — performing in protecting our children from such extreme abuse and violence?

The third edition of Public Affairs Index (PAI-2018) released recently by the Public Affairs Centre, Bengaluru, has a special feature on ‘Children of India’. The chapter constructs a child rights index based on 31 indicators, grouped into five themes. The states of India are ranked on governance related to child rights, based on a composite score on these themes.

One of the themes — protection of children — has six indicators, including child labour, child marriage, crimes against children under the Indian Penal Code and crimes against children under POCSO, and crimes against children under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act.

Another theme — institutional structures and governance —examines the pendency rates of cases with the police and courts, in addition to other indicators like the prevalence of district child protection units, juvenile boards, special courts and child helplines.

There is an urgent need for states to study their own data carefully (the data used are all from government sources) and analyse where they are falling short in protecting children. Do the pendency rates with the police and the courts demonstrate the seriousness (or lack of it) with which the states are addressing the issue?

Moving to zero tolerance

The Child Rights Index is a window into the enormity of the challenges children of India are facing today. In addition to challenges of malnutrition, stunting, wasting, poor educational outcomes, and unequal access to opportunities for adolescents, the physical and sexual violence against children — especially against the girl child but certainly not limited to her — are a particularly egregious violation of their human rights. There is a drastic increase in the number of cases reported; one can imagine how many more go unreported. How do we get from a culture of impunity to a culture of zero tolerance?

Our institutional structures and governance mechanisms need to be adequately equipped to move our society away from this culture of impunity that has led to a 500% increase in reported crimes against children between 2006 and 2016 (as per the National Crime Records Bureau).

If departments and ministries work in silos, it is the children of India that suffer due to lackadaisical implementation and enforcement.

If there is political will and an urgency to make child rights a national priority, perhaps government, civil society, advocacy organisations, educational institutions and communities can work together to make life better for the children of India.

Failing this approach, it is a long, rocky road ahead. As we lament in the Children of India chapter, “Of what use is the nation’s economic success and political stature on the world stage if our children, especially the marginalised, the girl child, the rural, the most vulnerable, are to navigate personal, physical, psychological and social landmines every day of their lives?”

(The writer is Senior Manager, Public Affairs Foundation, Bengaluru)

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