It is 10:30 AM and Shireen Vakil Miller quickly enters a short meeting with some colleagues at her office in Nehru Place in New Delhi. Shireen, the Director of Policy and Advocacy at Save the Children India, has been fighting for child rights for over two decades now, and has quite an experience to share. “As a child, I saw the gross inequality in the society. The privileges I had were not available to many other children. And that reality made me very uncomfortable”.
After studying in London and working for Save the Children UK, across the world, Shireen returned to India in 2003, and for the last decade has worked on some of the most pressing issues that are hindering the development of children’s rights. Having started her career with the organization in the 1990s, her work spans over two decades and has been at the core of her organization. For Shireen education, nutrition, health, as well as the protection of children from violence and abuse; are all issue of substantial importance.
Every child and young person has rights, no matter who they are, or where they live. Nearly every government in the world has promised to protect, respect and fulfil these rights, yet they continue to be violated worldwide. Despite the progress we have made in India, the condition of children is deplorable.Â India loses 14 lakh children under the age of five every year, the highest anywhere in the world; 80 lakh children still remain out of school; 126 lakh children are engaged in child labour. Children constitute around 40 percent of India’s population, but these statistics reflect that as a nation we are not doing enough for children in our country. By ignoring children we are not only putting our present at peril but also our future.
Changing this reality remains the focus of Shireen’s work at Save the Children. “The Government has been pretty responsive. You will see a school in every village now. The quality of the schooling is another issue but basic infrastructure is there in the country and the RTE has been a big leap. Things have improved a lot as compared to the situation 20 years back when I started out, but the quality still remains an issue,” says Shireen about the change she has seen from the Government’s side.
The challenge of working with the Government, and getting it to address crucial issues of children, remains critical at the state and local level, as there are huge differences between states, and even within states.
An Impaired System
About the pitfalls of working in the area of children’s welfare, the biggest challenge is the lack of accountability and the apathy of those who are better off.Â “For instance, there is more support from groups outside of India, because issues such as child labour are a big risk for them. This is because those people care and will even boycott goods from companies that are seen as being irresponsible. Why don’t we care enough for our own?” says Shireen. Â Government interventions could set things in order but that does not often happen here, and people do not hold them to account.Â While we have fantastic policies, and even legislation, implementation and enforcement remains a huge problem.
Are situations in urban and rural India really that different?
The problems are definitely more evident in rural areas, but they do exist in urban areas as well.
“The situation in Delhi is not so good. There are about 50,000 children living on the streets, and whilst we have the best of facilities in terms of health and education for the wealthy, health provision for the poor remains dismal. Although there are schools, they are not equipped to provide quality education and there is a shortage of qualified teachers. Â The role of civil society is not only to provide examples of good practice but additionally and critically, to raise awareness amongst the public, to change attitudes, and to guarantee that the government is accountable for the proper delivery of it commitments.”
Shireen says that development has to happen, and while nobody is against this progression, it should not be allowed to undermine the interests of the poor and marginalised, who already have much less. “People in the cities need to care more. Step out of their Starbucks and office complexes and see if this is a modern city they can really be proud of. The reality is evident, and right in front of us.”
“We should take ownership and responsibility of the mess that we create around ourselves. Starting with children will help inculcate the change,” she adds.
“Child labour and violence against children is a big issue”
“The onus of quality education lies on state and local officials, as the central government has done its job of creating policies and providing infrastructure well over the past decade.” Issues such as child labour, abuse against children, and malnourishment, are the major challenges which still need to be dealt with.
“Neglect is also a form of abuse, because kids on the road who are neglected are more prone to abuse, and exploitation at the hands of adults.” Therefore the process of change should start by ending the neglect of children and their needs, by acknowledging the existence of these children, which will lead to the subsequent fulfilment of their basic rights
Working towards a brighter future
In the past decade our country has been much more aware and active than ever before. Shireen hardly ever heard the phrase ‘child rights’ in the country when she first joined the organization. But now they are commonplace, and people do talk about these pressing issues. The access has also increased over the years, “Access to the information is much better. It is still hard, but there are more ways to access knowledge and information than ever before; so getting children to be interested and curious, and able to process this knowledge is an important issue.”
Of course there is still long way to go for us to feed the 30% children who are malnourished or to send 7 million additional children to school, but an initiative has to be taken at the ground level. The need to have better education can only be fulfilled with awareness, and access provided by the central government cannot be allowed to go to waste while children still work as domestic labourers or in the fields, Â instead of attending classes.
Local governments often don’t work in tandem with the higher authorities, and rarely push for reforms or qualitative improvements in the process, yet they never forget to raise funds. When things don’t reach the poor, and there is no reaction from the authorities, there is a void that gives place to other elements, and it should be bridged urgently.
The government urgently needs to change the distribution of money and resources to create a more equitable system for everyone. Working together, I believe that we can ensure India’s children are well educated, adequately nourished, and safe and independent in the foreseeable future. Â Supporting the advocacy and campaign initiatives of organizations likeÂ Save the ChildrenÂ is a great first step towards achieving this goal, to ensure children become a priority for our country, both contributing towards, and benefitting from India’s growth and development.
With this post, Youth Ki Awaaz and Save the Children India are delighted to announce the #Vote4Children campaign, asking the Government and various political parties to implement more concrete steps to ensure an informed, healthier and secure future for the children of India.
Sign the pledge below and join us in informing the Government that the deplorable condition of children needs to be brought to an end.