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EXCLUSIVE: What Does It Mean To Fight For Child Rights In India?

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By Anshul Tewari and Mayank Jain:

Ms Shireen Vakil MillerIt 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.  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.  “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.  Government interventions could set things in order but that does not often happen here, and people do not hold them to account.  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.  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,  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.  Supporting the advocacy and campaign initiatives of organizations like Save the Children 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.

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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.

You must be to comment.
  1. Prakash Kumar

    The work that Save the Children is doing in India is commendable. Advocating about right’s access and pressing for policy changes is crucial for bringing in systemic changes. But at the same time one has to realize that majority of the Child Rights issues exists in a particular section of the society, which is very poor. As highlighted in the article, issues pertaining to malnutrition, child labour, trafficking, violence etc are direct outcome of poverty situation. I strongly believe that children’s rights can be best protected by a strong family. And family whose livelihood is at stake or challenged is like a body without immune system, vulnerable to any disease. That family will always find itself helpless in protecting the rights of children. Civil Society organisations can at best act as antibiotics, primarily banking on the host immune system. The absence of the host’s immune system will render the antibiotic largely ineffective. This is probably the reason because of which Child’s well-being indicators have not seen very positive development in India despite of the hard work put in by civil society agencies like Save the Children and well meaning government institutions.

    India is still to witness a effective livelihood strengthening programme either from government or civil society organisation. I know that Save the Children does not invest on livelihood programme or advocacy initiatives which targets government to invest in families to protect rights of the children. I sincerely believe that Save the children should couple its child protection programme with livelihood protection initiatives also. It will go long way in establishing scale-able models for furthering the rights of children.

    Education, as many development thinker believe, does have the potential to bring in drastic changes in life of the target community. But one has to also agree that it becomes a tough choice for a poor family, whose day-to-day survival is in question, to choose between school and bread. And we all have seen that later always wins. And the families which makes the later choice cannot be blamed. Education for a family is always an investment. Even if the the monetary investment are met by a third party (government or NGO), mental & time investment are quite crucial for education. A vulnerable family always finds itself short of capacity to cultivate the mental & time investment. Here also livelihood becomes a important determinant.

    I believe, that in any Child Protection protection programme, targeting children as the primary unit of intervention will not work alone. Family or parents livelihood needs to be brought in primary unit of intervention definition.

  2. Shesh Nath Vernwal

    Save the Children, Child Rights and You both have started this campaign. I appreciate it so much and wish all the organization working on child right should join this movement Vote for Child Rights. It is not necessary to be associated with this big organizations, they can start this campaign by their own at local or at any level. We can make our own mandate or just follow of these organization and alter to suite local issues and ask the candidates to work for children’s future. The issues can be common schooling (same school for all the children of locality without any economic and social bar), participation of children in politics, child trafficking, health, protection of children from sexual offenses, malnutrition etc.

  3. ashutosh

    dont worry middle class is out on streets to eclipse the poor! they wont allow any any attention to marginalized section of the society!

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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