Even though I think that the institutionalisation of children under difficult circumstances should be a debatable issue for child right activists, it has sometimes been offered as the most immediate solution to any threat to basic child rights by the authorities. It would not be silly to question whether the vulnerability that children feel decreases or increases once they spend their early years in an orphanage or children’s home.
I was taken aback by what I witnessed when I interned as a play therapist in one of the children’s homes in Himachal Pradesh, administered by the Ministry of Women and Child Development. Though the sight of such a home might initially seem soothing – with well-kept rooms, ample play area and a manageable group of 30 boys – more engagement would disclose harsh realities.
Firstly, the caregiver-child ratio was highly unsuitable to really meet the child’s basic requirements and set aside their need for educational and career related guidance. Secondly, the staff seemed highly incompetent to justify the positions they held. Often, they kept a strict check on children’s play-related activities, rarely encouraging them to do anything other than their academic work.
Once a boy entered the class completely in tears and kept quiet throughout the day. A bit of inquiry revealed that the superintendent had beaten him with a stick as he had entered the toilet barefoot. As it raised no eye-brows, I came to know that incidents like this were quite rampant.
Thirdly, meeting the emotional needs of these young children was a secondary concern of the functional authorities. Although a counsellor visited the place weekly, her interaction with children was rarely one-to-one and regular.
Being deeply shaken by the incident and the situation of the organisation, I initially tried to take all the children into my confidence by developing friendships and keeping their secret to myself. Eventually, I got a chance to talk to the counsellor about it who convinced me that she would look into the matter. Being just an intern, I tried to negotiate with the limited power I had but couldn’t accomplish much.
A long term solution in such a scenario would concern the role of the administration which should recruit only those personnel who are trained in working with children and have the skill-sets to develop environments to promote their holistic growth.
Secondly, such institutions should have a curriculum to provide various stimulations to the children and clear responsibilities should be assigned for its implementation. Also, the right of a child to participate is of paramount importance and needs to be recognised when evaluative measures for such programs are being conducted.
Children’s experiences and opinions are vital and need to be shared at different levels to guarantee that they have a role in directing their growth and ensuring safety.