Tuning in to daily TV debates (or shouting fights for that matter) around the ‘shelter home horror’ in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur, one usually misses the core questions. The usual blaming of the government by the opposition persists (and we are not arguing against this), but nobody seems to be ready to ask the more difficult and more serious questions of how this could happen and how it could be prevented.
The first interesting thing to notice is that it was not a report by the State Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (SCPCR) or its national sister organisation that finally brought the abuse and the daily rapes to light. It was the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) that did the audit. It was young psychologists who got the confidence of the children and who followed clear rules in their work: They accepted no hospitality, no tea, and spoke to the children in private warning staff not to enter the room. This was a clear signal to the victims: We are not on their side, you can trust us, we are neutral. At the same time, they did not make any promises they might be unable to keep.
This is a common practice internationally when it comes to working with vulnerable children, yet it must be compared with how the Bihar SCPCR acted. Their president noted: “I visited the shelter home in ’17 and saw girls were kept locked inside a room. When I questioned this, I was told the girls run away so they have to be kept locked.” It is now easy to blame her for this reluctance (even though this blaming is justified), yet one has to realize that doing this job is seriously tough and requires professional training, institutional backup (especially if investigations aims at powerful people), discipline and a clear value system. To enter institutions of powerful people and to be suspicious and rigid requires a strong character and commitment. Yet, we are right to expect this from people in the SCPCR.
We could stop our analysis here and point at individual failures. But we would not do justice to the victims if we did so. The question is how we can prevent this from happening in the future.
Do they exist? – No, not always in reality. For instance, in Uttar Pradesh, it simply does not exist for a year.
Is it run by the wrong people? Maybe. The comment by the president of the SCPCR in Bihar (quoted above) makes one ask this question. Yet, missing training can also contribute to making mistakes.
Are they independent? – No. Read some details here.
Are they properly staffed? No. For instance, regarding its role in the field of the Right to Education, the NCPCR in November 2016 stated that its effective functioning as a grievance redressal authority is affected by appointments of short-term contractual staff (Report No. 23 of 2017 by the Auditor & Comptroller General, p. 63).
Our focus should be on how we can ensure the safety of our children. The safety in schools, in shelters, at home, and also how we can ensure that their rights, such as the Right to Education, are not being denied by the government. There is a lot going wrong with the NCPCR and SCPCRs, but at the same time, the TISS audit showed that right-minded, trained and compassionate people can make a difference, a huge difference.
We have to think about how we can institutionalize this good practice, what setup and legal rules are required for our NCPCR and SCPCRs to become effective institutions. This is what our legislators should focus on, this is what we should demand from them. And this is where both, the government and the opposition are failing horribly.
We can go the easy way. We can chant “Hang the culprit!” – and nothing will change. What will we chant next time? “Hang this one, too”?
No, we need to ask the difficult question of how we can prevent this. What reforms we need. How we can get people like those young psychologists from TISS into our NCPCR and SCPCRs, how we can make the institutions independent, powerful, but yet accountable.
These are difficult questions, but necessary ones. In 10 years from now, the girls from the Muzaffarpur shelter will judge us. Have we acted wisely and honestly and did we do everything we could to prevent this from happening again or have we done nothing but chanted slogans and pointed fingers?