Prerana is one of the pioneers of anti-trafficking initiatives in India, actively working in this domain for nearly 3 decades. We work with child rights and child protection in Mumbai and nearby districts of Maharashtra.
Recently, we met with some stakeholders who work with the child protection system to understand their experiences of working with girl children. Mr Milind Bhidwai, Chairperson of the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) (Mumbai City), shared his observations from his field experiences spanning over 2 decades.
Azra Qaisar (AQ): How long have you been in the field of child rights?
Milind Bhidwai (MB): I have been working in the field of child rights for over 24 years now. I work with Salam Balak Trust, and also serve as the Chairperson for the Child Welfare Committee (Mumbai City).
(AQ): What are three issues that you feel are affecting girls the most in India today?
(MB): I think child sexual abuse, early or child marriage, and lack of educational opportunities are some of the gravest issues girls face right now. We receive many cases of runaway children, sexual abuse and child marriage.
In many cases, the parents are involved in the violence or abuse faced by the child. In child marriage cases, the girls often share that their parents are forcing them to get married against their will.
(AQ): We have come across reports of an increase in cases of child marriages during the lockdown. What is your perspective on this issue?
(MB): There has been an increase in the cases of child marriage amid the COVID-19 induced lockdown. Parents feel that they can just call immediate family and get the girl married without anyone knowing. In some cases, if the girl has been sexually violated, they are being married off to the perpetrator as a form of “settlement” without anyone knowing.
(AQ): How do you think we can do better to prevent sexual violence faced by girls?
(MB): Awareness would be the first step to prevention, but the awareness has to reach far off and rural areas as well. We get many cases where the victim is a native of Uttarakhand, Bihar, Jharkhand, etc. From my experience as CWC, I have understood that the awareness has to reach all parts of the country to be effective.
I also believe we need to help girls understand that their body is their own. They must know that no matter who it is, family or relatives, no one has the right to exploit or abuse them. Awareness has to reach both the child as well as the family.
(AQ): Do you think there is a need for greater sensitivity among stakeholders working with girls?
(MB): We have had experiences where the authorities in child care institutions have discouraged girls from sharing details of the abuse or violence, telling them that if they want to be “released early”, they must not reveal everything. We take due cognisance of such matters and address them. There is a need for more sensitivity to the nature of the violence faced by the child as well, and not affect due procedures.
(AQ): How can we ensure that children are aware of their rights?
(MB): I strongly believe that children must be taught about their rights as a part of their education in schools. This way, the teacher and the student would be aware of the way the child is supposed to be treated. We have received cases in the past from reports by teachers where they feel that a child in their school needs help. We have also had a case where a teacher was abusing the child.
If we cannot introduce this as a subject, maybe sessions or workshops can be organised in schools to introduce child rights. Since the POCSO Act has been introduced, through many workshops, we have observed that many boys are also reporting cases of sexual violence that they may not have earlier. Awareness at all levels is necessary for prevention.
(AQ): Who are some of the women that you admire?
(MB): I admire the many women who actively work in the field to ensure the furthering of child rights. Ms Priti Patkar, Ms Alpa Vora, Ms Zarine Gupta and many others I work with inspire me to work effectively. We look up to them to lead the way in many cases. I firmly believe that collective work and collaboration between organisations is necessary to further child rights. We have to work together to ensure that the rights of all children are protected.
By Azra Qaisar