Children Without a Childhood

By Devendra Tak (India)

School“I and the public know

What all schoolchildren learn,

Those to whom evil is done

Do evil in return.”

― W.H. Auden, Collected Poems

This week we celebrate Children’s Day in India (on 14 November, former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s birthday). This is also the week which Save the Children marks globally as the Child Rights Convention (CRC) Week and there are several events slated to be carried out across India and around the world. In New Delhi, along with 49 other countries, a Race for Survival to raise awareness of issues related to child survival is being organized. A report entitled ‘Children in Crossfire’, which examines the status of education in civil strife-affected regions of India, will be released — following the production of a short film on the same subject earlier this year. In Assam, there will be several events including the screening of ‘Ammu & Aman’, a series of animated videos that explain issues related to child abuse to children in an interesting manner, in select schools.

The CRC was the first legally binding international convention to affirm human rights for all children. Eglantyne Jebb, an inspirational woman and founder of Save the Children, was instrumental in drafting the ‘Declaration of the Rights of the Child’ which was adopted by the League of Nations in 1924 and inspired the CRC. Currently 193 countries, including India, have ratified the convention. The rights enshrined in the CRC are based on four core principles: non-discrimination; devotion to the best interests of the child; the right to life, survival and development; and respect for the views of the child. The CRC protects children’s rights by setting standards in health care; education; and legal, civil and social services.

The past year has been among the worst for children in India, if we are to go by the news that media was able to highlight. In December 2012, there was the gang-rape in Delhi that mobilized the nation and the world. There have been at least two severe emergencies, including the unprecedented flash floods in Uttarakhand in mid-June and the cyclone in Odisha during October this year. The communal riots between Hindu and Muslim groups in Muzzafarnager in Uttar Pradesh also left many children homeless and helpless. Children are the most vulnerable in emergencies and such was indeed the case in all these three. In Uttarakhand and in Odisha we saw an efficient rescue operation, and some 900,000 people (40 per cent of them children) were evacuated before the cyclone made landfall. However, the relief operations were still slow and unable to cope with the needs of the people.

Save the Children was on the ground very early in Odisha and Uttarakhand, where it set up 100 Child-Friendly Spaces to ensure that children have a safe place to pursue learning and recreation. The lack of media attention following the cyclone in Odisha, where casualties were limited but loss to livelihood has been severe, will probably mean that NGOs and the government will have fewer resources to provide full recovery to the affected people. Health services to children, including routine immunizations, and their education and protection needs remain in jeopardy.

In environments of violence, children are vulnerable to fear, injuries, separation from family, abuse and other forms of exploitation. In India, at least 9 states have been identified by the government as having a high incidence of violence. The condition of children and the status of education and child protection issues in these conflict-affected regions have been overshadowed by the discourse on conflict-resolution.

The documentary film ‘Children in Crossfire’ produced along with the report provides visual evidence of the situation in these areas.  Children there face huge challenges with the presence of armed police forces as well as Maoists. They have been suspected of being informers of either group. Some schools demolished by the Maoists a few years ago have not been reconstructed, while many schools still remain occupied by para military forces, hampering their normal functioning. Languages spoken by the teachers and students often differ, complicating the learning process in the classroom. With vacant posts and high absenteeism of teachers, the teachers at work manage schools with meager resources.

Beyond India, across South Asia and other parts of the world, the issue of inequality is a major factor in crippling the future of children who are born in poverty. Conflicts and other disasters make it virtually impossible for children to be children – they are forced to grow up amid shocks that even adults find difficult to understand and cope with.

It is only through sustained advocacy by civil society and proactive steps by governments that children can hope to realize their fundamental rights. Hopefully, this week will help to create higher awareness and also motivate decision-makers to take the right decisions to pave the way for a better future for children, who are indeed the future of our world.

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