Keeping them safe

As child abuse cases take unprecedented dimensions, we should consider the ombudsperson system that has been adopted by 46 countries so far

Dr Naina Athalye | June 1, 2018


#Children Parliament   #Child Abuse   #Child Rights  


What do Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, RK Narayan’s Swamy and His Friends and Charles Perrault and Disney’s Cinderella have in common?  They were happy children who lived in a world free of unwarranted fear and risks. Heidi ran up the Swiss Alps without fear, Swamy and his friends played on the streets of Malgudi without having to watch their back and Cinderella had no qualms returning home at midnight in a fragile pumpkin coach.  

June 1 is observed as the United Nations day for child protection. This  year, there is a backdrop of increased reports of violence against children as also the spring meetings held by the IMF in Washington DC that will make recommendations based on GDP and other economic indicators of progress.

These very precise and technical recommendations of the IMF are influenced to measure progress using indicators such as gender justice, human rights protection, poverty reduction, intergenerational equity and environment protection. These indicators are at the heart of achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Several poverty reduction reports presented to the IMF have focused on the role of women and children in the economy and how their well-being is critical for a sustainable society and not just one GDP figure. However, it is countries like Norway and Iceland that record a GDP figure that are also equally high on development indicators such as low crime rate, equal pay for all genders, and zero infant mortality.

The promotion and protection of child rights is one indicator of inclusive development. We see that child abuse, especially of girls, is on increase despite the promises and resolutions made at the Beijing conference in 1995 and our very own Beti Bachao Beti Padhao initiative.

Child abuse cases are taking unprecedented dimensions. The digital age is adding to the complexities. The #MeToo campaign on social media shows that it took 20 years after the Beijing declaration for women to finally break the silence. This is in itself alarming and speaks for the strong presence of patriarchy even in the 21st century.

The Beijing declaration specifies the rights of the girl child and what government and civil society can do. Eradication of violence against the girl child and their participation in decision-making were two important recommendations.

Article 12 of the United Nations Charter for the Rights of the Children (UNCRC) guarantees the right to express one’s views and the ‘children’s parliament’ as a tool for participation is an effective and important space for girl children and for children with disabilities to hone their leadership skills in the spirit of true sociocratic governance.

Children’s parliaments initiated by various NGOs across the country are weekly neighbourhood gathering of children where they talk about their dreams, their rights and responsibilities. They learn the value of consent, camaraderie and representation at the neighborhood, village, block district, state, national and international level. It is an important space for rural girls as they learn to voice their opinion and develop leadership skills. The inclusiveness of the parliament gives differently abled children the space to become leaders and others also learn to cooperate and respect them. 

Post Nirbhaya case, a study on children’s parliaments queried 43 female ‘prime ministers’ of such parliaments on what could prevent such violence. About 90 percent of them said that a powerful, fair and quick judiciary would send a strong message.

Even sexual abuse cases, which are otherwise supposed to be fast-tracked under the new Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, go on for years. Nobel laureate Kailash Sayarthi says, “If there is an empowered national children’s tribunal, there would be effective and expeditious disposal of cases related to children and child rights would be better protected.”                                       

Alongside the existing institutions protecting child rights, an ombudsperson is required in each state. It should be an independent entity free from the executive. The idea was first introduced in Norway in 1981 and at present 46 countries have adopted it. Research shows that having an ombudsperson is a good practice for the implementation and advocacy of child rights and is beyond a simple welfare approach.

Roberta Ruggiero, senior research associate at Centre for Children’s Rights Studies at the University of Geneva, says, “The ombudsperson for children, as all other national independent human rights institutions, emerges as a potential effective interface between UN treaty bodies and the national human rights commission and child protection system.” 

A children’s ombudsperson is a champion of human and child rights,  is impartial, independent, maintains confidentiality and  can conduct independent investigation, request for investigations, interpret the case management system and creates a monitoring system. The ombudsperson plays an important role of responding to complaints by children and their families about government institutions such as the juvenile justice system and other child protective services.

As a measure against rapes of children in India, women lawyers in Pune on April 26, 2018 collectively decided not to take up cases on behalf of the accused where rape of children was involved. While this is a move in the right direction, having an ombudsperson especially to look into the cases of vulnerable girl children and children with disabilities may strengthen the commitment and resolve of these lawyers and the justice system in the country.  

“Cases remain pending in courts and which is disturbing and traumatic for the child who has survived the abuse and thus obmbudsperson are important,” says Swarnalakshmi, prime minister of the children’s parliament who in 2013 addressed the United Nations. Swarnalakshmi is visually impaired and has overcome many challenges to pursue a degree in political science. She is a college topper and is aspiring to become an IAS officer.

Research shows that children survivors heal faster when justice is done in time. Having safety nets around girl children would mean including all stakeholders, men and boys in ending violence.

Sadly, one female prime minister says, “Boys and men have an important role to play in ending violence against vulnerable girls but they will do nothing because they are selfish and watch out only for their own mothers and sisters.”

On the other hand, Gnana Shekhar, deputy PM of the children’s parliament who lives in Nagadasampatti village in Tamil Nadu, says, “Children’s ombudsperson should be appointed in each village and should be chosen from among the adults of the village vigilance committee and supported by the district child protection unit. Also, more girls and children with disabilities should become members of the parliament and the ombudsperson should give more time to listen to them as a form of positive discrimination.”

Dr Athalye is a trainer and researcher based in Pune.

(The article appears in the June 15, 2018 issue)

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