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Talking Policy: Shantha Sinha on Child Rights in India

Child poverty, child labor, and child marriage affect millions of young people in India, despite several laws meant to prevent them. The MV Foundation, founded by activist Shantha Sinha, has been campaigning for children’s rights since 1981. World Policy Journal spoke with Sinha, also former chairperson of the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights, about the MV Foundation and NCPCR’s efforts to protect child rights, the impact of globalization on children, and the steps needed to address child labor and high rates of school dropout in India. 

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: How has the concept of child rights developed over the years in India?

SHANTHA SINHA: India signing the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1992 was an important benchmark. More people recognize child rights now than before. The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights was set up in 2005, and it is important to note that it specifies the protection of children's rights, not children's welfare. Calling these rights makes them a state obligation.

Especially in the last decade, there have been many laws regarding children, generating a lot of discussion. The Right to Education Act in 2009 made education a fundamental right, and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act was passed in 2012. We also saw the Juvenile Justice Act come into effect in 2015, as well as the Child Labor Amendment Act in 2016. Every other year there has been legislation or amendments to legislation. I think we are moving forward, but a lot more needs to be done. 

WPJ: You started MV Foundation in 1981, and your group has been actively involved in addressing the problem of child labor by universalizing education. What are the main strategies the organization has adopted to fight child labor?

SS: We started working on child labor in 1991. We followed a rights-based approach. We felt we should engage with the system, and ensure that the system is corrected and is able to protect children and their rights. We were very conscious not to develop any parallel institution or set up our own schools. We linked the issue of elimination of child labor with getting every child the right to education. They are two sides of the same coin. In 1991, night schools were being set up for out-of-school children, under the assumption that they are to work and contribute to the family income because they are poor. We were one of the first NGOs in the country that questioned these night schools for children, because children have a right to education, and a night school only justifies child labor.

Our strategies have been two-fold: One side is social mobilization, to get everybody in the village to agree that the child must not work, and the second is to prepare the community to engage with the education system, the Labor Department, and other functionaries to see that they implement the laws and policies and protect children. We had to do both simultaneously. 

WPJ: What were the most significant steps that you took as chairperson of the National Commission of Protection of Child Rights between 2007 and 2012?

SS: An important step was to try and institutionalize processes within the commission for conducting public hearings, summoning officials, and setting up working groups. Since I was the first chairperson, I had to establish the protocols and procedures for the commission to carry out its tasks.

We set up separate cells to deal with the right to education, protection of children from sexual offenses, and children specifically from northeast India, a region that lags behind in social and economic development. We successfully lobbied for an amendment to the Child Labor Act, to bring it in sync with the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE). Earlier, the Child Labor Act allowed children to work in non-hazardous occupations, but with the RTE, we cannot allow that, because every child has a right to education. We also introduced elements of child jurisprudence into the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, and made it as child-friendly as possible. We launched the Bal Bandhu Scheme, aimed at protecting the rights of children in areas of civil unrest.

The Commission set the standard for what children's rights are, and how one should take an uncompromising stand for children and their rights. 

WPJ: How has globalization impacted children?

SS: A lot of children work in the informal sector, for major multinational companies. For example, the making of leather shoes is labor-intensive. Children are a source of cheap labor, and they work almost mechanically, quickly stitching these shoes. Multinational companies have also invested heavily in the production of cotton seeds, and it is mostly girl children who work in these cotton farms. So, you can trace links to globalization in much of what children are producing in the informal sector and agriculture. And the informal sector itself is a product of globalization. Companies are outsourcing because they don't have to abide by labor laws. The informal sector is growing, and that is also due to globalization. This sector absorbs children more than anything else. 

WPJ: Children's Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act of 2009, was passed with the aim of making education a fundamental right for children between 6 and 14. It has been eight years since it was enacted. Has the RTE had a significant impact? Can it be improved?

SS: There has been a phenomenal increase in the number of children going to school. The RTE has created a demand for schools, and it has provided a legitimate tool for the poor to demand better education for their children. I am not sure if it has worked well in terms of getting every child into school, because many children are still out of school and working in the growing informal sector. So, RTE has not completely resolved the problem of out-of-school children. That remains a challenge. 

There is no system of accountability under the RTE. The act has given entitlements in terms of schools, curricula, and teachers, but when they are not offered, there is no grievance or redress mechanism for children. No official is held responsible for not complying with the act. Although it states that the State Commission for Child Rights and the National Commission for Child Rights should monitor implementation of the RTE, it does not specify whom these commissions have to hold accountable if, say, there is shortage of teachers in schools. There has to be some punitive action for not complying with the act. 

Another problem is that education does not have adequate investment. We have been crying ourselves hoarse, arguing that 6 percent of the country's GDP should be allotted for education. But that has not been done.

WPJ: According to a study conducted by the UNESCO, nearly 47 million children in India drop out of school by the 10th grade. How can this problem be tackled? 

SS: There has to be simultaneous, organized planning for education at all levels, from preschool to grade 12. Now, there is no continuity between the different stages: pre-school, primary, secondary, and higher-secondary education. Children drop out between each stage because they have to shift from one institution to another to reach the next level. Providing children with the documentation to go to the next school should become a seamless, automatic institutional procedure. It is not so now. Children should be able to move from one grade to another without disruption, and the responsibility of facilitating this continuation should fall with the school system. This is important to ensure that children do not drop out.

The school system is also not set up to address the needs of the first-generation learners, or children from the scheduled caste and scheduled tribe communities. Schools should not insist on documents like birth certificates, health certificates, income certificates, or Aadhar cards (12-digit unique identity numbers). These families cannot cope with endless documentation. They may have never dealt with paper in their lives, because they have been denied access to literacy for generations. These parents should not be reprimanded for not giving support to children, because they don't know what support they need to give. They have never sent a child to school. The schools should take on the responsibility of fulfilling what are now seen as parental duties. 

WPJ: Corporal punishment in schools is banned in many Indian states, but is still rampant. How can the use of physical force in schools be monitored and controlled, and how can attitudes toward corporal punishment be altered?

SS: Learning is possible only in an environment of fearlessness, and punishment has never improved the quality of learning of children. And it is a violation of human rights. It is an exercise of power and authority of teachers over the child, where the adult has unquestioned power to physically and mentally harm the child. This is just like the man-woman relationship, which is often governed by power. We call that patriarchy, and I call this "adult-archy." We have to break these attitudes toward power.

There should be a children's committee in every class, and the children will have to be trained to speak out and submit anonymous suggestions without being stigmatized. Teachers will have to be trained, too, and shown that forming a partnership and engaging with children can be more creative and productive than a class full of fear. 

WPJ: The Indian Parliament passed the Child Labor (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Act in 2016, which allows children to work in family enterprises after school hours and during vacations. This amendment, the government says, will help strike a balance between children's need for education and the socio-economic realities of the country. What do you think of this argument?

SS: I am very disappointed and outraged that this concession has been made. Although the government says that it is in the interest of the family to preserve tradition and culture, I think it is in the interest of the informal sector, which depends largely on child labor. 

These children are not allowed to go out and play after school hours, or do homework. They are not able to pay attention to their studies, and there is risk of them being pushed out of school. By allowing children to work after school, you are actually fostering school dropouts. This clause will certainly make child labor less visible. Also, people can take advantage of this clause, running any sort of business in the name of family enterprise.

However, what was significant was the variety of protests against this clause, which forced the government to clearly define what it deems acceptable work for children. The act says children are allowed to help in these enterprises, but cannot engage in any commercial activity. But who is there to check whether an action is a commercial or non-commercial activity? Offering this clarification, though, showed that the government was at least conscious of the outrage in the civil society when this clause was introduced.

WPJ: Children, particularly girls, are pulled out of school and married off despite the child marriage law that makes it illegal for girls below 18 and boys below 21 to marry. Between 2000 and 2012, according to the UNICEF, India had the second-highest rate of child marriage in the world. Where has the law fallen short?

SS: One has to look at child marriage not as marriage, but as an invasion of the body, mind, and sexuality of a child. The minute you call it marriage, it acquires sanctity.

The child marriage law is weak. It does not make child marriage totally voidable. It can be used to prevent a child marriage: When there is a complaint, a prevention officer can stop the marriage, and arrest all those who are party to it. But if the marriage takes place, then it is considered consummated. A girl can later ask for her marriage to be declared void before a judicial magistrate with the help of parent, guardian, or child-marriage prohibition officer. It is only after she turns 18 that she can go to court on her own. Is it practical to expect that a girl would exercise agency and seek nullification of her marriage? The law doesn't discuss the state's responsibility toward the child, from providing shelter to protecting the child from pregnancy, marital rape, and other harm.

*****

*****

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy  interviews. 

[Interview conducted by Divya Ramesh]

[Photo courtesy of Shantha Sinha]

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