November 14, which marks the birth anniversary of independent India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, is celebrated as Children’s Day in India.
Nelson Mandela once said: “There is no keener revelation of a society’s soul than how it treats its children”.
To this I would add that the situation of children is like a thermometer or dip stick – it tells us what is well in society, and what ails it.
Indeed, post-Independence India has witnessed many gains – there are more children in school, many more girls are finishing school, more children are immunised, there is more reporting of violence against children, thus breaking the silence and stigma around sexual violence, incidences of child marriage have decreased, and a national child protection system has been set up through the Integrated Child Protection Scheme.
At the same time many of the old challenges posed by social norms, economic disparity, and discrimination based on caste, religion, gender identities, region or ethnicity remain. Meanwhile, our children are growing up in unplanned urban centres in poor living conditions in under-resourced habitations.
The 21st century has thrown up diverse challenges for children.
Sure, there was always a market, yet the internet and social media have created a completely new world. Though global in nature, our children are not untouched by these challenges. While media bombards them with a world of possibilities, young people who lack education or vocational preparedness find themselves lost in the new market economy with work conditions that are sans job security and welfare. Faced with such challenges, children and adolescents are grappling with mental health issues, addictive behaviour and substance abuse.
COVID-19 has added exponentially to these challenges, reversing many of the gains that were made.
Owing to the digital divide and economic crisis, children’s education has been badly affected. Many dropped out of school, many of school-going age were not enrolled, and the gender gap in schooling that was being bridged once again widened. There were reports of children joining the labour force to support their families, and of increase in child abuse, child marriage, domestic violence and suicide by children. Anecdotal evidence reveals that as families grapple with the economic and other fallouts of COVID-19, there is increased digital addiction, lower attention spans, and disruption in familial relationships. Many children have lost their parents or other family members. Besides, there are those who are showing long COVID symptoms.
So, this November 14, while determining what we need to ask for our children from the government of India, we must keep in mind the impact of COVID-19 on them.
We are told that India has a demographic dividend. We entered the demographic dividend opportunity window in 2005-06 and will remain there till 2055-56. We may have lost a few years to COVID-19, but today’s children will be the workforce that constitutes the dividend in the coming years. What are we doing to nurture and cherish them?
Children and young people are a part of the ecosystem that we as adults provide them. Unfortunately, the ecosystem that we have built does not provide the nurturing that children need to grow and develop. Consequently, we see them confused, depressed, and prone to high levels of addiction and substance abuse. We find them violent, aggressive, intolerant and discriminatory – all because of what they see around them.
We really need to ask ourselves – what kind of role models are we for them?
We can change the current situation children are in by doing some of the following.
Investing in children
Over the last half a decade we have found that the share of children in the budget is consistently going down.
As the analysis by HAQ: Centre for Child Rights has shown [the author is a founder of the organisation], in the Union Budget 2022-23, children received the lowest share of financial allocations in the last 11 years. The Budget allocations earmarked for the benefit of children have remained below 2.35% of the total Budget, down from an average 5%. And this despite the impact of COVID on children’s health.
A 75% reduction in schemes addressing child labour cannot be explained when we know that children were dropping out of school and joining the labour force. Interestingly, the number of schemes for children are increasing, yet the money put into them is decreasing.
Are these schemes then only window dressing? If not, the government needs to put its money where its mouth is.
Mainstreaming children’s indicators and issues into all developmental planning
Once we recognise children as equal citizens, we will ensure that their needs and concerns are a part of all developmental policies and plans – whether creating smart cities, building infrastructure projects, or formulating mining or agricultural policies.
Even forest policies affect children. It is well known that nutrition levels of children fell once people’s access to forest resources they were dependent on were denied.
All socio-impact assessments must therefore include the impact on children.
Better access to justice and not penal laws with stringent punishments
Children have a right to protection from abuse and exploitation. For this, laws are important. But they alone cannot create social change or overturn age old norms. While enactment of more penal laws may appease the emotional demand for retribution, they do not necessarily deliver justice.
Over the last few years, we have seen amendments to the Juvenile Justice Act and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, which have brought in more stringent provisions. The proposal of increasing the age of marriage to 21 years is yet another example – in this case purported to be the solution to child marriage and early motherhood. Experience has shown that penal laws with stringent punishments leads to derailment of justice including acquittal of the perpetrators. It is only access to justice and rightful conviction that can bring a sense of justice.
Investing and strengthening basic services
What we need is a 360° approach focused on creating an enabling environment that is safe and empowering. This can happen only when all children have access to basic quality services for health, childcare services, education, sanitation and safe water, and skill development that enables them to build a financially and physically secure future.
Ensuring every right for every child
Children are not a homogeneous category. They are divided by caste, religion, gender, geographical differences, age or (dis)ability.
It is critical to ensure that there is no child left behind. Reach and accessibility of services must be ensured. This needs a sound data collection and monitoring mechanism. The government must remember that it has committed to ‘Leave no one behind’ (LNOB) a basic principle of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).
Addressing issues of sexuality and reproductive health
It is time we accept that sexual interactions between adolescents is a reality; recognising the sexuality of adolescents and imparting sex education are the elephants in the room. This is evident in the criminalisation of all adolescent sexuality by the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, including non-coercive relations between consenting peers.
Recognising this, the Karnataka high court in a recent order asked the Law Commission to review the age of consent which today is 18 years. But that alone may not be enough. What we need is a conversation on responsible sexual behaviour and access to sexual and reproductive services.
Listening to them
In Mahatma Gandhi’s words: “The greatest lessons in life, if we would but stoop and humble ourselves, we would learn not from the grown-up learned men, but from the so-called ignorant children.”
Today, the dreams and aspirations of our children and young people are changing. We need listen to them and provide them with platforms that encourage them to speak freely without fear. Can we tell them that to dissent is not wrong? Yes, but only when we as adults value dissent. An environment where adults live in fear and dissent is punished will not breed independent thinking, fearless youth who can take forward the democracy we wish to be.
But then, why restrict ourselves to thinking of our children to just November 14? Should every day not be Children’s Day when these commitments are reiterated? After all, today’s children are the adults of tomorrow.
Enakshi Ganguly is the co-founder of HAQ: Centre for Child Rights and its former co-director. She is also Honorary Professor at the National Law University, Odisha.