Legal Framework of Children’s Rights in India: Reflections from Fieldwork
Children are the future of each nation, so it therefore follows that it is essential for each government to protect and to uphold children’s rights. Three main areas of children’s rights include: food and nutrition, protection from violence and abuse, and education. According to the Indian Constitution and certain Supreme Court orders and Acts of the Parliament, children are entitled to several rights under these categories. While working with the MV Foundation, a child rights organization based in India, I had the opportunity to talk to several girls taken out of child labour and placed into a transitional academics residential camp before entering public school. I found that while several programmes such as ration shops and mid-day meals at school seem to work relatively efficiently, others – on which I will focus in this post, require more government attention. Therefore, it became increasingly apparent that there was a stark difference between the laws in place to protect the rights of children and their actual implementation.
The right to food and nutrition is one inherent in the Indian Constitution. Childcare and development centres called Anganwadis are in place to implement the law, supposedly providing pre-school care, basic healthcare and nutrition specifically to malnourished children, adolescent girls, pregnant women and nursing mothers. According to my interviews, it seems that the Anganwadi programme is not functioning entirely effectively. For instance, some girls mentioned that although there were Anganwadis in their locality, they did not have access to the free meals and medicine this centre is meant to provide – indicating that they were most likely not very well maintained. I was able to visit two Anganwadi centres while working in Hyderabad: while one was well maintained, the other was highly indicative of a lack of government attention. The children at the centre were forced to sit outside because the ceiling of the only room in the centre had started to break in. On top of this, there was no electricity in the centre and one of the assistants mentioned that many pregnant women came to get milk and eggs from the Anganwadi and then take them home to eat because the conditions there were of such poor quality. Through these interviews and visits, I realized that it’s obviously important to put programmes like Anganwadi centres in place but it is also the government’s responsibility to make sure the law is upheld and that the centres are maintained and are able to function properly.
Furthermore, the right of children to protection from violence and abuse was one of the least respected according to my interviews. Only a minority of the girls with whom I spoke had not faced any violence or physical punishment before coming to the camp – whether at home, in school, or when they were engaged in child labour. This is probably because violence, especially within the privacy of households, is difficult for the government to monitor and is therefore unlikely to be reported or to be brought to the attention of child protection services. Furthermore – despite the Juvenile Justice Act of 2015, wherein it is stated that those who abuse children are punishable by imprisonment, a case against a household that abused one of the girls while illegally employing her has still not produced any results. On the other hand, the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) does seem to be functioning, at least to a certain extent. It was the CWC that intervened when one of the girls interviewed was about to be married, taking her into their custody and eventually placing her in the MVF bridge camp. However, this committee was not present in the many other cases of child labour and abuse that were discovered via the interviews, so perhaps their reach should be expanded to further areas of the city and its surroundings. Once again, there is a discrepancy: this time between law condemning violence against children and its actual implementation.
Finally, although all children have a right to education under the fundamental rights of the Indian Constitution, the interviews I conducted demonstrated that this entitlement is not fully implemented. Most of the girls interviewed did not attend public school before coming to the residential camp, and one of them had to drop out of school to complete household work and chores. The other girls were also engaged in child labour before being discovered by MV Foundation workers. On a more positive note, the MVF residential bridge camp was a key factor in promoting the right to education, by making public education more easily accessible to all children. The government should complement such programs by investing more resources into spreading awareness about and increasing motivation for going to school, especially in villages where it is the norm for children to stay at home and help out with chores instead of receiving a formal education. According to the District Information System for Education (DISE), as of 2014-14, only 32 out of every 100 children finish their school education age-appropriately. This number should be increased. Education is rightly recognized by the Indian Constitution as a fundamental right: it is evident from the interviewed girls’ noble future aspirations of becoming teachers and lawyers that the education they have received at the bridge camp has already made a positive impact on their mind-sets and on their lives.
Overall, I concluded that many more resources should be invested into the quality of Anganwadi centres. In addition, the right to protection from abuse and violence was not protected in the cases of the majority of the children interviewed – most likely because violence within households is difficult to monitor – but the Child Welfare Committee did function appropriately in one case and should therefore try to expand its reach. Finally, the right to education was not being appropriately enacted in all the cases of the girls interviewed – which is why they came to the bridge camp in the first place. Such residential camps should be promoted across the country as they help to uphold the right to education that provides children with a pathway to building a better future for themselves and for the rest of society. It must be realized that the creation of laws protecting children’s rights is not enough – effective implementation of these laws is a necessity for the rights to be protected and promoted.
Sara is an undergraduate reading Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at the University of Oxford. She is very interested in human rights and plans to pursue a career of law.