Bal Bandhu Scheme for Children in Conflict Zones

by September 14, 2018 0 comments

ChildrenChildren in conflict areas need special attention. The Bal Bandhu scheme is one of the means to save them from the ill-effects of conflicts in society.

Should individuals between ages 15 to 18 years be called children? Internationally, those between 10 to 19 years have been defined as adolescents by UNFPA and WHO; as youths if between 15 to 24 (UN, ILO); and  as young people if between 10 to 24 (UNFPA). Further, UNICEF and UNCRC considers everyone under 18 years of age as children. In India, the definition of who constitutes a child is crucial because it is used to include and/or exclude them from privileges, rights and entitlements mandated under present legislations governing child rights.

Under the country’s amended Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulations) Act,  those below 14 years are defined as children and those above (15 to 19) as adolescents. Does this matter? Yes, most emphatically so. One of the biggest impact for those now classified as adolescents is the loss of their right to education. The Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE) applies only to children in 6 to 14 year age group.

Since labour laws do not consider those in 15 to 18 year age group as children, education is no longer compulsory for them. On the contrary, they are permitted to work in ‘non-hazardous’ activities, such as domestic work, working in dhabas, carpet weaving, agarbatti and zari making factories. Statistically, India currently has 100 million children aged between 15 to 18 years. Over the next 10 years, a staggering one billion will pass though this age group. The implication of them missing out on one of their basic rights is huge considering only one in every two children in this age group is studying and only one in every three school-going children finish Class XI. Around 4.1 million are working and studying. And, that 38 million are working in hazardous occupations, is enough reason to rethink policies and laws that deprive these children of their childhood.

Although rates of child marriage for girls under 15 are dropping, the rate of girls marrying between 15 and 18 has increased. A 2018 report by Child Rights and You (CRY) reveals that 9.2 million in this age group are married. About 3.4 million girls are mothers and over 400,000 of married girls have three or more children, probably because only 15 percent of them use contraceptives. Their inability to negotiate family planning could be linked to the fact that one in every five girls reported violence by their husbands.

How can this be changed? CRY says one way is to untangle the multiple definitions that constrain them from asserting their rights. Vulnerabilities of this age group are often overlooked and consequently, many fall through the cracks. Another way to make their transition from childhood to adulthood joyful and aspirational is to see them as childescents and pay attention to this age group. CRY’s report, ‘Childescents in India: We Are Children Too’, details comprehensively the discrimination and deprivation faced by the 15 to 18 age group and stresses they might have seen as children too.

It points out several important gaps in child protection stemming from multiple layers of functionaries, legal systems and institutional support mechanisms that neither interact with each other nor consider the “needs of the child as supreme”. For example, pregnant unmarried girls in this age group face social taboos as well as action under the Protection of Children against Sexual Offence (POCSO) Act. This is because under this Act, sexual activity under the age of 18 is an offence and requires mandatory legal reporting. It has also made it difficult for them to access safe abortion services since the Act also makes it mandatory for medical facilities to report such cases as sexual abuse. Further, Government programmes, like the Janani Suraksha Yojana and Janani Shishu Suraksha Karyakram, which provide free institutional delivery antenatal and postnatal care, are only for women above the age of 19. Considering 76 per cent of girls aged 10-19 are married in India, a sizeable proportion of them become mothers before they turn 18. Why should they be denied these benefits?

While there is a lack of disaggregated and detailed data on categories of children in need of care and protection, an important area that needs concerted and urgent attention is to children in areas of conflict. In Naxal-affected States, preventing children from being recruited to armed conflict by Maoists/other outfits and being initiated through the bal sanghas, young cadres of the insurgents need sensitivity and an understanding of the ground situation.

A way to prevent them from falling in this trap is to revive the Bal Bandhu scheme. Introduced in December 2010 by the National Commission for Protection of Children (NCPCR), with support from the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund in five States of Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra, the Bal Bandhu programme aimed to protect children’s rights in areas of civil unrest with the help of bal bandhus or child defenders chosen from the community. The result of this three-year programme piloted in nine districts in five States impacted by internal conflict was remarkable.

Bal Bandhus, who were aged between 18-30, worked closely with the community and were able to form groups of bal mitras (friends of the child) as well as mahila sangathans (women’s groups) to help them reach out to the community to talk to parents as well as panchayat leaders like the sarpanch, mukhiya and ward members. It was this collective of people from the community who were able to persuade parents to allow their children to study and not be pushed into work to add to the meagre income of families that had four or five mouths to feed and just one earning member.  They were able to talk and even pull up headmasters when schools didn’t function properly or uniform money was not distributed to the students.

Bal bandhus were able cut through corruption and red tape to get students into  schools without paying an admission fee or procure transfer certificates without having to bribe teachers. They got the community to write letters to the mukhia for allotment of land for building school. It was they who watched over the mid-day meals so that ration stocks were not siphoned off.

Bal bandhus were able to stop child marriages and ensure caste and community barriers were overcome with community celebration of Women’s Day, International Day against Child Labour and Independence Day. Massive rallies and marches were held periodically to create awareness about child rights and seek public support against child labour. This determined band of Bal Bandhus were able to constructively engage children and stop their recruitment into bal sanghas or child cadres of the Naxals and anti-national forces. In the present scenario, childescents need a true friend. It’s time to bring them back the bal bandhus.

Writer: Swapna Majumdar

Courtesy: The Pioneer

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