Promoting Participation of Children through Protection of Rights

Dr Shanta Sinha, Chairperson, National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), New Delhi, India is known for her pioneering work on the issue of child rights

Article 39 of the Directive Principles of State Policy of the Constitution of India states that ‘children [should be] given opportunities and facilities to develop in a healthy manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity and that childhood and youth are protected against exploitation and against moral and material abandonment.’ It is also states that ‘the health and strength of workers, men and women, and the tender age of children are not abused and that citizens are not forced by economic necessity to enter avocations unsuited to their age or strength.’

Yet, we find that contemporary times have intensified the dangers to childhood and have been extraordinarily harsh on many children. Increasing numbers of children are vulnerable and marginalized today. Having no food to eat, and little or no health support, they live precariously, experiencing chronic hunger, their lives claimed tragically by infant and child mortality. Having no access to basic nutritional and health entitlements, they grow up stunted, wasted, malnourished.

Being deprived of education, they lack in confidence and self-esteem. They are trapped in the labour pool in the informal sector performing jobs that are repetitive, monotonous, with no possibility of mobility or opportunities that can give them dignity. Their options in the employment market are only on a casual basis as a daily worker, migrant labourer or as bonded labourers, usually away from their homes.

Older children are trafficked. Children travel long distances across states, and even across international boundaries. Networks for trafficking children exist from one end of India to another, from Manipur to Chennai, Bihar to Punjab, Kerala, Rajasthan, Orissa to Mumbai and Gujarat. On their way to work and in their work places, it is an undisputed fact that children are subject to abuse, torture and gross exploitation.

Even children who remain in their own communities are often victims of abuse. They lack access to state services and protective schemes. Child marriage, child trafficking and discrimination against girls remain crucial challenges. There is a growing number of children affected and infected with HIV and AIDS, displaced due to natural disasters and civil unrest, representing a new generation of hazards the child faces in India.

One episode of drought or illness in the family and lack of employment for some length of time can bring destitution and increase vulnerability. Children being the youngest in the family are worst affected. In fact, this forces many of them into illegal nexuses and even armed conflict. Eventually they become marginalized having no access and capacities to deal with the system (of authority and power).

Children with disabilities are left uncared for as the services for their access to education, health, play, art, culture and recreation, and other entitlements are negligible. They remain hidden and invisible.

After more than sixty years of independence in India we find that many of our children are at risk and that there is a deficit in childhood in every respect harming the development of our children’s fullest potential. In the long run this affects their right to participate as citizens, realize dignity, and enjoy equality and social justice meted through state laws and policy. This deficit childhood and deprivation has over decades led to deficit citizenship.

However, there have been instances where many a child has fought a lonely battle to get out of violence and abuse in one’s own family, has escaped while being trafficked or struggled against being engaged as child labour. Such children have shown phenomenal courage, but often most end up as street children or get repeatedly embroiled in situations of risk.

There have been situations when children have been able to exercise agency consequent to community mobilization and a ground swell of support for their protection. It has been found that when children know they have allies in adults who are willing to vouch for them and take up their cause for the protection of their rights, they pick up courage to defy the abusive system. Anchoring their struggle on the ray of hope that they will be extricated from drudgery and exploitation, they bravely fight for freedom and liberty. Children stand firm and take the risk to walk out of their pasts.

Children with disabilities too have shown capacities to exercise autonomy given enabling conditions. It is essential to respect their right to participate in and take responsibility for the decisions they are capable of taking and to provide appropriate protection.[1]

A supportive environment and robust care-giving public institutions are indispensable for children to realize their fullest potential and to promote their participation. Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) provides that every child capable of forming her or his own views has the right to freely express those views and to have them duly considered in all decisions that will affect that child, in accordance with the child’s age and maturity.

It has become imperative that governments, communities and families take on the responsibility to respect the capacity of children to participate, exercise autonomy and take decisions that enhance their dignity.

[1]. See Article 3 (h) of Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that stipulates “respect for the evolving capacities of children with disabilities”.

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