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I recently spent some days in Mumbai with our team there who are working to establish what will be a critical collaborative voice to help combat child sexual abuse (CSA) in India.
Aarambh will be in first order a National Resource Centre on child sex abuse and, at the same time, will have the capacity to access legal and other support for victims, as well as provide training to communities, relevant government bodies and NGOs on the topic. The Resource Centre, which will gather education materials, promote awareness and best practice, is scheduled for launch in November.
Aarambh is a joint initiative of the ADM Capital Foundation and Mumbai partner, Prerana, which for two decades has provided support to the children of sex workers and is led by Priti Patkar, who is a respected authority in the field.
We are extremely excited to have Prerana as our partner in building Aarambh in a country where a 2007 government-sponsored study that included 12,500 interviews with children in 13 Indian states said 53 percent reported having been sexually abused in some way. Only three percent of the cases were reported to the police.
Last year, a Human Rights Watch report said the government’s response to CSA has fallen short, both in protecting children and in treating victims. At the time the HRW report was released, Meenakshi Ganguly, the director of Human Rights Watch in South Asia, said in a statement: “Children who bravely complain of sexual abuse are often dismissed or ignored by the police, medical staff and other authorities.”
The government did not dispute HRW charges that India’s child protection system was flawed. The head of one government agency was quoted as saying at a news briefing that frequently police or court officials didn’t accept that rape or incest had occurred.
Besides Prerana’s deep knowledge of CSA in India, Aarambh builds on ADMCF’s long partnership with Philippines-based Stairway Foundation, which has produced excellent training materials and animated films on such topics as incest, trafficking and sexual abuse more generally.
ADMCF helped Stairway foundation translate the films and other materials into several Thai languages and facilitated trainings of NGOs and other groups there before turning most recently to India, where education, discussion and action on the topic is equally critical. The moment for change seems particularly right given India’s two-year old law on CSA known by the acronym POCSO. There exists confusion related to how to implement that law nationwide.
Uma Subramanian, who has led ADMCF in India over the past few years, is leading Aarambh with Prerana. She is building a team and the network of partners that will form the initiative. Indeed, the vision for Aarambh is that it is a collaborative effort, bringing together organizations working on the topic of child sex abuse from many perspectives, beginning with the Mumbai Child Safety Network.
In terms of helping to implement the law, for example, there ought to be specific medical units within hospitals set up to receive children who have been victims of abuse. There also needs to be training and special provision within the courts and police force nationally. At the same time, there will be space to comment on aspects of the law to make sure it functions effectively to protect children.
Some of this work is ongoing regionally, but the Aarambh National Resource Centre hopefully will help to spread best practice throughout the country.
Recent news articles, including in Newsweek and the The New York Times, recently have exposed the false stories told by prominent Cambodian anti-trafficking activist, Somaly Mam, to generate funds for her US-based Somaly Mam Foundation and it’s Cambodian NGO, AFECIP.
For some time, Mam was Cambodia’s best known orphan, with an autobiography that detailed her own trafficking into sexual slavery. She recently stepped down from the U.S.-based charitable foundation named after her amid charges that her stories of destitution and trafficking were largely untrue.
Mam, sadly, is one of several NGO leaders in Southeast Asia in recent years caught in deception that seems to plague the orphanage industry in particular. And it has become an industry, with children often sought from parents with promises of education and a better life inside, much to the detriment of the institutionalized child.
In these instances, more children of course mean more money for the orphanage operator and a profitable business is born on the backs of children who often otherwise would be at home. Some orphanages hand out flyers or post signs outside their doors welcoming tourists – and their donations. Some keep children in poverty in order to keep the flow of donations coming.
The corollary to this, of course, is the profitable Western volunteerism business that feeds students, gap year teens and anyone else wanting a developing world experience often into orphanages, where it is perceived that the only skills needed are an ability to cuddle. These companies have proliferated in recent years, with volunteers in the hundreds of thousands heading abroad to boost their cvs, justify a foreign trip and sometimes even “make a contribution.”
According to a 2011 UNICEF report, since 2005 Cambodia has seen a 75 percent increase in the number of residential care facilities, with 269 of these centers housing 11,945 children. Of these, 44 percent were taken to the centres by parents or extended family and 61 percent, upon departure, were reunited with their families.
Over the same period, poverty has declined In Cambodia and life expectancy has risen sharply so the numbers of orphans should be falling, not rising. In Cambodia, there are only 21 state-run orphanages, with the rest being privately managed and dependent on foreign funding.
“Sixty years of global research details the adverse impact of residential care on the physical and emotional development of children,” the report states. “Residential care has also been shown to place children at risk of physical and sexual abuse.”
As was the case with Mam and her organization, children who were not necessarily even orphans, were coached in heart-wrenching personal histories that they were encouraged to tell to those who would listen in the hopes that tales of sadness and destitution would bring more funds.
As the UNICEF report says, “residential care appears to be the first-stop solution of individual overseas donors who, with the best intentions, provide support and funding to children in orphanages.” Orphanages are also the easiest sell for businesses built on the burgeoning trade in gap year occupations for Western students, often known as “guilt trips.”
Usually students have no skills to offer the local organization, don’t speak the local language and have no knowledge of what would be required in a real job. As a result, the work is usually unnecessary and at its worst, harmful.
The funding the volunteers bring with them, either directly, or as a result of an assignment from a Western placement agency, is what the orphanages seek.
“Since almost all residential care centers are funded by individuals from overseas, many turn to tourism to attract more donors,” The UNICEF report says. “…this becomes the basis for an “orphanage tourism” business in which children are routinely asked to perform for or befriend donors and in some cases to actively solicit funds to guarantee the residential centers’ survival.”
Rarely have volunteers been subjected to a background check or arrive with any training – the assumption being that what would not be ok in a Western context is fine in the developing world? Indeed the reality is that these experiences are much more about the Western student than making any real contribution.
At the same time, the high turnover of volunteers who offer their love to children and then leave, is seen to negatively impact children who have been institutionalized when often they should have not been in the first place.
The situation has become so bad that the long-time Phnom Penh based NGO, Friends International, has started a campaign entitled “Children are not Tourist Attractions” and FI Executive Director, Sebastien Marot, has been writing on the topic here.
Of course, the interest on the part of Western students in connecting abroad is praiseworthy, if it is real and not just an excuse for a Southeast Asia drinking binge.
Without real skills to offer, there are, however, better ways to contribute, including monetarily to organizations that have long and solid reputations for work they are doing helping to protect children living on the streets, provide free medical care, reintegrate them with their families and provide education or vocational skills while keeping the child at home.
Always the challenge for an organization working with marginalized children in Asia is how to really alter an existing imbalance – for example to provide education or skills to working children otherwise deprived of learning and a childhood in a way that will make a meaningful difference to their futures.
It is not so complicated to establish an educational program or direct children into government schools – when these exist or there are places. There is real desire among those for whom education is not a given, to live the dream and to learn.
But even when education can be made a reality, it is often not enough to just put children in school, or sit them in front of a blackboard and teacher for a few hours a day. There are so many factors that act against the instinct to learn: lack of food or safe drinking water, cold weather when children don’t have enough clothing, hot weather when they must learn outside or in rooms without windows, absence of sanitation and healthcare, little support from parents, and family pressure to work, among them.
In India, where, along with support from a UK-based partner, ADMCF has been working with a local organization to encourage children out of what is often hazardous work and back to school, the challenges for learners are myriad.
The NGO works with marginalized urban populations in the worst conditions imaginable. The problem remains: can it offer education without thinking about nutrition, healthcare, encouraging family support (not financial) and expect permanent results in the children’s lives? Can we expect, particularly in the most challenging communities that access to education alone will lead to a better future?
This has been particularly true in the wake of India’s well-intentioned Right to Education Act, which determined in August 2009 much as the name suggests that all Indian children should be in school from 6-14.
This meant that our partner organization, which had established drop-in centres as way stations between work and school, was forced to rethink how it worked with children who had never attended school or had dropped out years previously.
Instead, after a brief transition, all children had to be quickly enrolled in government school, whether they were ready or not. They no longer had the luxury of longer preparation in a safer environment ahead of enrollment.
This was tricky enough in major urban areas, where there were schools and places and children could be supported in after-school programs in the same centres. But in the poorest urban slums in India that are home to significant Dalit or untouchable populations (many migrants from rural areas), there are often no government school options – despite the fact that according to official statistics, 96.6 per cent of children in India ages 6 to 14 are now enrolled.
If there are schools, there are no places. If there are places, the classes are massively overcrowded or there is discrimination against Dalits. If there is no discrimination, the teachers don’t show up for class. In any case, for the poorest children, there frequently is little learning to be had in official schools.
Enter our partner NGO, which provides that stepping stone to education but faces the many questions above. They now must mainstream their primary and secondary school children into schools that don’t exist, or where they don’t learn. Their own centres must not be schools. So what is the learning path?
For a child with enough money there is a proliferation of private schools stepping into the lacunae created by failing government education. But how does an education NGO step in to provide support to ALL marginalized children, not just the brightest, how does it make sure that all children it contacts receive the education to which they are entitled under Indian law yet can’t access?
Then, at the same time, how does an organization in a country as vast as India, where marginalized children are easily discarded by law and society, provide the conditions for learning given limited resources and India’s education act?
Clearly, there should be more provisions made to support education for India’s poorest children, particularly in a country that traditionally has placed such value on learning.
- ‘Quality of education remains a concern in India’ (indiavision.com)
- India is now the poorest in education: Pranab (ibnlive.in.com)
- After the attack, Dalit students discriminated against in schools (thehindu.com)