A child's nightmare called Norway

Vanitha Srinivasan | Updated on November 15, 2017


There was an old woman who lived in a shoe,

She had so many children she didn't know what to do;

She gave them some broth without any bread,

She whipped them all well and put them to bed.

Nursery rhyme

When news broke out of the three-year-old Abhigyan and infant-in-arms Aishwarya stranded in foster care in Norway, one wondered if the black humour of Roald Dahl had materialised for real. In children's stories, Dahl, the famous English writer born of Norwegian parents, presented the world from the point of view of the child, poignantly highlighting the cruelty inflicted by the elders.

We do not know what impact the ongoing controversy will have on these two innocent children, trapped as they are in the quagmire of cultural relativism and absolutism of human rights. Mercifully, they will be oblivious to the ramifications of the controversy they have kicked up. Maybe Abhigyan knows intuitively that his parents are distressed.

Norway is a great country. It does many things right and some things wrong. It likes to think of itself as a good custodian of the environment by producing over 98 per cent of its energy from renewable resources, such as hydroelectric power. But for all its environment policy, it is a prodigious polluter. It is the world's third biggest exporter of gas and fourth largest exporter of oil and it does not take into account the enormous greenhouse gas emissions from burning these worldwide.

Likewise, Norway has earned for itself a good name in the international arena, as it is actively engaged in negotiating peace accords — be it the Oslo Accord between Palestine and Israel or peace talks between the Government of Sri Lanka and Tamil Tigers. Against this now, as an anticlimax in the socio-political arena, comes the almost arrogant insensitivity displayed by its authorities to child rearing under a different culture.

It appears that Norway, in its quest for universal acclaim, thinks that by enforcing ‘one size fits all' in human rights or child care, it would be hailed an avant garde nation.

Whimsical laws

In fact, the record of Barnevernet, as the Child Protection Services in Norway is called, is not exactly flattering. It is accused of smuggling back a child from Turkey to its original foster parents in Norway, despite a court ban in Turkey.

In Norway, running child care services itself is reported to be big business, involving an unholy nexus between child-care workers, lawyers, judges, kindergarten workers, health station workers, and psychologists.

Every family with a foster child is said to be paid half a million kroner for maintenance of the child, besides vacations to the Mediterranean, according to a report in Norway News. A Google search exposes the whimsical interpretation of laws in Norway with similar incidents reported about children from Poland, Russia and Sri Lanka.

Abhigyan and Aishwarya, born to Aurup (a geophysicist with Haliburton) and Sagarika Bhattacharya, were forcibly put into a foster home in May 2011 by the Child Welfare Services in Stavanger because there were no separate beds for the children in the parents' home; no table for diaper change; the mother had slapped the three-year-old son at one point; insufficient room to play; and toys that were not suited to the age of the children. It was also said that when the mother breast-fed the infant, she put her on her lap without holding her, holding the head against the breast, but not close to her body.

How a mother breast-feeds her child, and the bonding that grows between them, is a cultural tradition that varies across societies.

Branding the mother as cruel, in this instance, on the basis of the child's posture while being fed, smacks of intolerance on Norway's part.

India's mythological and puranic stories have stressed the tradition of breast-feeding from time immemorial. And, emulation of the same by other nations, partly if not fully, is a matter of pride for India and is not to be held up for scorn by other cultures.

India's rich tradition

What, according to Norwegian law, is the ‘deserved' treatment for such omissions? The children will be in a foster home until they are 18 and will be allowed visits by their biological parents thrice a year for a total of three hours!

Although India's record in child nutrition and Human Development Index may be dismal according to world averages, Indians have a great tradition of reinforcing familial ties by bonding naturally, with children sharing their parent's bed and under constant observation and care.

However, in welfare societies such as Norway, teenage pregnancies, births out of wedlock, high incidence of divorce, substance abuse and alcoholism have combined to make institutionalising child care a societal imperative.

According to a 2011 report by the Norwegian Statistic Central Bureau, children from immigrant parents have a three-time greater likelihood of being removed from their homes than other children. The report showed 19 out of every 1,000 children born to immigrant parents taken away from their family homes between 2004 and 2010.

Children's rights

Of course, it is not that there is no problem of child care in India. The Hindu recently reported cases of long wait, tortuous and long-winding processes for children to be united with their parents by the Child Welfare Department in Chennai. Here too, the affected are immigrant labour from other states, speaking different languages.

However, problems vary and different cultures, even within countries and regions, have different approaches to child care.

UNICEF has a mission to advocate the protection of children's rights to help meet their basic needs and to expand their opportunities to reach their full potential.

The agency is guided in this by the provisions and principles in the Convention for the Rights of Child.

However, there is a clear deficit between the text and context of CRC and no attempt has been made so far to evaluate its efficacy in protecting the rights of the child in all situations.

Actions within countries can have overseas implications. While it is natural that the law of any land should draw from its socio-economic and cultural milieu, it should not be inflexible to accommodate variety.

Mutual respect between cultural entities and the total avoidance of imposing one's culture on the others is the mantra of peaceful co-existence.

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Published on February 02, 2012
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