India File

They are girls and boys — not women and men — and they’re getting exploited

Akhila Nagar | Updated on July 27, 2018

A young boy and his child bride   -  Sandeep Saxena

A youngster working at a garage   -  THE HINDU

CRY’s recent report makes a case for addressing the extreme vulnerability faced by ‘childescents’ in the country

Seventeen-year-old Rani Kale, from the Parbhani district of Maharashtra, narrowly escaped being married off when she was 16. In a similar incident, Julie Kumari from Bansipur village in Bihar managed to stave off matrimony with the help of her headstrong mother. But these rare success stories do not erase the fact that 9.2 million children in India are married off between ages 15 and 18.

Not very different is the plight of 15-year-old Raju from Delhi, one among lakhs of boys in the 15-18 age group who eke out a living labouring like grown-ups. Raju changes tyres and runs errands at an automobile workshop in the Capital’s Shahdara region.

Lost in the transition from childhood to adulthood, a staggering 100 million in this delicate adolescent age of 15 to 18 suffer, with no respite. The causes are varied — child marriage, lack of education, being forced to work or mental health issues.

The lack of importance given to this critical age group prompted Child Rights and You (CRY) to conduct a study of the category they refer to as Childescents — the 15 to 18 age group that has its own unique vulnerabilities and transformational potential. The study, Childescents in India – We are Children too, released this month, hopes to identify gaps in data regarding the susceptibilities of these childescents, to influence policy and decision-makers for better intervention.

With no standard definition to identify which age category these childescents belong to, availing legal remedy is difficult. For instance, the Right to Education Act of 2009 does not consider childescents within its mandate. The amended Child and Adolescent Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986 allows adolescents in this age group to work in employment deemed “non- hazardous” but includes domestic work, working in dhabas, zari making, carpet weaving, in effect, “the entire universe of informal labour is opened to those who wish to reduce their cost margins through employing childescents,” says the report.

The age group also faces various constraints in their immediate life, such as the economic and social pressure to give up school, entry into marriage and parenthood before they are ready, and the lack of ability to be able to explore their interests and talents.

The report highlights various areas of vulnerability for these individuals, in education, health, nutrition, and child protection. With regard to education, only half of the childescents in India have access to secondary school, with only 30.5 per cent of them transitioning into secondary and higher secondary education. Besides, there is widespread gender, class, and caste inequality in terms of this access. Physical, as well as mental, health is another cause for concern. A significant proportion fall in the ‘under-nourished’ category, with high rates of anaemia and low Body Mass Index.

Fragmented system

For girls in particular, menstruation and teenage pregnancy further complicate the issue, as they are associated with notions of shame and guilt instilled in them by society. For childescents, questions of self-image and esteem, romantic and sexual attraction, and subsequent mental health concerns such as a depression and anxiety play a major role in their lives. Added to all this is the lack of a strong legal child protection framework.

There is scarcity of segregated data of childescents, indicating a seriously fragmented system where different legal and institutional mechanisms do not interact with each other, and do not consider the child’s needs as paramount. Childescents are prone to domestic violence, hazardous occupations, as well as human trafficking for commercial sex and forced labour. Since 2008, crimes against children have increased ten-fold. The policies that could prevent this, however, place childescents at a disadvantage, be it the RTE, the Juvenile Justice Act (2005), or the Protection of Children against Sexual Offences (POSCO) Act of 2012.

CRY believes change needs to occur at three inter-connected levels of self, society, and system, reaching out to all possible stakeholders. These range from universalisation of secondary education, (which also accounts for gender, class and caste disadvantages); making gender equality a primary goal of the school system; school health programmes (including extending mid-day meals to at least the secondary level); adolescent-friendly health clinics; mental health promotional programmes; and finally, greater legislative functionality. As Puja Marwaha, the CEO of CRY, puts it, “It is of utmost importance to recognise that childescence as a life phase comes with unique vulnerabilities and challenges and opportunities… we should unanimously commit to altering our social perception and treatment of these children in order to make their childhood happy, healthy and creative”.

The writer is a post-graduate student at South Asian University, New Delhi

Published on July 27, 2018

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