I need help: perhaps you can offer me some advice or wisdom. Let me tell you about the problem I face. As part of my work in caring for children, teaching and writing, I was in India during February. And I found myself trying to span what seemed like an unbridgeable gulf. It was not, as you might suspect, the gap between rich and poor, although that is as huge and unacceptable as ever; it was not the division between those of different faiths, although there is continuing evidence that mutual fear and suspicion is rife in many parts of India; it was not between the tribal areas and the fast-growing high-tech cities, although the gap is widening exponentially. So what, you may wonder, was the chasm-like gap that baffled me?
Poverty and its effects
It was to do with child protection. Here is the problem exactly as it began to make itself felt to me. At a conference in Bangalore one of my longstanding female colleagues and friends spoke passionately from long personal and professional experience about the chronic abuse and neglect suffered by millions of children in India in the course of daily life. She is a sociologist and so was aware of the patterns, the institutionalisation of this suffering: it is part of the culture, the fabric, embedded in the history of India. She spoke of infanticide: the rich who terminated pregnancies of girl-children in the womb, while the poor were forced to abandon (usually so that they died) girl-children immediately after they were born. She spoke of the lot of girl-children all through their lives until marriage and then some of the harsh realities of married life for women.
She spoke of the realities of poverty that forced boy children into back-breaking labour, and girl children into prostitution and sex-trafficking. She spoke of the realities of education outside English-medium schools. She spoke of street children. She spoke of the lives of children where the fathers were migrant workers in the Middle East. She spoke of the way in which children with disabilities were seen as possessed by devils, and their families shunned. She spoke of the appalling lot of child-widows. And when her allotted time had run out, she continued to speak. In fact nothing could stop her. She felt it her duty to paint what she knew to be a true, though dark, picture of the suffering of so many of India’s children.
Sadly nothing of this was a complete surprise to me: after all, I had spent years studying the lot of children in India in the period 1858-1922. What was so harrowing was this authoritative reminder that the suffering still continued a century later, and over sixty years since Independence. I asked my colleague for a copy of her paper, so that I could keep it with me. She gave me the original and wrote some very kind words on it. Then I boarded a plane for Pune still clutching her paper.
Child protection policy
Near Pune I stayed in the residential community where I had lived and studied while doing my doctoral research. My colleagues there were keen to discuss a range of things but uppermost in their minds was the need to update their child protection policy. They showed me what they had developed, and relayed to me what officials saw as its inadequacies. They needed to make sure that every child in their care was able to read the policy. And frankly they were worried. The policy was very specific in its descriptions of abuse and neglect, including references to oral, vaginal and anal penetration alongside much else. Was it wise or sensitive to encourage (if not force) all the girls to read this? What unintended consequences might such a policy have? And what about the sheer amount of time and energy required to up-date, implement, monitor, and deliver the policy?
Let me make it clear: at no stage was there any query about the need to provide a safe place for vulnerable children, and to develop and maintain a robust safeguarding policy. It was just how to find an appropriate balance between the spontaneous discoveries of children and childhood, and the consequences of an inflexible standardised policy that by its very nature could not be adapted to individual needs without rendering it ineffectual. We discussed things at some length and I made some suggestions from our experience at Mill Grove, and also what I have learned from my friends in the Churches Child Protection Advisory Service in the UK. I hope this proves useful.
I did not refer my colleagues to the paper I had brought with me from Bangalore, but later that evening I pondered things. The child protection policy and the lecture notes happened to be about the same length, both on sheets of A4. Yet there was a world of difference. The former was being implemented in a place of rescue, a safe place; the latter described what was happening in the world outside this residential community. Now, of course, I am aware that no place is ever immune from the risk of harm to children and that we must be ever vigilant. But the gulf here was vast.
I saw a little boy in the community who had been placed in a black plastic refuse bag as a way of disposing of him. He had been rescued and his life saved. I held the hands of a blind toddler, a little girl who had been abandoned at birth, and miraculously survived. I was surrounded by girls who had been saved from lives of abuse and neglect. They were the fortunate ones. But the child protection policy was designed for them, not for the millions of unprotected children outside this safe place!
What’s to be done?
Energy and effort is being channeled into devising watertight policies for a few places, while in India at large, child protection is for many children unknown. Is there a risk of busying ourselves as professionals with the little world we know at the expense of the great world we choose not to attend to? Perhaps you will say that safeguarding children has to start somewhere, and so it is sensible to start in places where we have some measure of control, before extending the reach of the policies.
I am afraid that sounds disingenuous. The gulf is too great: it is unbridgeable by this means. By this method the vast majority of children in India will never be safe and saved. There has to be a huge change of culture in India as a whole. But how to achieve this? (I think of The Good Childhood Inquiry in England with its call for a change of attitude towards children focusing on mutuality rather than selfish individualism: I have not detected much sign of this change so far, and am not sure how it will be motivated.)
Ramabai, the pioneer that I studied, had as her primary focus exactly the issue of the suffering of children, and she set as her goal the transformation of India. How did she go about it? Not by getting a policy agreed, but by modeling a new way of living, and developing a whole new philosophy of education for India.
It is my view that although we do well to have reasonable and reliable child protection policies in places where children live when taken out of abusive and neglectful situations, we would do better to couple this with a renewed focus on challenging the institutions and culture that abuse children routinely in families, schools, communities, cities and regions. This will be about living models, not written policies. It will appeal to heart, soul, will and mind, not just to professionally constructed or legal boundaries. And it will challenge traditional orthodoxies: with all the reactions that will inevitably result.
If I had or have to choose where to focus my (finite) energy, and despite the fact that I would like to do both, I know where it has to be: finding a way of appealing to the very heart and fabric of Indian societies so that the day dawns when girl-children and those born with disabilities are not routinely murdered. For they will never be able to read the child protection policies prepared for those who were spared their tragic fates.
Could you help me?