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Any one girl facing a life without safety, dignity and autonomy, is a good reason to act; with thousands of such girls even today, there is no running away.
Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the Plan for Every Child – Leave No Girl Behind conference hosted by leading child rights organization, Plan India in New Delhi from 1st to 3rd November 2017.
For all of you deeply interested in furthering the cause of women and girls’ empowerment, the keynote speaker Shabana Azmi’s address will resonate; here is an excerpt.
There is a very little difference between the life of a girl in a rural village in Uttar Pradesh or in Mumbai. Our society is still biased towards boys. A boy child’s birth is celebrated but a girl is still considered to be a liability. A girl child never gets the best in comparison to her brothers. The aspirations of the girl or a woman are always put at stake at different stages of her life.
We are talking about education, but what kind of lessons are we teaching? A simple story in our textbooks always reads like this:
Where is father?
Working in Office
Where is mother?
In the Kitchen
I wonder why we can’t teach our kids that mother is in the office and father is in the kitchen or both are in the office in the day and in the kitchen in the night.
So our education is equally biased. Isn’t it time to nip it in the bud? Let us change things right here, where it starts wrongly.
All of us are aware of the long way we have to go when it comes to an equal and safe India for women and girls. Even so, these statistics will make you pause.
The audience and participants, draw from the social sector, policy makers, as well as youth from various sections of society, had the opportunity to listen to and discuss timely research and insights around gender vulnerability in our society.
There couldn’t have been a better platform to deliberate on the issues faced by marginalized girls, exchange ideas with a wide range of stakeholders, including representatives from the government, pin-point problem areas, extract solutions, make everyone aware of the gender disparity, initiate policy changes and most importantly, chalk out sustainable goals.
The first day of the conference culminated with the launch of Plan India’s Gender Vulnerability Index (GVI), which is the first of its kind in the country. Using 170 indicators from across various large-scale studies in India, it acts as an assessment tool to measure the performance of different states on key dimensions of women and girls’ welfare. The GVI has been prepared taking into consideration four dimensions- Protection, Poverty, Education and Health, and you can learn more about it here.
On the second day, we witnessed lively Debatathons by youth delegates- winners from 6 regional Debatathons conducted previously. The topics were on access to technology and if it enhances gender vulnerability and on who makes better leaders, men or women. Adopting such a bottom-up approach where young people are consulted closely on issues relevant to them will be essential both to build the next generation of leaders and create sustainable change that communities buy into.
The panel discussions at the conference were aimed at finding solutions, providing more access and opportunities for girls, and focusing on key vulnerable groups, affected categories and issues surrounding them.
The closing day saw a discussion around inclusion and gender transformation.
In the three days where we all talked and listened to experts and survivors, there were some extremely significant panel discussions which provided an insight into real life problems, drawing from research, case studies, legal frameworks and best practices to arrive at solutions.
Here are some of my learnings and I am sure it will help us all to identify the loopholes and challenges around some of the most sensitive topics.
Even today, the disadvantages that girls suffer from have changed very little, especially in disturbed areas. Officially, India does not recognize disturbed areas such as Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), North East and Naxalism affected states as ‘conflict zones’. In reality though, conflict leads to greater restrictions for girls due to fears of safety, besides their actually getting caught in the conflict. Moreover, even peace settlements tend to be patriarchal in nature and rarely take into account the needs or rights of women and girls. For instance, even today, there are no special homes for girls in J&K or the North East and hardly two observation homes for girls.
While frameworks and Union Laws guaranteeing rights and entitlement to children exist and there are various schemes in existence for the well-being of children, most of them assume the presence of a stable institutional environment, which is not the reality. One of the most important challenges is that none of these incorporate specific protocols pertaining to disturbed areas.
A very simple example would be around the verification of documents – in disturbed areas, this is such a burdensome process that more than half of the children never get what they may be entitled to. The number of levels that one has to go and the number of certificates that one has to procure makes the whole process extremely painful.
The psychiatric impacts on children of armed conflicts are known internationally but not in India. The state led schemes also fail because there is hardly any scope to go beyond educational support to include psychological support, healthcare, nutrition or other forms of social welfare support.
Again, there are no guidelines for children living in camps for Internationally Displaced Persons (IDPs). There is no mechanism to support children injured/disabled as a consequence of violence/conflict.
The need of the hour is that we need schemes for child protection that factor in the presence of conflict rather than applying the same schemes that may work elsewhere in more stable environments. Moreover, the budget for these schemes should not be cut down under the guise that these areas have stabilized.
Trafficking leads to loss of dignity, belongingness and self-worth for girls. A girl goes through a lot of psychological stress when she undergoes something like this. The kind of helplessness that she experiences cannot be easily healed by a couple of counselling sessions. There are cases when someone might have been caught in the process only for 8 months but they were required to undergo clinical treatment for 8 years and yet not fully healed. Such is the impact of being torn from one’s environment and facing violation and loss of autonomy in alien surroundings.
How do we ensure the rebuilding of life? First and foremost, we should all make efforts not to see the victim only from the lens of survivor. We need to treat them as ordinary human beings with other needs, rights and desires too. Rehabilitation should be a right and not charity!
Besides trafficking to be used as sex workers, girls are also exploited as unpaid labour in other ways.
Many of us have learnt in school about the system of bonded labour where men, women and children are tied for long periods to an employer and required to work unpaid, to pay off an old loan or other debt. However, forced labour can also take other forms such as:
The last one is important, because we rarely see forced marriage as a form of forced labour, which it is – the new family gets the girl’s labour for free, and she rarely has any choice in the matter.
It is also important to understand the background against which child trafficking flourishes. One of the most disturbing facts that I learnt is that more than 81 percent of girls are pushed into prostitution by their relatives. It also means that if we want to prevent the trafficking and exploitation of girls, we need to go right to the source, and also look at the nexus that exists between contractors and officials, that lets them easily acquire girls from poor families.
It is important to look beyond just imparting vocational skills or restoring girls to their families. There is an urgent need to build more skills in this area, as the ratio of trained mental health care professionals to the population is extremely poor in India. So as we see, the real truth is that we also lack competency to treat such problems.
The solutions are there but we need implementation. For e.g., it is absolutely critical to have a comprehensive survey estimating the number of girl children in domestic work and their conditions. Placement agencies today are very active and hence we need to regulate them. The new challenges arising today out of greater mobility for labour means that we need to look at the existing solutions with fresh eyes.
I left the Plan India #LeaveNoGirlBehind conference feeling that more of us definitely need to be come forward to be a part of the solution. We must create solutions where children are an integral part of the decisions meant for them. They must be involved in their own development and protection. True inclusion happens only when people begin to contribute towards their own progress, and we need to enable this to happen.
At the same time, it is extremely important to provide for girls education. According to data from UNICEF, if 10% more girls finish school, a country’s GDP could improve by 3%. It is time to think more creatively, and be a part of the solution!
This article is part of the #LeaveNoGirlBehind campaign supported by Plan India, of which Women’s Web is a proud media partner.
Image source: YouTube