Fresh on the heels of mid-day's report on child abuse in Pune rising by a staggering 41 per cent, child rights activist and founder trustee of Dyana Devi Childline, Dr Anuradha Sahasrabuddhe pointed out that premature exposure to explicit content on television and the Internet has increased children’s vulnerability, and spoke of the efforts to empower children, be it through gammat shalas (fun schools) or the Bal Sena
mid-day: Who are the children who call your helpline?
Sahasrabuddhe: When we started Childline in Pune in 2001, we would get 1,500 calls every month from children going through emotional turmoil. This number increased to 25,000 per month in 2010. Since then we have been operating the helpline as a call centre model from Mumbai. We get calls from kids as young as 2.5-year-olds to those going to college. Most of these calls are from children seeking emotional support in suicidal cases or child marriage issues.
When Dr Anuradha Sahasrabuddhe founded Dyana Devi Childline in Pune in 2001, their helpline would receive 1,500 calls every month, which increased to 25,000 calls a month within ten years. In recent times, most of the calls are from children distressed about sexual abuse or child marriage. Pic/Shashank Sane
mid-day: What types of complaints are received most often?
Sahasrabuddhe: Sexual abuse has now risen considerably. With lifestyle changes, children’s vulnerability has increased. For instance, sending nude selfies – cyber pornography — is not considered bad by girls until it lands them in trouble. The belief that teaching ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch’ will prepare children is a myth, and child sexual abuse has gone beyond that scope now. However, the worst part is that there are now increasing reports of abuse by fathers as well.
mid-day: In such cases, do the survivors’ mothers support their child or husband?
Sahasrabuddhe: A few days ago, we received four complaints of sexual abuse of daughters by their fathers in just two days. In one case, the girl was found pregnant. Girls and women have now started to become vocal about these incidents, but in most cases, wives still shield their husbands and ask the child to remain silent. This is because of the male’s image as a ‘bread-winner’, and the fear of putting the family’s reputation at risk.
mid-day: Do new laws like the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act (2012) help deter such crimes?
Sahasrabuddhe: New laws are of no use if they are not implemented properly. In many cases, when we raid child shelters found to be breaching the law, the police are not sensitive while registering FIRs against the accused. The police have not understood spirit of the POCSO Act. In the Karjat bal ashram sexual exploitation case, for instance, it took us more than five hours to register the FIR after the raid was conducted. The survivors were bundled in one vehicle along with the accused, and they were harassed at hospitals under the pretext of medical check-ups — all in gross violation of the law. The police as well as the judiciary needs to be sensitive while dealing with child abuse cases.
mid-day: What about child trafficking and child labour in the city?
Sahasrabuddhe: In child trafficking rackets, children from other states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan are often brought to Pune as bonded labour. Their parents are paid Rs 1,500 to Rs 2,000 per year. Despite giving the police inputs about gangs involved in such activities, no action has been taken so far.
mid-day: Do the labour department or the women and child welfare department help fight this problem?
Sahasrabuddhe: There are organised child begging rackets operating across the city, and there has to be a citizens’ movement to stop the shameful practice. Children are made to beg in an open and clear violation of the law, but the labour department still has not taken action. We have reached a consensus with the authorities that if the child is below 14 years, the labour department will have to take action, and if the child is above 14 years, the police has to take action under the provisions of Juvenile Justice Act (2000). The child labour task force in Pune exists solely in name, and very little has been done. Moreover, senior officials from the police and labour department often ask us to not share information with junior officials in their teams to avoid tip-offs to the culprits. This information leak is also a cause of concern.
mid-day: How successful have your own projects proved to be?
Sahasrabuddhe: Our gammat shalas (literally translated as fun schools, run for the benefit of underprivileged children) have helped us boost motivation and achievement in children from slums within the first six months of the launch of the project. Since then, we can claim to have zero child labour, zero juvenile delinquency amongst the children, and have observed positive personality changes in all those who participate. Even in areas where we have stopped work due to a staff crunch, the children have stood up to local political leaders and goons and prevented them from starting gambling dens in the area.
mid-day: The Bal Sena concept has also received good support. Do you intend on expanding it further?
Sahasrabuddhe: The Bal Sena is currently active in more than 143 schools. While several schools supported the initiative, many English medium schools are opposed to it, as they fear that a children’s union might pose challenges for the school management. Initially, we had asked schools to focus on empowering children through the Bal Sena. Now we are working on creating a common platform for children in Pune city. Some schools have created teachers’ forums, and these forums along with the Bal Sena and parents’ associations will work together on child issues, with the support of Childline.
mid-day: Any new areas of focus in child rights?
Sahasrabuddhe: After we received good response on the playgrounds issue, with demand for more open spaces for children to play in, we are now focusing on teaching and allowing the children to play. We have noticed that even with plenty of playgrounds available, these days children seem to have forgotten how to play games. Disconnecting the Internet is not the solution for this. Instead, we will have to teach them games that will help them to develop skills.
(Salil Urunkar, Niranjan Medhekar, Kartiki Lawate, Chaitraly Deshmukh, Namrata Anjana, Sanjeevani Didmishe and Shashank Sane were part of the mid-day panel)