Re-evaluating best interests

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The month has gone by quickly. During the last two weeks, Chris and I have been interviewing social workers at SBT’s various shelter homes, as well as boys from the DMRC shelter home about their life stories and experiences. All of these interviews, along with the ones we did earlier in the month, help to shape our argument for re-evaluating India’s Juvenile Justice Act, particularly the principle that restoration of the child to the family is always in the best interest of the child.

When a child is received at a contact point, a file is opened and social workers at SBT collect information about the child, such as their family and well-being. The case is then passed onto the Child Welfare Committee (CWC), who decides whether the child should be sent back to their families, their home state or taken into SBT’s shelter homes. From all our interviews, we discovered that quite often the CWC is sent back to their families under the belief that the family is always the best for the child. But when these children come from broken, dysfunctional families that render the child susceptible to forms of physical, verbal, emotional and sexual abuse, can we still say that returning to the family is the best? It seems that it is not so much about family in the literal sense, but the normative conditions of a family – a healthy, supportive environment conducive to the child’s growth and personal development – which should be emphasised when looking at the principle of restoration of the child to their family. It is about being sensitized to these conditions and contexts during evaluation.

Throughout this project, I realised how important it is to step back and reflect what best interest of the child is. Is it listening to the child’s wishes because it is their own life, and they know what it is they want, and what they think is best for their mental, emotional and physical well-being? Do we as adults decide because we are older, experienced more, and therefore know better what is best for the child? How does one negotiate between these two? Aforementioned, it is a matter of being sensitive to these nuances and complexities as we move forward.

Chris and I will continue working on this advocacy report back in Edinburgh. We will continue polishing our legal argument, and emphasise this urgency of change by highlighting the range of vulnerabilities which street children are susceptible to. Eventually, we, SBT and lawyers will present this report to the government, in hope that change can happen and they can be more sensitized to the issues we raise in our report so that the best, and most appropriate form of support and care is given to street children.

To conclude, thank you to everyone at SBT who has supported us in writing this report, particularly Parvati, Devika and Adam who helped to organize interviews for us, and also to all our interviewees who took the time to share their thoughts, experiences and life stories.

Words by Loritta

 

Filming for Our Women’s Talk

One of our plans for our time in Delhi is initiating a “Women’s Talk”. Salaam Baalak Trust already runs a City Walk focusing on the lives of the street children, but the lives and experiences of women and girls on the streets can be very different from those of the men and boys. We want to illustrate these specific “women’s issues” with a walk complementary to the City Walk, highlighting the specific vulnerabilities of women. Unfortunately, even the streets of central Delhi are not safe enough for a walk led by girls. Hopefully one day they will be but for now we will convey the stories of these women and girls through a talk instead of a walk.

We want the talk to be as powerful as the existing City Walk and we felt the best medium was film.  The first step was learning about film making. An ex- University of Edinburgh student Shiva, living in Delhi, volunteered to run a workshop, teaching a group of young people from SBT about filming, editing and creating a narrative. We hope that getting the girls, as well as the boys, to use the immersive medium of film will convey both the feeling of a walk, but also crystallise their experience of the chaotic and dangerous streets in the minds of those who attend the talk.

 

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Learning how to make a movie

 

We discussed and planned the stories we wanted to tell and the locations we wanted to show. We decided on areas around Connaught Place, a place where at every step you are confronted by tiny children selling balloons and roses or begging while holding even tinier children in their arms.

The girls we work with know some of these children living on the street, as some are girls who used to live with them in the children’s home before they returned to their families. We wanted to film where they live, where they wash, the temples that serve them meals and speak to them about their experiences and opinions.

Having decided what to film the next step was creating the film for our Woman’s Talk, Shiva accompanied us into the streets to do the filming while the girls led the interviews.

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Filming in Connaught Place

 

With the filming complete we will pilot the talk in the coming weeks.

 

 

Words and pictures by Rachel

…gang aft agley

Days in Delhi often start feeling too real, but end up in the surreal. For one, the heat paints everything into itself, it becomes like a shouting offstage character, an unspoken actor in every drama, adding a layer of consideration to the already fragile structure. Second, it is the nature of big cities, and our work in them, to throw up surprises, add additional stresses, or create havoc with the best laid plans.

One morning started as real as the rest – Assam tea, bananas and sugary peanut butter in our peaceful flat. Then Loritta and I packed off the to the offices of the Commission for the Protection of Child Rights to interview a functionary with whom we had made contact. The offices were on Janpath, a somewhat storied street, permanently in the shadow of Connaught Place to the north and Rajpath, with its huge government edifices and Lutyen’s designed imperiousness, to the south. Janpath provides the liminal space between them, with huge, and variously designed, office blocks sprouting on either side of it, stuffed full of the minor offices of a government gallantly attempting to serve a billion people, commercial enterprises large and small, and the chai-wallahs who serve them all. 

The building we were heading for was Chander Lok (literally ‘people of the moon’… no me neither)  a strangely bulbous affair of stacked blocks. Inside it was dingy, a welcome respite from the sun, but apparently constantly being cleaned by an army of peons. We had the interesting experience of waiting for the lift up amongst a group of functionaries, who treated the opening of the lift door like the opening of metro carriages – everyone barrels toward it, with little regard for the poor souls trying to exit. However, on reaching our destination it turned out I had misread the signage, and we were directed to another floor. 

On meeting our contact, and inevitably signing in the visitors book, we were immediately conveyed to the Joint Secretaries office to talk with ‘sir’. This was an expected privilege, but also added to the surreality of an already weird venture. I imagine that he had caught wind of foreigners coming to his fief, and wanted to judge us for himself. And to be clear, he couldn’t have been more helpful, but this was his domain: he had attained the kind of “bureaucrat” (self-ascribed, and a mark of true distinction in India) status akin to minor godhood – people came into the office during our time, received a nod and a word, and went off to complete whatever opaque task. Our contact would agree with his every statement, and repeat his own words back to him. This is not to cast aspersions, as his words were fascinating and, eventually, relevant, but this was not a man to be challenged. 

Steering the conversation was like course correcting a super-tanker, and over the course of around an hour, we talked of his travels, received a crash-course on “Indian philosophy”, particularly Vedanta and the Upanishads, before finally weaving that into a discussion of the Juvenile Justice Act, our focus, and the general socio-economic situation of India, about which he was very gloomy. After initial probing, he was thrilled to have some foreigners in front of him who understood the concerns of both modern India and ancient thought. Talking the nature of self with a government bureaucrat in a stuffy Janpath office was weird enough; to have him appreciate our (short) answers, even more so. 

We did, however, find our useful information. The Commission sees the Act as very well drafted, but very poorly implemented, which could be the commonest refrain in Indian law. Enforcement is difficult, as it requires the sensitisation of police and government social workers to the problems, concerns and voices of children, not their usual dismissal as either unimportant, or negligible. Changing that means changing an entire government culture. Likewise, on the issue of justice he offered two startling insights. First, the clause in the law which caused the greatest ruckus was the ability for Indian courts to try 16-18 year olds as adults for “heinous crimes” in contravention of established international norms. This provision was widely seen as a knee-jerk reaction to the presence of a juvenile among the gang-rapers in Delhi’s infamous 2011 Nirbhaya case, however, ‘sir’ offered the perspective that this provision was due to demographic shifts in India: with an increasingly younger population committing more and more sexual crimes, rehabilitating them through counselling, short incarceration, and other juvenile measures, would not cut it, as, even if they remained unrepentant, they would have to be released on their 18th birthdays. 

The second insight was that ‘sir’ believed the socio-economic transformation of India was responsible for a fundamental shift in the character of youth, which was leading to an uptick in crime. While a bit too conservative for my taste, this observation does seem to ring consonant to similar observations from sources as dispersed as Weber, to a recent Guardian op-ed by Rana Dasgupta; the retrenchment of moralities promulgated by nations, religions, charismatic political leaders, is a result of the dissolution of morality by the atomisation of market forces, individualisation and homo economicus consumerism. That so many of these young men who commit offences remain unrepentant is a curious function of the warping of established moralities, where self-justification can come from many sources. An excellent fictional account in an Indian setting is Aravind Adiga’s somewhat depressing and well written The White Tiger (2008, London: Atlantic Books). ‘Sir’ lamented the loss of “moral and social leaders” who could steer youth toward understanding and away from crime.

‘Sir’ promised to continue our moral education, at least, by providing copies of his own travel essays and translations of the Upanishads at our convenience.

After taking in some tea and ice cream to escape the midday sun, we took the blissfully air-conditioned metro back to head office, and were, instead of writing up our interviews, roped into helping conduct a sexual health workshop for shanty-dwellers in central Delhi. The dovetailing of this with our morning interview was an irony not unnoticed, but no less surreal for it. My work will be with boys particularly, an area that, of course, bears particular relevance to the above mentioned moral-warping. SBT’s graduates are well adjusted young people, despite some of the stories from their pasts. Working with them makes me feel that these individuals are perhaps the “moral leadership” that India, apparently, so severely needs. Their backgrounds give them a cachet of experience that allows them to speak to others in similar situations, were the pronouncements of governments and foreigners would be ignored; their education and communication skills allow them to speak back to those governments and foreigners about the experiences of the poor and destitute that otherwise just cannot be comprehended. And I, for one, when I hear them speak, in stronger and stronger voices, cannot help but be moved. Their voices fill this foreigner’s heart with hope.  

Words by Chris

The world of childhood

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“For children with no home, life is a fast train to nowhere, Salaam Balaak Trust works to restore them to the world of childhood”

                                                                                                                                                                                               ~ ~ Salaam Balaak Trust.

In an academic journal article entitled “Street Children in India: A Non-Government Organization (NGO)-Based Intervention Model” published in 2009, Dr Amit Sen closed by dedicating his article “to the millions of street children and their indomitable spirit and resilience.” For those of you who haven’t read the hundreds of articles required for doctoral studies, let me tell you this: It is highly unusual to see such a dedication from a senior clinician in an academic paper.

To me, Amit’s words and their appearance in such a context sum up SBT entirely.

SBT’s vision statement is as follows:

“For children with no home, life is a fast train to nowhere, Salaam Balaak Trust works to restore them to, the World of childhood, take for a lonely dead end, to bonding, learning and the joy of a professional life.

Salaam Balaak Trust works towards a creation of a just and equitable society, which respects the rights of the child to education, health & nutrition, family environment, recreation & constructive participation.”

SBT’s mental health program nestles within the organisation’s values and vision.  As outlined in Amit’s paper, the program maintains a psychological model of trauma and mental health with an emphasis on prevention and early intervention alongside cultivating a sense of hopefulness. So what does this mean in ‘real-world’ terms? I can’t say for sure having only spent two weeks here, but to me the emphasis on meeting the needs of young people and creating a resilient community is evident in the warmth, chattiness, confidence and kindness of the kids and adolescents in SBT’s care. I’ve observed teenager’s patience with younger children, gentle teasing among children, and young people supporting each other with school work. There is a sense of caring and connectedness throughout the whole organisation, including graduates, staff and volunteers.

Of course, things aren’t perfect – how could there be with so many young people to care for and few adults. These are structural limitations that won’t change. Also, CPD opportunities for staff are expensive and the training on offer in India is not always of a high quality. This is where I’m hoping I can help. With my research and clinical contacts in Edinburgh, I hope to help SBT staff build their knowledge and confidence around the following themes:

  • Preventing and managing bullying in residential homes
  • Diversifying therapeutic models and techniques
  • Thinking about trauma and how to help support children who have experienced complex trauma

I’ll be working closely with Shikha over the next couple of weeks towards these aims and will keep you posted on the project as it develops. For those who are interested, I highly recommend reading Amit’s original article:

Sen, A. (2009). Street children in India: a non-government organization (NGO)-based intervention model. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics30(6), 552-559.

I hope you are finding our work here in India interesting to read about. If you are, please consider supporting the project by following us on social media or giving a small donation. There is a link to donate in the ‘support us’ tab.

~Alice.

 

World is suddener than we fancy it

“World is suddener than we fancy it.”

~Louis MacNeice, Snow.

 

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Our balcony on the evening we arrived

I can hardly believe we are already half way through our month in Delhi. Time has passed by quickly and it feels too soon to be at the halfway point! But let’s not be hasty, we still have two more weeks and as I reflect I realize we’ve achieved a lot in the past fortnight:

  • Loritta and Chris are well underway with their qualitative research project examining outcomes for young people who stay with SBT compared to those who return home to their families. So far they have interviewed key stakeholders including legal experts, SBT staff, parents, and of course the young people themselves.
  • Meanwhile, Rachel and Yogita* have been busying themselves with the shopping delights of Delhi. Yes really, this pair are the proud owners of new underpants for girls and a laptop. Why I hear you ask? Rachel and Yogita have put an incredible amount of energy and attention towards planning a workshop on growing up and sexuality for young women. From shopping, to workshop planning, movie making and location scouting – it seems there’s not much these dedicated people won’t do for the success of this project!
  • As for me? Yesterday I met with Shikha, the mental health coordinator at SBT. Believe me when I say that I was genuinely astounded by the thoughtfulness that has gone in to designing a mental health program that works. It deserves a blog post of it’s own, so watch this space.

You may be wondering about the plans we have for our last two weeks in Delhi…

Hopefully by now you’re suitable impressed by the hard work and effort we’ve put in and agree we can take the time off to sun ourselves on a beach in Goa…

Just kidding!

We’re absolutely engrossed in our various projects so the beach will have to wait. Chris and Loritta still have lots of work to do in order to produce a report that can be used by SBT to help advocate for the rights of the children at a national level. Rachel and Yogita are now well stocked up on pants but still have to buy sanitary pads to go with the new underwear, they’re also expanding the workshop to help educate boys and young men about issues such as consent, as well as planning public engagement events about the workshops with the dual goal of fundraising … no big deal for those two, especially with an impressive team of SBT young people and staff alongside them. Meanwhile, I will have my hands full helping to build the resources of the mental health team.

We hope you enjoy hearing about our projects, please comment and follow us on social media to get involved in the conversation. If it wasn’t for our connections and support networks back home, we wouldn’t have been able to make the most of this opportunity as we have been, so thank-you for your energy and interest. Special thanks to Javita whose warmth and knowledge has been invaluable.

~Alice

*Name changed for confidentiality reasons

 

The importance of education

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As I write this blog post, I notice a quote on the cover of an English textbook that belongs to a former SBT kid: “A child without education is like a bird without wings“.

Indeed, this is the sense that I get from interviewing and meeting former and current SBT children during the past few days. To them, education is the way to make a change in their life, to live a life they want and to become the person they wish to be. When asked about the future, SBT children aspire to be professors, doctors, tour guides, performance directors and many more. Ajay*, a young man from SBT who is about to start university, shared that education taught him that attitude is everything:

“While studying, I learnt what it means to be a man, and I mean a gentleman. If one does not know how to respect others, it is not good.”

As the children reflect back, they share with a soft smile, lost in their thoughts at their disbelief of how much they have achieved, and how far they have come – from a life on the streets without knowing whether there will be a tomorrow, to today, a confident individual who has dreams to catch, has the desire to help others and be a role model. They are proud of who they are.

But they do not forget their past.

When they walk on the streets and come across street children and families, they still connect with them, and urge them to come to SBT’s shelter homes. Some of these street families do not recognise the importance of education, and continue to relish the freedom of the streets, even if it means a daily struggle of earning enough money for food and medicine. Young girls have to marry early as their husbands will protect them from the dangers of the street, especially at night. Some of these families use the money to take drugs without realising the long-term health consequences. With the government “cleaning” the cities by ridding homeless people, these families struggle to find shelter too. The situation is especially dire in the biting cold during the harsh winter, with no shelter, no warmth and not enough food. The effects of this life rests not only with the current generation, but also the next – it becomes a tragic, vicious cycle.

Because of their past, SBT children recognise they have a shared experience with current street families. They know what it is these street families want, what they are thinking, and what exactly they need to say to persuade these families to leave street life for a more sustainable future in education.

The situation is urgent.

As the quote at the beginning of this post goes, indeed in India, a life on the streets without education is like a bird without wings. It takes a lot of time, patience, and persistence. However, when one bird in the family finally recognises the freedom of flying, soon after, we will see in the sky, the other birds flying along.

* Name changed for confidentality

Instead of buying a cup of coffee, donate your £2 to support street children’s education at SBT: https://www.friendsofsbt.org/#

Words by Loritta

Breaking the period taboo

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It is likely that a full four in ten Indian women do not have access to disposable sanitary towels. This is the case for the girls who live on the streets and are more focused on food, water, and shelter.

Mothers teach their daughters to use cloths. When there is nothing else to use, they resort to dirty cloths or even old newspaper. It is not just safe clean sanitary products that are needed, but it is access to safe and private toilets, too. They also need clean water for washing, a safe place to wash, and places to dry reusable products.

Reusable products or cloths must be washed and dried properly.

When they are dried in a dark corner, hidden away, out of sight and out of sunlight, this increases the chance of infection. Infection causes irritation, embarrassment, and further complications. When safe drying areas aren’t available, proper information and medical support are unlikely. Illness can emerge and last for years.
One of the most important ways to improve menstrual hygiene is to break the taboo that leads to women hiding their periods in dark corners. Lack of information and silence on the matter acts to fuel the stigma. The main barrier is a lack of education and especially education for men.
Girls in the care of the SBT children’s homes get good education about puberty, periods and sex. For the children on the street, their health and sex education is more likely to come from word of mouth or from watching porn on mobile phones. This lack of information can lead to dangerous attitudes towards women and unhealthy practices when it comes to menstruation.
Educating men and boys around menstrual health is important. But education of boys around sexual health and safe practices may be even more important.

A comprehensive “life skills” curriculum is taught in schools in India, and it covers many aspects of sex and sexuality. As with menstrual health those children not enrolled in school miss out.

Nevertheless, the legacy of sexual inequality is obvious. Public toilets for men are plentiful and free in Delhi. There are far fewer for women – and in all cases they must pay to use them. Condoms are cheaper here than the most basic sanitary products.
We have initiated a workshop on hygiene and sexual health for girls currently living on the street, run by older girls who live in SBT homes. The workshops are animated and provide a friendly reunion – many of these girls remember each other.

So far the workshops have been run by girls but we will expand these to include workshops run by young men, for young men, this weekend.

 

 

Instead of buying a cup of coffee, donate £2 to support street children’s education at SBT: https://www.friendsofsbt.org/#

 

Words by Rachel