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

 

Dance your soul out

When I first came to SBT, I had learnt that the performing and creative arts was significant in the organisation. Many of the children were involved in the annual play production, and also pursued careers as artists, dancers even production directors later on in life. I had wondered why the creative arts was so prominent in SBT, and thought it might have been due to influences from its Trustees such as Sanjay Roy, the man behind Jaipur Literature Festival, Anubhav Nath, director of Ojas Art, and of course, Mira Nair, world-renowned film maker and daughter of Praveen Nair, Founder of SBT. It was only a few weeks later after a casual chat with Gaurav* and Arjun*, two SBT graduates, that I realised the creative arts was not just an extracurricular hobby for SBT children.

It was so much more.

The creative arts improves your confidence, your social skills and your English. It is also a discovery of yourself. You find out things you did not know you could do. You learn more about yourself in this process.” quoted from Gaurav*

Gaurav* explains that in the annual play production, and the performance opportunities at SBT, the children are given a chance to play different roles and adopt different identities. They learn about the behaviours, attitudes and world views of the different characters they try to play. In this process, they find qualities and behavioural traits they wish to adopt, and slowly begin to shape a new identity for themselves. Gaurav* and Arjun* shared that their friends who were shy became more confident through the performing arts and saw it as a way of expressing themselves through characters.

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Sheroes – SBT’s Annual Production Play in 2017

It was a thought-provoking conversation that made me realise just how holistic the creative and performing arts was. To quote from an article after becoming curious about the connection between self-discovery and the performing arts:

We say that the body does not lie, so if you know how to observe and work with bodies you can discover things that words do not reveal…the story arises from within the body and when you place a new story upon a body, it leads to change.” (from ABC Net)

Not only was dance, arts and theater a way of self-expression, a catharsis of the thoughts and feelings they keep within themselves. It taught them how to work cooperatively with others, and to fulfil the responsibility and role they were given. It opened them to new experiences, to new ways that brought them somewhere they didn’t realise they would be. Dance, arts and theaters was like a realm that allowed them to explore the possibilities – more importantly, anything was possible.

Every year, SBT has an annual play production on an array of themes related to street children and their lived experiences. Two years ago, their play “Anokha Safar” was about the story of three children in a time machine, reflecting upon the changes in the landscape of Indian society. Last year, their play was called “Sheroes”, the female heroes of society. All of the actors/actresses, dancers and production directors in the play are former and current SBT children. As for what it will be about this year, come to Delhi in November to watch it and find out yourself!

Words by Loritta

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

Women Talk

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Team thinking

Today Adam, Rachel and I (Alice) had a meeting with three young women who are currently in, or had recently graduated from the care of Salaam Balaak Trust’s (SBT) shelter homes. The purpose of our meeting was to discuss a potential ‘Women’s Walk of Delhi’ to complement the existing City Walks run by SBT. We wanted to use the women’s walk to raise awareness about women’s issues in Delhi and the workshops that the three young women are currently facilitating to help educate younger girls living on the street about issues such as growing up, periods, hygiene and consent. These are really important issues for young people living on the street where it can be difficult to access both the knowledge and products necessary to stay safe and well. Ayesha*, one of the young women, told us some of the questions she had been asked when she facilitated the first workshop last Friday. Questions such as:

“Why does our skin get so itchy?”
“Sometimes we get pains during our periods. Why?”

The young women facilitating the workshop already held an impressive array of knowledge and were easily able to answer these questions. In response to “why does our skin get itchy?”, Ayesha responded with “because you need to wash more”. Simple answer right?

Not so.

Children and young people living on the streets have extremely limited access to safe washing facilities. They also have poor access to sanitary products when they have their periods. Luckily, the young women we met today knew of an affordable and usable solution – they told us about re-usable pads which can be washed and used time and again for up to three years. We worked out the costs and it turns out to be around £35 to get these products for 50 girls.

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Three of the workshop leaders

Now this is where our ‘Women’s Walk’ really shines. We can use the money made through the walk to buy sanitary products and perhaps even set some aside to help build safe cleaning facilities for young people living on the street.

Or so we thought.

After having discussed the idea with as many SBT staff as we could, it became clear that there was a real concern for the safety of the young women leading the walking tours. It was generally felt that it wouldn’t be safe for the young women, who may be subject to unwanted attention, harassment, and even sexual harassment. Having heard these concerns, Adam, Rachel and I talked among ourselves and agreed that there was absolutely no way we would risk the safety and well-being of anyone on the team for the project. We felt deeply frustrated that the very issues we want to raise awareness about were encroaching on the feasibility of the project.

We couldn’t settle for that.

The issue of safety highlighted the importance of this initiative even more. If women are not even safe to talk and walk around familiar local neighbourhoods, urgent societal change is needed. So we’ve been thinking of alternative solutions and have a couple of exciting options. Right now, I’m going to leave you hanging – I don’t want to announce our plans while they remain half-baked. We haven’t even spoken to the young women on the team yet and it feels important to do that first. So let me leave you with a question instead: If you were to ask these young women about their experiences of growing up in Delhi from girlhood, what would you ask?

We really value your thoughts so please get involved in the conversation and comment below! If you would like to donate to the project you can do so here.

~ Alice.

*Name changed for confidentiality.

Visiting SBT’s shelter homes

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During the past few days, we had the opportunity to visit Udaan girls’ home, the DMRC  (Delhi Metro Rail Corporation) boys’ home, the DUSIB (Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board) family shelter home and the mobile school, which are shelter homes that Salaam Balak Trust runs for street children. Usually, when a street child is received at the contact points, SBT tries to locate their parents across the country. It is no easy feat at all in a country with a vast population with limited government services. However, even when the parents/guardians are located, many of them are unable to provide the support and care which these children need, and thus are received by SBT’s shelter homes after negotiation.

There is a saying that runs, “A smile is the shortest distance between any two people”. It is true. At the beginning when we arrived at all the homes, we would exchange wide grins and friendly waves with one another, asking each other’s names in Hindi and play with them. It didn’t take that long for us to quickly bond with each other. Their overflowing confidence, eagerness to learn and enthusiasm to make us feel at home in their homes were heartwarming. At Udaan and DMRC, children would come to us and eagerly give us a tour of where they studied, played and lived. The boys at DMRC would peek around the door and wave at us with a bright smile, while the girls at Udaan would tell us about their favourite subjects in school, share with us their favourite games to play, and have even a little bit of affectionate teasing on who was the naughtiest little girl in the home!

Meanwhile at the DUSIB family shelter home, children from aged 5 to 15 would be provided with basic Math, English and Hindi lessons. Unlike the children from Udaan and DMRC, these children are with their families and SBT provides the family with support and shelter. While the parents/guardians worked outside during the day, the children would be provided with education at DUSIB. The children were working on their homework when we arrived, and showed us their notebooks. One little girl, *Anjali who was 10 years old shared with me that her family was forced to leave their village due to family conflicts, which was why they came to Delhi. Both Anjali and her parents believed in the power and value of education – she shared with me that one day, she wants to be a doctor so she could help others. Another girl shared with me her aspirations to become a teacher, so she could teach and inspire other street children. They exuded motivation and diligence to achieve their dreams. It was inspirational hearing their stories, and learning what really matters to them.

Finally, the mobile school, is a program where Santosh, a social worker from SBT, visits street children at their homes and provides them with nonformal education every evening. This would also include basic English, Hindi and Math. During the day, these children either work or go to school from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. We had a cultural exchange that evening! We played football, danced to Indian songs and also showed them the Scottish highland fling and sang songs. They very much enjoyed taking pictures, especially selfies. The moment someone is spotted taking a picture or selfie, they all rush and squeeze in with pose and smile ready. As someone who is reserved and usually takes a long time to open up, I couldn’t help but feel connected instantly. Their smiles, warmth and happiness were so infectious. Being with them made me ponder about how we live life. Sometimes, we make life more complicated than it needs to be. Sometimes, it doesn’t take much – just the simple things in life leave a deep impression, and a heartfelt happiness that cannot easily be bought.

These first visits made me realise more about the different ways this partnership opportunity is a research and learning experience. I look forward to the coming weeks in learning more about the lives of SBT children, their world views and their aspirations.

*Name changed for confidentiality issues

Words by Loritta