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

 

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

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.