Editorial

Alternative Care for Children necessary in South Asia

Dr. Kiran Modi | February 12, 2018 12:58 PM

January 17, 2018 marked a historic day for children who do not have the privilege of being cared for directly by their biological parents or extended families in the state of Maharashtra. More commonly known as an Orphan or a Vulnerable child (OVC), these are children below 18 years of age and whose parents and primary caregiver has died, and those who are deemed in need of care or protection by the state. In India, most of these children are cared for and protected by the state under the Juvenile Justice legal framework. Having spent long years in child care institutions and orphanages, these children have to leave the care setup after attaining the age of 18 years as per the law and from this time they are expected to take care of themselves. This transition from the care home to mainstream society is full of challenges for these young persons and demands close guidance and support in order to make this transition smooth. After care support and services for such children is still a largely unaddressed issue and at a nascent stage in our country.

In an unprecedented move, the Government of Maharashtra announced a 1% reservation in government jobs and education for all such children and youth in the state. The reservation, termed as parallel reservation, will be provided under the general category, thus not affecting already existing reserved categories.

This step has largely been viewed as a facilitative step since most of these children and youth without parental care are unaware of their caste. The State’s Women and Child Welfare Minister, Pankaja Munde said, "It will help rehabilitate orphan children and secure their future. Once they step out of the orphanage, they have to face a number of difficulties."  Having worked directly with such children over the last 23 years, I have realized that most of these children and youth have no religion, caste, class or creed and are united solely by their experience of being abused, vulnerable, exploited and abandoned. The vulnerabilities faced by them are enormous. Having experienced abuse, neglect and abandonment in their early years, most of them suffer and carry a deep-rooted trauma, which mostly goes untreated as they remain out of family networks and individualized care. They truly need the support of government and the entire society to help them find their footing and become independent and self sufficient. Most of them have not been prepared adequately to be independent. The mechanisms for supporting them in key life domains such as education, accommodation, higher education and life-skills are still absent in this country. Providing them support through this 1% reservation in education and jobs will definitely help in their smooth rehabilitation and reintegration into mainstream society. Thus it has been recognized that a reservation based on class and not caste, is more appropriate as these children are the responsibility of the State.

In 2016, the National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC) recommended a resolution stating that “those children who have lost both their parents and are below the age of 10 should be included in the OBC list and are eligible for reservation at par with all OBC castes”. The annual report of NCBC for 2014-15 clearly stated that it had identified ‘orphans’ as a “new form of backwardness” and hence to be included in the OBC list irrespective of the caste to which they belong. Even earlier, in 2015, the then Chief Minister of Telangana had asked officials to take steps to recognize all orphaned children as ‘State children’. In early 2016, the state government declared Orphans and destitute children as a socially and educationally backward class]. The relevant operative portion of the GO reads as “The orphans and destitute children who have lost their parents before reaching the age of ten and are destitute; and who have nobody else to take care of them either by law or custom; and also who are admitted into any of the schools or orphanages run by the Government or recognized by the Government.” the high court of providing them support through a 1% reservation is a better plan for all these children since most of them do not know their caste and any caste linked reservation may not work for them.

There is a need for concentrating on specific areas amongst orphaned and vulnerable children in India. For example, a gap in the Maharashtra Government initiative is that it does not cover healthcare. Nevertheless, it is a step in the right direction and can be strengthened in times to come. It is imperative that stakeholders come together and keep sharing good practices, challenges and learnings. It is also critical that the government makes this issue of child protection more central to their agenda.  

An earnest effort in this direction is the convening of the 3rd Biennial International Conference on “Evolving Trends in Alternative Care for Children in South Asia”, to be held at Amity University, Noida, on March 16-17, 2018. The conference has a focus on deliberating on the rights of orphan and vulnerable children and highlighting their concerns within a South Asian regional framework. Approximately 43 million children who have lost one or both parents live in South Asia, brining almost 43 million children into the alternative care system. The 3rd BICON aims to delve into new and emerging trends in the region and bring together professionals involved in providing care and protection for all orphan and vulnerable children.

Constitutionality, International legal standards, Policy and Ethics all demand that orphan children and youth be treated with dignity, equality, equity and extra care; that it is rights-based in law and not to be addressed with prescriptive solutions, sympathy or charity. Affirmative actions are steps that the state takes to improve opportunities for those who are historically excluded as a group and are meant to focus on community connect, education and employment, thus giving increased access and opportunities to those groups. We need comprehensive data on such children through the next census of 2021. That will give governments, civil society organisations and other stakeholders an overview of the number of these children. In fact, a special survey should be conducted only addressing this population. Given the above, it is gross negligence and not less than a tragedy that no state government maintains data on the exact number of orphans in their state. The estimated number of orphan children in India varies substantially from 20 million (SOS, 2011) to 31 million (UNICEF, 2009). With the move to allow reservations for orphan children in education and jobs, it is expected that the government eventually will maintain authentic data to know how many children they are completely responsible for. Affirmative action in favor of orphan children should hence be based on their vulnerabilities and circumstances and not on caste, since they have none.

With the Maharashtra state already taking the lead in the right direction, it is time now that they live up to their promise, implement the proposed course of action and show the way for other state governments to follow suit. Implementation of such affirmative action policy is the key to the success of this order and a dire need in this country. More rigorous efforts should be made to ensure timeliness in taking action. The State Governments should take adequate efforts to enable these children and youth to achieve their potential. Civil society also has a huge role of monitoring and facilitating this exercise in a manner that it benefits orphan children. Organisations and individuals should come forward and participate in improving the already established systems and also bring in new practices and ideas that can be used. Some examples of public private partnerships have worked wonderfully in this country and it is time that we explore similar steps at a national scale. The community, the corporate houses and the regular citizens of this country need to take responsibility orphan and vulnerable children and youth. They are as much part of society as anyone else so it is hoped that gradually the Indian political system will be able to reduce the sheer indifference it has shown so far to orphan children and stand up for them and their rights.  In this sense, I find this step of the Maharashtra govt. to be a path finder, if not a path- breaker.  There is a need for a much stronger affirmation of the rights of orphan and vulnerable children at every step of their life. The need of a more enabling environment in our country should be such that these children are shown empathy and not sympathy.

*Udayan Care is an NGO, based out of New Delhi and working to transform the lives of underserved children and youth, through meaningful interventions that are self sustainable, for their holistic development at every step of a life towards dignity for the last 24 years. 

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