“In a country, where thousands of children are having to live in extreme conditions of deprivation, where women are raped in every 20 minutes, where every 8th urban child (0-6) lives in a slum area, where a woman dies a dowry death every hour, where 40% of the total number of world child bride reside and where 50% of its people do not have sanitation facilities, I am morally obligated towards fulfilling my responsibility of helping my own kind come out of such grievous predicaments. I cannot afford the luxury of sitting back complaining endlessly about the inadequacies of the system. Rather, I should be competent enough to take that extra step, walk that extra mile, to change the system progressively. Yesterday, I merely complained about the ills of child labour in Guwahati city and how the Government had failed to do anything about it. Today, I savor a sense of fulfillment after personally rescuing over 50 child laborers and providing education for over 120 children living in the slum areas of the same city. “, said Child Rights Activist, Miguel Das Queah.
This is an excerpt of the conversation we at TNT-The Northeast Today had with the Activist through the organisation UTSAH that he founded on his effective action-oriented interventions towards public response and mainstreaming this still under-rated issue.
TNT- Please tell us about the beginning years of your journey and the reason for starting UTSAH?
The beginning years of my journey takes me back to my Alma Mater days in St.Stephens College, New Delhi. The values which got instilled in me, in the classroom and outside of it probably shaped my outlook for the future. More important than attending classes, were the late night conversations on the middle eastern conflict, unending arguments over North India’s step brotherly treatment towards the Northeast, discussing the plight of children in the impoverished African continent, listening to the intriguing stories of the Tibetian freedom movement and understanding the cultural significance of Onam. These are some of those valuable moments that helped me make sense of my own self in relation to this big world. In the midst of sleeplessness, I had learnt the meaning of inclusion, freedom, justice and cultural expression.
My tenure as Vice President of Stephens in 2007-2008, afforded me the opportunity to be a part of the Study of the United States Institutes for Student Leaders, funded by the US Department of State. With this, another milestone was meeting Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, at his 10 Rajaji residence. These were the stepping stones for the vision of UTSAH.
His remark “It was easier to sit in a drawing room, arguing about the illiteracy that is prevalent amongst Indian children, than to actually start teaching a group of children in the neighboring slum area” made me realize that without my contribution the idea of a developed India remains incomplete. Later that year, noted Assamese litterateur Mamoni Raisom Goswami told me “Miguel come to work in Assam, your motherland. Clean your courtyard first, if you wish to clean the world”. With a sense of determination, I returned to Assam, my home state, and founded UTSAH, an Organization dedicated to the welfare of children who are in need of care and protection, in early 2011. Being a survivor of child sexual abuse myself, it was only natural for me to take up the cause of child protection.
TNT – At the community level, how difficult does it get to implement changes and the various rights projects and initiatives?
Challenges are a natural part of any development process. Initially, it is always difficult to gain the trust of the community, in this case the slum of (Hafiznagar No: 2), and as a result there is low participation in most of the community based initiatives. However, with time, several trust-gaining exercises are undertaken and gradually the community participation increases. If scientific and disciplined processes of social work practice are followed, interventions can have more impact.
TNT- UTSAH has been pro-active against Corporal Punishment, Girl child empowerment, policy formulation including others. But with the current implementation levels, how challenging does it get for NGOs to follow-up at advocacy and rights level?
In a country like India, change takes time to realize. It would be unreal to think otherwise. In Assam, there has been a shift in the Government from “passive indifference” to being “more interested” with regards to issues of children’s rights. At the State level, The State Child Protection Society and the Assam State Commission for the Protection of Child Rights have been established. At the District Level, Child Protection Offices, Child Labour Task Forces, Child Welfare Committees and Child Protection Committees have been instituted. Though slow at times, in most of our cases, we have seen a response from the Government. As a Civil Society Organization, we believe it is also our responsibility to be a part of the process that would ensure the realization of children’s rights rather than depending only on the Government for making change.
TNT – UTSAH has also been collaborating with schools, livelihood missions, skill development institutions. How effective can such associations be in this multi-stake holder ecosystem?
Child Protection can never be fulfilled in isolation. Every stakeholder has to play their part. In agreement to this principle we have collaborated with several agencies, to further the Organizations mission of creating safer spaces for children. For example, we had partnered with Impulse NGO Network on a programme of anti-child trafficking, with Aangan Trust Mumbai on a programme for assisting Child Welfare Committees, with Smile Foundation India and Concept Eduventures on a Non-formal Education programme etc.
TNT- Estimates say that a pedophile almost abuses a child 150 times before he gets caught. With such shocking revelations, how do you ensure that a victim is brought to justice?
In cases of Child Sexual Abuse there are several challenges towards ensuring speedy conviction. In Assam, only 42 out of 172 cases achieved conviction under the POCSO Act, between 2014 and August 2016. The large majority (i.e. 130 cases) ended in acquittal. This pegs the rate of conviction at 24.41%. The conviction rate in 2015 was 20.93%, well below the national conviction rate of 41.9%. 14 Out of the 82 cases decided between January and August 2016, the conviction rate was 25.60%. Late reporting, untimely medical check-ups, faulty 164 statements, delayed judicial process are some reasons that lead to low conviction. It is absolutely important to create awareness about the child sexual abuse in the communities. This would ensure more reporting. Also, stakeholders like the Police, the Judges, the Public Prosecutors, the District Child Protection Offices etc. should be adequately trained in the Statute, to ensure speedy justice. Statutory compliance can increase the rate of conviction, which in turn can act as a deterrent to child sexual abuse.
In 2012, we had assisted a survivor of child sexual abuse through the entire post-abuse process. From lodging of an effective FIR, providing feedback to the police during investigation to aiding the judge in the process of justice delivery, we had ensured that all the statutory provisions are complied with by all the stakeholders. This led to a speedy conviction of the perpetrator.
TNT – Almost marginalized for decades, child rights now have a sudden spotlight with two Noble Peace Prize winners from Asia. How much has it helped since then?
Since the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child had been passed, at the UN General Assembly in 1989, the issue of children’s rights have received priority in International and National politics. The affirmation to this lies in the fact that India ratified to the Convention in 1992, committing itself to the task of fulfilling the rights of Indian children. The Right to Education Act 2009, the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act 2015, The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act 2012, the National Policy on children 2013 etc are some of the legislative measures that the Indian Government has undertaken to ensure the protection of child rights in the country. Other measures included the up gradation of the Integrated Child Development Scheme and the introduction of the Integrated Child Protection Scheme.
The conferment of the Nobel Peace Prize on Kailash Satyarthi has definitely helped in bringing the subject of child rights into the realm of public discussion. Satyarthi has lead very successful campaigns in the past. Satyarthi’s ‘Shiksha Yatra’ from Kanyakumari to New Delhi triggered a major discussion on the Right to Education across the country. It eventually resulted in a constitutional amendment making Right to Education a fundamental right. Similarly, in 1998, Satyarthi and his team had led the Global March Against Child Labour across 103 countries in which unions of students, teachers, traders, labour, along with national leaders from 71 countries took part. The march was successful in getting a new international convention against the worst forms of child labour.
TNT – with the recent humanitarian crisis at global level, how do you think that the rights of children can be protected?
It is very hard to simplify the issue of child rights in a world that is engulfed in mindless conflict and violence. Most of the nations in the world have made an International commitment to protect the rights of children, by ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is the duty of these States to ensure that this commitment finds its way into their Constitutions, their National policies and their Statues. Empathetic and stable Governments can enhance public participation in governance, ensure healthy economies and establish strong institutions that can reduce the vulnerabilities of children around the world.
TNT – Please share some best practices with have highlighted changes in the lives of these children.
In accordance with its initiative of creating safer spaces for children, the most noticeable work has been in Hafiznagar No.2, a Slum Area located in east Guwahati. UTSAH has intervened through a comprehensive Child Protection Model that offers a viable solution that would help in upgrading the protection profile of children. Our thematic areas are child health, child nutrition, child protection and education. In this community, we have rescued 120 child labourers from Hafiznagar No2 from 2011-2013, mainstreamed 120 out-of-school children into Sarba Siksha Abiyan Schools, trained more than 200 community children in child rights, trained more than 200 community women in child rights, helped facilitate water supply to the 70 households in the community, rescued all children from substance addiction in Hafiznagar No2 and have converted the slum area into one of the cleanest slum areas in the country. We have recently replicated this model in Fancy Bazaar Slum Areas Gate 3 and Gate 4.
TNT – Few years down the line, what plans do you have with UTSAH?
I have not set out a plan for UTSAH. However, we would like function as a watchdog to ensure the protection of children’s rights as espoused in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Also, we would like to incorporate in a lot of creativity and innovation while addressing issues of children in the State.
By: Payal Bhattacharjee | Source: TNT-TheNortheastToday