New Delhi: All through childhood, I associated Children’s Day with something special. At school, we’d be given sweets and allowed a longer lunch break, and all our teachers seemed to make at least a marginal effort to give us less homework.
My passage out of childhood however, has been marked by an evolving recognition of the many strata that comprise the “children” celebrated on Children’s Day. While sweets may have been the order of the day for my friends and I, for many of the children in the country I call home, Children’s Day is yet another day to survive — rather than celebrate.
This Children’s Day is particularly significant because it marks the 20th anniversary of the UN Child Rights Convention. We talk to Angela Walker, spokesperson for Unicef India; Deepa Bajaj, chief executive of Child Survival India; and Thomas Chandy, CEO of Save the Children in India, to get their thoughts on Children’s Day.
What are the three biggest issues affecting children in India today?
Walker: Child labour, obstacles to the enrollment and attendance of children in schools, and child marriage. Ending child marriage is very important because a girl who stays in school when she has children is far more likely to send her own children to school, to get them immunized and to practice better health and hygiene.
Bajaj: Malnourishment, illiteracy and the compulsion to be gainfully employed at a young age in order to support their families.
Chandy: Death from easily preventable and treatable diseases and conditions — two million children below the age of five die every year from these, while over four lakh children die within the first 24 hours of life every year in India. Child labour — officially there are approximately 13 million children below the age of 14 engaged in child labour. Finally, there is a lack of education in a country where education is a fundamental right. Approximately 53% of children drop out at the elementary level and 20% of children drop out by the second grade.
Click here to view slideshow of photographs taken of children in India by Raghu Rai
How can a regular individual help?
Walker: Every individual is a voter and can make a difference. People need to bring these issues to the attention of lawmakers. The capability of this country is enormous: there are rockets being sent to the moon, luxury hotels, Bollywood stars, engineers, teachers — the list goes on. If Indian society as a whole stood up against these issues, they would end.
Bajaj: They can support needy children in their own environment. They can help their maid’s children, their driver’s children, their peon’s children to get a quality education and basic health and nutrition. They can volunteer their time. They should not employ children to work as maids.
Chandy: They can show their support for a campaign through offering funds, signing up to volunteer, writing letters to newspapers, etc. With the EVERY ONE campaign that Save the Children has just launched to prevent children under 5 dying needlessly, we are collecting thumbprints from the public that we will then present to the government. This is not only to show public support for the cause but also to build pressure on the government to deliver on its promise to reduce child mortality by two-thirds by 2015. Massive public support is critical for policy change to take effect. Again, while the law can act as a deterrent, the social and cultural acceptance must end if we are to eliminate this scourge of child labour. Do not employ children.
What is the one issue children face that you think is most easily or immediately solvable?
Walker: Proper neo-natal care makes a huge difference to an infant’s chance of survival. Of infants who die, 73% are in first 4 weeks. There are no-cost solutions to this such as breast feeding in the first 2 hours, or washing of hands with soap to avoid infection. Many children die of hypothermia due to traditional practices like not putting clothes on the baby right away. If we can make people aware of these simple, no-cost interventions it could make a huge difference.
Bajaj: Every child should have the right to live a healthy life. The state should provide basic health facilities.
Chandy: There are no easy solutions unfortunately. However, if I were to pick one area that needs to be worked on immediately, it is the government’s commitment to the UN Child Rights Convention guaranteeing its children the Right to life as enshrined under Article 6 of the UNCRC. India is also committed to the Millennium Development Goals. There are several low-cost home-based interventions that can reduce the number of children dying by up to 70% if provided universally.
What is the one piece of legislation you would like to see enacted?
Walker: The proper legislation is already in place. I would like to see it implemented. Although the Right to Education bill has been passed, millions of children are still not in school.
Bajaj: The implementation of the Right to Education bill and child labour laws.
Chandy: The Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Act is a flawed pieced of legislation and must be scrapped and replaced by new legislation that bans all forms of child labour.
On the 20 year anniversary of the Child Rights Convention, what score would you give India on a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of the rights and quality of life its children enjoys?
Walker: I am not a numbers person. I’m not comfortable rating the country. What I can tell you is that at Unicef, we are very happy with many of the laws enacted — like the right to education, and laws against child labour and marriage.
Bajaj: Four out of 10. We have made some improvements but we still have miles to go.
Chandy: Four out of 10 since India’s growth has not been inclusive and does not address the needs of millions of marginalised children in the country.