Mumbai: Started in 1996, with the idea of bringing technology and child rights together, 1098 is the country’s only 24-hour helpline for distressed children.

“All telecom operators recognize our number, and it can be accessed from anywhere in the country," said Nishit Kumar, head of communication and strategy at Childline India Foundation (CIF).

The helpline, which gets 20,000 calls a day, reaches out to 291 districts and has over 600 non-profit partners.

In addition to its intervention initiatives, the foundation also saw the need of an awareness programme, which it launched in Mumbai in January 2011. The helpline number was linked to this initiative.

Prevention is crucial, said Kumar, since 53% of Indian children are victims of sexual abuse before they reach the age of 10 years, according to a 2007 study by the ministry of women and child development.

“We found out that though 53% of Indian children experience sexual abuse, the reporting is extremely low as the information about the possibility of abuse isn’t imparted to children," Kumar said. “That’s why we saw the need of an awareness programme."

When a child calls 1098, a human operator addresses all her queries.

“You cannot put a computer on the other end. The child needs to speak to a person, a trained volunteer in this case," explained Kumar. “Eight out of 10 calls do not require intervention, so our volunteers feed in all the data, like the nature of the problem, where the call is coming from.

As part of the awareness campaign, the foundation has also made an animation film, Komal, in five languages, and is dubbing it another eight languages. “We have reached out to 400,000 children in Mumbai city" said Kumar.

The initial need for expansion will be met by offering Komal as a package to all other regions.

The entire awareness initiative is volunteer-driven, and even though the movie has an impact, there needs to be a volunteer to drive the programme, according to Kumar.

The foundation reaches out to 291 out of the 630 districts in the country, of which 35% are rural locations. “The Planning Commission has mandated us to reach out to all 630 districts in India by 2017," said Kumar.

The foundation currently has one call centre in Mumbai with 60 operators, and plans to add another facility in Kolkata and Chennai for the eastern and southern regions. “We want to be able to reach 12 million calls a year by 2017," Kumar added.

“One of our main challenges has been to be able to reach out visually impaired, autistic and handicapped children as they are the ones most abuses," he said.

The bigger challenge, however, remains raising more funds for the awareness campaign. “We will need much more funding if we have to go to other cities and expand," added Kumar.

What is important to note is, said Tabassum Pangarkar, assistant project coordinator, that the organisation needs to go to small government schools where “we find the same type of lack of awareness and number of sexual abuse cases."

Tata Consultancy Services Ltd (TCS) has been a software partner for eight years. “TCS also designed a java-run software, called ChildNET, that helps us analyse the call statistics, which is published as a yearly journal, and is the largest directory for data on child needs in country," said Kumar.

“Once a child is sexually abused, it becomes a lifelong scar, unless dealt with," he said. “And we found that, just like HIV, preventing child abuse was just as important," he said.

With an initial investment of 15 lakh, a grant from HDFC, the awareness programme was started by the Foundation in January 2011.

The aim was to educate the children on safe and unsafe touch and teach them the rudiments of personal safety rules using a unique story narration format delivered in school classrooms. It provides parents with an understanding of child sexual abuse and methods to deal with it.

“What we said was that every child who is in classes 2nd and 6th should receive a message in a way that like a nursery rhyme it gets embedded in the child’s mind forever," Kumar said.

The initiative was featured in the Aamir Khan-anchored Satyamev Jayate television programme, which netted it an additional 25 lakh.

As past of its expansion drive, the NGO also plans to provide all its 8,000 volunteers with computer tablets and data connections so that information can be immediately collected and stored into the software in their centres.

“This will enable real data collection which will be automatically updated in our CRM (customer relationship management) software once changes are made on the tablets," said Kumar. The organization plans to roll this out in the beginning of the next fiscal year.

Mint is a strategic partner of the Digital Empowerment Foundation, which host the Manthan Awards.

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