On dignity, trust and giving children their voice

Kalpana, right, talking with 3 community members in Wadala, Mumbai.
Kalpana, right, talking with 3 community members in Wadala, Mumbai.

I have worked with children for 25 years now. A lot of it has been with extremely vulnerable children – those living in slums, those from difficult socioeconomic backgrounds, those who have been victims of crimes or have suffered trauma, those who have ended up in shelters and children’s homes. Many of these kids witness and experience far more than any child should, at an age where he or she should be in school and their lives should be free of every worry other than maybe homework.

The right to life with dignity is a fundamental right of Indian citizens, yet dignity is a word often far removed from these children’s lives. For these children, and their families, the struggle to survive in their day-to-day lives is so fraught that quality of life is a distant, dim consideration.

Young girls from such difficult backgrounds are especially vulnerable. When a girl becomes a victim of a crime – of violence, abuse, sexual harassment, rape – the scars are both physical and mental, and are deep. But she seldom has a voice.

When a girl becomes a victim of a serious crime like rape, sexual abuse or trafficking, she is defined by that crime. In society’s eyes, the crime marks her for life, and exposes the fact that she is helpless, weak, female. She is seen as someone who cannot think for herself, who cannot differentiate between right and wrong, who needs to be looked after, locked away for her own good. Her thoughts, feelings and desires are never taken into account. In the process, the right to make a decision about her own life is taken out of the girl’s hands.

At a time when she should be supported, given the confidence to overcome her ordeal, to stand once again, she is instead suppressed. Her dignity and self-respect are both taken away.

This is where the role of an active support person comes in. A support person works with such children to understand their needs, to act on them, and to help them cope with the severe trauma that has occurred in their lives.

When a girl is rescued from a situation of harm and brought to an institution or home, the process for her rehabilitation begins. But because of the horrific ordeal she has undergone, and used to having her feelings and desires ignored, there is no one she trusts anymore. And her process of recovery and rehabilitation can never be complete without learning and understanding what she needs.

At this stage, the support person provides the much needed emotional backing that can help the child – and her family – move on.

The most meaningful thing a support person can do is to listen and understand without hurting or judging the child. To do this, it is necessary to first gain their trust – a fragile commodity – but imperative to respect it.

For a support person, getting justice for a victim of serious harm is extremely important. But the ultimate goal is always to ensure that the child is safe and has the chance to build a good future – as she is entitled to. On her terms.

The author, Kalpana Mistry, is a Child Safety Specialist at Aangan. As told to: Samyukta Maindarkar, Communication and Documentation Associate at Aangan.


3 thoughts on “On dignity, trust and giving children their voice”

  1. Excellent writing, but what sad truths. Do you have any advice for people who want to help with this sort of situation? I live in Vietnam, and I know so many people in my own country who see this sort of helplessness every day but just don’t know how to help. Throwing money at an organisation is not the answer.


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