Secrets of South Mumbai Schools

There are several whispered stories about Mumbai’s elite schools doing the rounds. In what is considered to be the city’s best school, a talkative six year old is called to the front of the class and scotch tape is pasted on his mouth. In another the teachers of four year olds pace the class with wooden rulers in hand and in still another school, a hearing impaired child is marched to the Principal’s office and emerges with his hair cut off as punishment. Now let’s call this what it really is: Illegal. Corporal punishment is defined by India’s Right to Education Act (Section 17 (1) and (2) as physical and mental harassment and is definitely against the law. It is important to note here that the law envisions schools as safe spaces both physically and emotionally.

Yet the silence around humiliation or inappropriate teacher-student interaction is striking. While we are quick to criticize such punishment techniques in the city’s government run municipal schools, it seems we are more forgiving when it comes to prestigious schools. I have heard parents say, “True, the teacher is very strict, and my child too has been hit by her once. But what a strong academic foundation she provides!” So here is my question: Why is it that parents who can afford every single privilege for their children, do not feel it is their child’s right to have both a great education and a safe environment in school?

Could it possibly be that some of the most influential parent bodies are actually feeling disempowered? Could it be that some school systems intimidate and traditions perpetuate this? I remember the first day of school for my daughter. At the time she was three and a half years old (The school we had chosen is consistently rated one of Mumbai’s Top 5 schools in a survey by a leading newspaper. A survey I now disregard completely!). For hours, hundreds of parents and children stood in silent snaking lines as the Principal barked orders at us. When someone circulated a paper for telephone numbers of fellow parents, the Principal humiliated the parent publicly. That morning as our tiny children were called forward and led away to class in an amazingly prison-like ritual, the beautiful old school building reverberated with one emotion – fear. If that’s how we felt, you can only imagine what our kids were going through.

We stayed quiet and fearful all year long, scared that if we spoke up it would be taken out on our kids in class. I went for a parent teacher conference once and the teacher thought nothing of complaining bitterly to another parent about his child in my presence. Sure, she had good intentions and was concerned, but clearly had no respect for confidentiality. Maybe in her twenty-three years in school, she was never asked to respect the child’s privacy. Maybe it was not part of the school’s child protection policy or more likely there is no such policy at all. While such schools have dozens of rules about acceptable hairstyles, shoe styles and procedures for parents to ask for leave, there is little thought on child protection.

I want to be clear, I am not critiquing the lack of a formal child protection policy document. Rather am questioning why the best schools have not articulated their own philosophy around child protection. A year later when I pulled my daughter out of school I spoke my mind to the Principal and asked whether teachers had ever thought about the harsh environment in the school. She seemed vague, like she had other more important things to worry about. It also seemed that nobody had questioned this aspect of the school and thus she was simply not accountable to parents on this front.

Today as part of my child protection work at non-profit Aangan, we work with parents living in some of the most vulnerable communities across the country to prevent child trafficking, child marriage, hazardous work and harm. Based on what I see one thing is clear: Parents who are have systematically been pushed down by burdens of debt bondage, caste systems, feudal hierarchy or gender discrimination can move mountains for their children’s protection –when they feel supported and empowered.

Across the country Aangan is working with groups of the poorest parents who have traditionally felt powerless but have seen things change when they got together and formed child protection groups. A musahar community in Bihar (traditionally the most marginalized dalit group) who would typically be frightened of police is now able to dialogue and make sure missing children reports are filed. Another migrant group in Mumbai worried about high rates of rape and assault have convinced police to patrol the neighborhood at night. A third group in Madhya Pradesh have moved from being too frightened to speak to school authorities about subtle caste based discrimination against their children to getting themselves onto school management committees. In Varanasi, parent groups are working with district authorities to get children out of hazardous work and into school. And the single binding factor to ensuring accountability from government and school authorities across all 39 locations where Aangan runs this parent child protection workers program (called PACT) is just that parents no longer feel isolated.

Perhaps this could serve as a bit of inspiration for parents of Mumbai’s elite schools. If you are thinking about the emotional environment or physical safety in school, you are probably not alone. Getting together, talking about it, supporting each other, prioritizing child protection, negotiating with school authorities – this could be a great place to start. It is just a matter of reminding ourselves that child safety/protection is a basic requirement in school – no less important than academics. Maybe you will get it on to PTA agenda, ask the school to develop a child protection policy, ensure a special teacher training or handbook on the issue, or activate a mechanism by which children feel heard (not a token student committee, but a working one!). There are several possible strategies and it does not have to be an aggressive process of formal complaint letters, lawyers or PILs! Rather starting a proactive dialogue with each other can ensure an environment of safety, free of harsh punishment or humiliation.

I consider myself unbelievably lucky to have found a wonderful school for my daughter. And while the facilities, teacher quality and pedagogy are all to be admired immensely – something else stands out too. In this school, we all feel heard and empowered. Whether it is children, teachers or parents. It is an accepting, open space, which in turn ensures that our children are learning in a safe, protected environment. Now this is not a lot to ask for – in fact it is the basic right of every child. But it takes a sturdy school policy, some deep thinking and huge amounts of commitment from teachers and that is what I love about this school.

Consider asking your school about a child protection policy suggest drafting one or ensure it is articulated in school policy. If it already exists, as parents you have every right to re-visit it, talk about it or tweak it. Do start the conversation in your school because every child has a right to feel safe. Everywhere. Every time.

The author Suparna Gupta is founder, Aangan an Indian non-profit that works with children in dangerous situations like trafficking, hazardous work, child marriage and serious harm. She is an Ashoka fellow and Ford Foundation Mason fellow from Harvard Kennedy School.


A Home away from Home?

The author, Dr. Smita Dharmamer is the National Program Coordinator at Aangan. 

It is a popular notion that your home defines you as a person. It defines your character, personality, culture and morals. This idea is very openly acknowledged and readily appreciated. This need is a very basic one – belongingness. In the literature available many a psychologists, especially, Maslow gave a hierarchy of needs. He said that in order for human potential to grow and flourish one had to attain all the stages in the hierarchy before reaching the ultimate goal of self-actualization.

The needs in the hierarchy begin with basic physiological needs of hunger and thirst and build upwards to safety and security; love and affection; belongingness; esteem and self-dignity and finally actualization. Now imagine for a second that the most basic need in this hierarchy is withdrawn. What would you do? This is actually a question for you, about which you can do something because you have ‘freedom’. What does he do who lives without freedom? Sounds unreal?

This is the reality. Along with the technology of LCD’s and Tablets, expensive cars and cosy housing this too is reality. On my recent visit to correctional homes I was appalled by the mere sight of them. Not that I have high standards of judgement, but these homes did not even meet the barest of the minimum standards of judgement.

To begin with the infrastructure is so poor and dilapidated that living inside such a home is a hazard. With leaking roofs and broken doors the children there have not much to call it their home. They are deprived from nutrition and recreation. Two very basic needs required for the wholesome development and growth of an individual. Even in our daily life if we were to do a daily chore while we were hungry the majority of us would leave the task and first eat to satisfy our hunger. The only difference here is that this is a choice for us. Believe it or not this basic freedom does not exist in these homes.

The majority of boys living in these facilities are adolescent boys. Keeping them on a steady and rationed diet of ‘murmura’ (puffed rice) and biscuits is hardly justifiable. Apart from this they are supposed to clean and maintain hygienic environments in their bathroom and rooms. How does an individual perform manual labour without having a full stomach? I wish the story ended here, but it does not. Unfortunately for these boys there are no means of recreation in the four walls of the correction home. They are supposed to just eat and sleep and have been mechanized to robots having only these two functions.

The next inexcusable aspect of this inspection was to see that the staff and administration involved in the care of these boys was significantly undisturbed and perturbed by these conditions. They did not assume responsibility of their roles of maintaining discipline and improving these children in mind and body. The primary concern shared by the higher administration was that the boys should not run away otherwise their promotion would be at stake. Even in this they did not stop to think for one second what their position imposed on them in terms of duty and responsibility. being drunk at work, beating children, refusing responsibility, turning a blind eye to problems, delegating responsibilities to children for bribe these are just some of the unsaid rules that govern correctional homes in modern India.

Another rather serious problem the children face is that of crowding. Imagine that all you family member were to live confined to the smallest room in your house for one entire day. Sounds bizarre? But this is the truth for these young boys. They are forced to live in rooms too small to accommodate them. In one home 60 children were living together in a 10”10” room. Imagine this now. A number of studies have shown that crowding had many unfavourable psychological, physical and mental consequences. Then who is this knowledge for? If it is not going to be implemented then research should stop. It is just a waste of funds.

Coming to the idea of the learning and training these children. They are sent to these homes by law under the pretext that when they leave they would have learnt to better deal with the hardships of life and have turned a new leaf in their life. But what does someone who went from the frying pan to the fire do? The story of these children is similar. Their standard of living is so impoverished in the homes that they struggle more on the inside than when left to fend for themselves in the world.

Elaborating a little more on the learning and training aspect it becomes important to highlight Albert Bandura. His famous idea of observational learning and modelling is a widely followed and accepted concept then why do we fail to apply it to such a setting? The models these children have to teach them skills are abusive both verbally and physically. They are devoid of any real experience and wisdom. Have no teaching to impart or responsibilities to hold. Then how do we expect that these children will change when they come out and try to find a place for themselves in a society where they know they do not fit.

They only source of education for these children are through the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan Programmes. But the sad thing is that their teaching modules have information that suffices for primary school children. Most of the boys in these homes are educated till the 8th standard. Thus, this exercise is futile and redundant for them.

So next time one points a finger at a deviant or juvenile think about what he has had to do to survive. Malnutrition, poverty, lack of stimulation, humiliation, physical and verbal abuse – the list is endless. If one wishes to see any change in these children, changing the environment in which they live is imperative.

As I began by saying we are who are home is, think again and answer the question – coming from these places, are these children right or wrong?

Trauma amongst Children

Trauma amongst Children

Many children are exposed to traumatic life events. But what separates their experience is that unlike adults, over time, most children return to their prior levels of functioning. Veena works with Aangan as a Program Associate and has provided a basic sense of what Trauma and counseling entails through her daily experiences with children going through the same.
Infographic by Ananya Khaitan.

India’s Forgotten Children

The author, Deepika Khatri is the Strategy and Advocacy Coordinator at Aangan. 

The metal entrance gate to a Children’s Home for Girls is barred and locked and a young girl sits banging her head against it.  No one pays her much attention. Behind her, four girls are lying in the corridor silently staring at the ceiling as a staff member cleans up after a girl who has just urinated on herself. A fifth sits in a corner, rocking back and forth. Inside, we’re immediately surrounded by a group of children. Three come up to shake hands, asking if we will play with them. The institution smells of unwashed clothes, urine and sweat. The girl at the entrance continues banging her head against the gate.

The cook-cum-cleaning staff member who lets us in says that it is what she does to get attention; it’s nothing to worry about. ‘Pagal hai, bas roz hungama karti hai’, she says. With other children needing her immediate attention to be cleaned, bathed and fed, and having to manage all the girls single-handedly, she is forced to prioritise who to care for first. Caring for children with incontinence implies having to repeat the cycle of washing and cleaning multiple times a day. Upstairs, another metal gate separates the ground floor from the first floor, where the ‘normal’ girls live. The staff member also has to ensure that these girls are readied for school and given their four meals a day. It is a full time job for four people, she says, not one.

The institution has a recommended staff capacity of 13. The actual number stands at 6, of which only 2 staff members directly engage with the children. They have a visiting doctor, but no paramedic. And at no point have these staff members been given any sort of support on caring for children with disabilities. The result? Intense pressure on the staff to simply get from day to day in circumstances that would rob anyone of the energy and ability for empathy. And the consequent impact on children: neglect, heightened vulnerability and a denial of even the fundamental right to dignity.  

In a lot of the work done with children by different stakeholders working in child protection, the words ‘marginalised’, ‘vulnerable’ and ‘disempowered’ feature. Looking at institutionalised children with disabilities, one comes to understand what that really means—what it means to be invisible. For a person’s existence not to matter to anybody. The implications of not having a voice, of being able to exercise any sort of choice, and of continuously being perceived as a burden, lacking in potential and capacity.  

Many of these assumptions stem from social perceptions of people with disabilities—that people with disabilities are in some way less human. The stigma attached to disability is such that at every level, advocating for the rights of children with disabilities is to battle deep-seated biases about the role children could play in the community as participating members. Existing conditions being what they are, only serve to dehumanise and deny children the opportunity and possibility of fulfilling their potential.  

In this context, we are advocating for an inclusive approach, for staff to be supported in caring for children through basic training on health and hygiene and for lateral linkages between government departments to enable children with disabilities to access their fundamental rights. It means having to challenge the rhetoric that children will be better off in an institution created for others like themselves—that purportedly homogenous group of children with disabilities, where one is indistinguishable from the other.

The impact we hope for is an acknowledgement of the magnitude of the problem in terms of the sheer numbers of invisible children with disabilities, and to engage with other stakeholders in the disabilities sector to promote the rights of the children. The trickle-down effect this could have is for children to be able to go to school with their peers, to access the toilet, or to have someone help and train them to put on a pair of trousers on their own.

The silver lining is that for the most part, caring for children with disabilities is not rocket science. It involves support from a specialist to understand the needs of a child, but thereon, to ensure that the child receives that care—whether it is through simple changes in an institution along the lines of universal design such as the construction of ramps to key access areas, training a child in going to the toilet on their own, and in the more severe cases, to ensure that the child is fed, cleaned and cared for. No one-size-fits-all separate institutions but simple ways of standing for the child’s right to dignity and inclusion.

Where is My Home?

The author, Suparna Gupta is Founder Director Aangan and Ford Foundation Mason Fellow from Harvard Kennedy School.

UNICEF reports more than ten million homeless children in India. Where are they, who should care for them and what can we do to keep them safe?

Fifteen year-old Vicky was homeless, bringing himself up after both parents died. Various odd jobs, a couple of thefts, nights spent on the streets and three years in a shelter – it was only when he was arrested for a petty theft that he was placed by state authorities in a reputed shelter. Here, shelter authorities made it their mission to re-unite him with family. (Child rights advocates the world over agree that placing children in institutions or shelters/rescue homes/orphanages must be the last resort and as far as possible children must be at home with family).

Within months they found Vicky’s estranged brother who lived in Mumbai and while this was heartening, Vicky was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He was placed into the care of his older brother. Also struggling to survive his brother lived in a makeshift house at his employers’ storage facility. Vicky stayed with his sibling, but his illness went untreated and in the harsh physical conditions his health deteriorated quickly. In December 2012 he was admitted to hospital, but soon after, Vicky died in a government hospital– untreated, alone and afraid.

As India joins the rest of the world in trying to keep children out of government-run institutions and in family or community care, we are faced with a critical question: Are we ready to empty out institutions/shelters/orphanages and place children back in neighborhoods and districts which drove them out in the first place? Vicky’s not uncommon story warns that it would be dangerous, even fatal for India to rush into what the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights[1] terms as “chaotic de-institutionalization,” emphasizing that while community care would result in far better enjoyment of human rights – it could also go very wrong if systems were not strong enough.

The need of the hour then is that we strengthen communities to be safe for children. In this context there are interesting lessons be learned from psychiatrist Franco Basaglia’s pioneering work in the 1970s – when Italy’s famous Law 180 did away with prison-like state mental hospitals. Basaglia’s inclusive model kept mental health patients at home with family, within the community, pulling them out of the role of “problem population” into a collective responsibility of the community.

But Basagliawas not naive about the challenges of preparing society for such a change. He was astute in understanding then that closing down state run institutions is in fact about opening up communities. He started this work gradually and creatively – beginning by opening up mental hospitals through community events so there was interaction, later in the community – linking mental health patients to one another, then to other marginalized groups, children in the community and finally to district authorities for employment. There were discussions and exchanges so that diverse populations began to understand each other better. However the process failed to engage broader political and economic institutions. And without enough funding and political will, communities cannot sustain such challenging work.

The foundation work of integrating children into their communities must begin early. First by “opening up” otherwise isolated institutions/shelters/rescue homes/orphanages so that people are clear that“remand homes” (as they are colloquially known) are not full of dangerous criminals, but rather are crowded with children who have who have been abandoned, orphaned, trafficked and exploited over long periods of time. The other huge task ahead, is to build  protective systems in communities- so people and government services are alert, grown ups are ready to listen to children and feel motivated to keep them safe.

Now for one optimistic moment let’s imagine that Vicky had moved with his brother into a community, which was ready to receive him. Would alert grown ups have identified him as a child who needs more support?  Would his brother been supported to care for him? Would education officers have spotted him as being out of school and investigated the reason? Would Vicky have felt more confident about going to the government hospital and accessing free health services? It’s hard to say. One can’t be certain that Vicky would have survived or lived longer. But at least he would have been treated, supported and cared for in his last few days, rather than been forgotten and failed by a system that never considered his existence.