Child rights
In the fight against commercial sexual exploitation, Tamil Nadu has been very proactive in shutting down unregistered shelters, say activists.
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For years, Tamil Nadu’s perverse obsession with fair skin was putting scores of children at the risk of commercial sexual exploitation. Being one of the most urbanised states in the country, vulnerable children from north-east regions of the country often end up in the southern state. However, the state machinery has been fighting back, especially when it comes shutting down of unregistered orphanages and shelter homes for children. The results are showing, independent activists say.

According to one report submitted by Manipur’s state Commission for Protection of Child Rights to the National Commission in 2016, most children come to Tamil Nadu. The report indicated that half the Manipuri children rescued were found outside the state.

“Out of the 51.3% cases reported (outside the state), 28.2% of the cases were reported in south India, particularly Tamil Nadu (15.4%), Karnataka (7.7%) and Kerala (5.1%),” read the report. The report also speculated that there might be a nexus between several illegally run homes for children. “There might be a nexus of illegal children homes, where they circulate the children to other illegal children homes after keeping them a certain period of time to get their illegal fund or satisfy their needs,” added the 2016 report.

A 2010 report by The Times of India showed that children from Manipur, especially from the ‘Kuki’ tribe were most vulnerable for trafficking. That year, 76 malnourished children from Manipur and Assam were rescued. “Children from Manipur, especially those belonging to the Kuki tribe, are targeted by traffickers masquerading as evangelists and missionaries as people in the insurgent-hit areas are willing to send their children if they are promised good education,” read the report.

That year, Tamil Nadu had 1,096 children homes housing 3.5 lakh children, and almost an equal number operate without registration, evading government scrutiny.

However, officials from Manipur said things have been improving rapidly. “Even in the last two years, things have improved,” Keisam Pradipkumar, a member of Manipur Commission for Protection of Child Rights told TNM. “The state has been very proactive in shutting down unregistered shelters and ensuring that the children from outside the state are sent back to their homes,” he added. “Many parents in Manipur believe they are sending their children for education,” said S Saratkumar Sharma, former Chairperson Manipur state commission for protection of child rights.

Now, most girls from Manipur and other states from the region are crossing the international border and found in countries like Myanmar, Pradipkumar added.

Need for a robust system

A few girls, who are found in Tamil Nadu, often end up in neighbouring states, said MP Nirmala, the Chairperson of Tamil Nadu’s Commission for Protection of Child Rights.

“We ensure all the homes in the state are strictly compliant to Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act. Children from unregistered homes were taken in by the state government,” she told TNM.

However, agents still exist in the state. “Some of them take the children to neighbouring cities like Bengaluru. We have no clue what happens to them once they leave the state,” she said, adding that there needs to be a robust system where the movement of children can be tracked even when they leave the state. “Some of the children are brought in as young as three. They do not remember where they come from and who their parents are. In the last few years, we have not come across any child who is older than 14,” she said.

While children are being rehabilitated within the state or reunited with their family, officials worry that many children might escape the system with forged documents. “We see a lot of kids who look very obviously underaged. But they have Aadhar cards and other government IDs. In this case, there is nothing I can do,” said Sheila Charles Mohan, a member of Chennai’s Child Welfare Committee. “Some kids have found jobs elsewhere, like in salons and restaurants. And we cannot pull them out of these jobs if they have documents, which may be forged in some cases,” she added.