TN State Child Policy vague, starkly different from ground realities: Experts

Chief Minister MK Stalin released the Tamil Nadu State Child Policy, which outlines four thematic areas for the holistic development of children, on November 20.
Children during the launch of a mobile vaccination centre
Children during the launch of a mobile vaccination centre
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On World Children’s Day, November 20, Chief Minister MK Stalin released the Tamil Nadu State Child Policy. The policy, under the Social Welfare and Women Empowerment Department of the state, outlines four thematic areas for the holistic development of children: Life, survival, health, and nutrition; education; protection; and participation.

It should be noted that while the National Child Policy came out in 2013, it is only now that Tamil Nadu has come out with a state child policy. In 2019, there was a discussion on the same, and in 2020, the Tamil Nadu State Commission for Protection of Child Rights released a draft for public consultation. However, given that the draft was drawn up pre-pandemic, it did not include COVID-19-specific aspects.

The current policy acknowledges the effects of the pandemic: “COVID-19 has exacerbated the already existing inequity in education, digital divide, learning crisis, violence against children, poverty and further increased the vulnerability of children.” But civil society workers allege that the policymaking was not as participatory, and those working in the area of child rights in the state claim that public consultation was not done. As a result, the child policy is vague, and out of touch with many ground realities.

PoSH instead of POCSO

A glaring error that experts and activists point out is under the ‘protection’ theme in the document. This section says that the state must take measures to ensure that children are protected from “all forms of abuse (physical, emotional, sexual, neglect, denial and online), discrimination, exploitation, violence or any other activity that will harm them or affect their care, protection and overall development.” The policy states here, that all schools should form an Internal Committee (formerly known as Internal Complaints Committee) under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013 or the PoSH Act.

The problem with this statement is that an IC would have nothing to do with a child sexual abuse case at school. An IC deals with sexual harassment at the workplace, and only where two adults are involved, meaning, an IC would come into play if there is sexual misconduct involving staffers at the school. When a child is involved, the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act would come into play, and it would have to become a police case, due to Section 19 of the Act, which mandates that any incidence or suspicion of sexual violence against a child must be reported.

Surprisingly, the entire section on protection makes no mention of the POCSO Act or strengthening specific provisions under the same, such as child-friendly courts, ensuring that a child who has been a victim of sexual abuse is not made to come in contact with their abuser while navigating the criminal justice system.

The policy does mention things like “upgrading rehabilitation services” with a focus on mental health, and psycho-social support; strengthening after-care services for children leaving institutional care; preventing re-victimisation of children coming into the child protection network; improving awareness of children on available services for their protection and so on. However, a child rights activist said on the condition of anonymity that the policy is “vague, colloquially written and badly crafted in terms of language” lacking any specifics to address the “stark gap between the rhetoric of the policy and reality on the ground.” The policy could have explored various issues with regard to POCSO, as well. For instance, it is well known that POCSO cases have very high acquittal rates, notes Vanessa Peter, founder of Information and Resource Centre for the Deprived Urban Communities, but the policy does not say anything to acknowledge this, let alone address it.  

In 2019, the conviction rate in POCSO cases in Tamil Nadu was just 25.4%, as per figures of the Ministry of Women and Child Development. “Access to justice is a very real problem for children. Additionally, we do not have proper victim protection programmes. In a difficult and retraumatising criminal justice system, where cases drag on for years, victims are compelled to turn hostile. The policy does not recognise this,” Vanessa says.  

Child protection mechanisms needed in places other than schools

Schools need child protection mechanisms and policies because children spend a considerable part of their day there. However, Vanessa argues that children need to be safe in other places they frequent too, such as tuition centres, gymnasiums, religious institutions and so on. The first step to addressing abuse of children is to acknowledge and accept that it can happen anywhere at any time, Vidya had told TNM in an earlier interview.

Further, the policy makes no mention of handling cyber sexual abuse and exploitation of children, and the burgeoning problem of child sexual abuse material (also referred to as child pornography) online, on social media platforms such as WhatsAppTelegram, and Facebook to name a few. Under the education theme, the policy only states, “Digital education to all children that is safe, enjoyable and age-appropriate.” "The policy acknowledges that there is a digital divide, but there is no mention of cyber-safety for children or how to enable them to use the internet safely," Vaenssa says. "It also does not mention child trafficking, or any means to address it," she adds.  

“What is needed is not digital education, but digital citizen education or digital civic education, which empowers students to think critically, behave safely, and participate responsibly in our digital world. These 21st-century skills are essential for students to harness the full potential of technology for learning,” Vidya says. The United Nations Convention on Rights of the Child, for instance, had earlier this year released a document on children’s rights in the digital world – in their own words. Adopted as general comment number 25, not only did this consolidate what 709 children and young people consulted from 28 countries thought about what rights and freedoms in a digital environment they want, but also established that children need and want access to the digital world, that governments should be responsible for protecting their rights online, and that parents must be supported in understanding the digital world. It also explained how children want their views online to be respected on issues that affect them and integrating children’s online protection into national child protection policies.

Specificities or even acknowledgements of these challenges and requirements are missing from Tamil Nadu’s state child policy.

Facilitating more participation by children

The section of participation in the policy states that the state should ensure children are “apprised of their rights, provided with prospects to develop their skills, build on their aspirations and express their views, in accordance with their age, maturity and capacities.” It also talks about taking steps to build opportunities for children to engage in issues concerning them, forming a “Civil Society Support Group for children and advisory support” and so on. However, beyond a few points which talk about 'Bala Sabhas' in all gram panchayats, the wording is again vague and too open-ended, say child rights defenders.

“Children are very capable of coming up with solutions. In the discussions we have facilitated, children have succinctly put across their needs and demands like wanting street lights, more avenues for their voices to be heard. But these systems need to be set up, and it is important because it inculcates the values of participatory democracy from an early age,” Vanessa says.

Andrew Sesuraj, state convenor for the Tamil Nadu Child Rights Watch also points out that the policy does not spell out the understanding and scope of children’s participation. “How exactly are they planning to do the things they claim to ensure? Even in schools, students should be consulted on how the environment can be made safer for them. Bala Sabhas for instance would only cover 50% of the children under gram panchayats,” he argues. Both he and Vanessa point out that urban children are left out of this discussion – there is no talk of something like a ‘Nagara Sabha’ for children in cities and urban areas. “It is important that the state set up systems to ensure children have space to participate in decisions concerning them. Because ‘building opportunities’ which the policy states, will remain subjective and dynamic, but systems will stay,” Andrew adds.

Civil society groups not consulted?

The people TNM spoke to said that it is likely that this policy was formulated without adequate consultation with child rights defenders and relevant civil society persons in the state. “We would have sent comments and feedback had it been released publicly as a draft before being finalised,” Vanessa says. “We would also have pushed for the policy to mainstream issues of children to make sure that departments other than the Social Justice and Women Empowerment Department also ensure child welfare is part of their agenda. For instance, for the labour and highways departments to make sure that wherever infrastructure is coming up, the MoUs signed state that no child labour will be engaged, that creches are set up for children of migrant workers and so on. This was an opportunity to approach child welfare and safety with a multi-sectoral approach.”

Another child rights activist, meanwhile, points out that because there wasn’t apparent consultation with people working on child rights in the state, the result is a document that is too vague for a policy but has some specifics that should have been in a Plan of Action instead. “It should have been less verbose, and should have had a lot more substance,” she says.

However, Andrew says that this policy is a place to start, given that Tamil Nadu did not have a child policy until now, though it could have been much better.

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